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From the Editor: An introduction to Eileen Connolly-Keesler

The new CEO of the Collier County Community Foundation shares her secrets to fundraising success: product, passion and brownies.

You think Eileen Connolly-Keesler maybe likes to engage?

The new CEO of the Collier County Community Foundation walks into my office with a huge smile and pushes a box of handmade Oshkosh chocolates across my desk. She settles into a couch, then spies a chair she can push closer to my desk and switches over for more immediate contact.

Yes, from minute one, this charmer on-the-go will engage.

She came here from Oshkosh, Wis., to start her job in January. The mission as she sees it: to push the Foundation’s assets to $250 million or more. The challenge: The number is currently at $66 million. “I do believe,” she says with some passion, “that we can do this. We must build assets for programs in health, arts and the environment.”

And Eileen’s track record from Oshkosh suggests that she just may be able to do this. First, there was the Domestic Abuse Center she helped start in the mid-’80s. In her 15 years there, she built the annual budget from $38,000 to $650,000, turned a $400,000 capital fund drive into an $800,000 achievement to purchase a shelter for victims of abuse, and worked at the state level to help write eight laws to aid the cause. How could she not keep driving for more and better when, she says, a victim would say, ‘I would have been dead had you and the shelter not been there for me’?

Continuing on the road of good works, Eileen devoted her next 13 and half years to the Oshkosh Area Community Foundation, where, as president and CEO, she turned what she calls a “quiet operation” with $20 million in assets into a “place to go for action” with $80 million in assets. She worked with the city on a master plan for downtown, raising money for a community pool, an amphitheater on the river and the rehabbing of an old convention center into a teaching hotel. She tells of once raising $7 million in 30 days, of securing $6.5 million in three personal visits. What did it take? “Product, passion and brownies,” she says. “But it didn’t get any better than once having a 5-year-old dump her piggybank on my desk.”

For the past eight years, Eileen and her husband, Pat, had been coming to Naples (“because my Oshkosh donors were here”), and two years ago they bought a condo for their retirement days. But in June 2012, she saw the ad for the job here, and now she is ours. “The people seem happier here,” she says. “It’s the warm weather and the sense that this is a paradise. We have an older population, but the retired people here seem more active and involved than they are in other places. I’m hoping for faster hands to their wallets.”

And so the work has begun. “This foundation runs programs others wouldn’t do,” she says. “For example, the 211 information line. The United Way will take this over. The same, too, for the Center for Nonprofit Excellence (which trains nonprofit professionals). Hodges University is now doing this.”

Eileen says the Foundation needs to be more visible in the community. She cites a 1991 Boston University study that projects $41 trillion being transferred from the World War II generation to the baby boomers by 2050. “Our enormous share of that here should be put toward building endowments for the needs coming up. For starters, I’d point out that 34 percent of Collier kids under 18 are living in poverty.”

So this mother of three (daughter Kiely, 23; son Coleman, 21; step-daughter Heather, 36) and rabid Green Bay Packers fan is engaging in her mission with characteristic force. “Back in Oshkosh,” she says, “I got as close to the Old Boy Network as possible without the right parts. My agenda was on the table and I would roll up my sleeves to back it up. I’ll do it here, too.”

Citizens alert: Keep an eye out for a woman bearing chocolates and smiling mischievously. She will engage and she will be reckoned with.

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