Written by The Business Journal Staff
Hugh Ralston, President & CEO
Central Valley Community Foundation
I graduated from high school in Santa Barbara, and have a B.A. cum laude from Amherst College and a MALD (M.A. Law & Diplomacy) from the Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy, a joint program of Tufts and Harvard universities.
How did you first get involved in foundation work, Hugh?
I started as a board member when I was in private banking over 20 years ago, and became intrigued by the challenges of nonprofit leadership and how leaders made these institutions valuable. Many of the organizations where I was a board member were in transition — CEOs being hired or exiting, strategic plans being launched and programs or facilities expanded. The role of the CEO was critically important. When I decided to leave banking after 16 years, I was inspired to try my hand as a nonprofit CEO, first running the Catholic Education Foundation in Los Angeles and, for the last decade, the Ventura County Community Foundation.
What is the foundation’s history in the Central Valley and what prompted the name change earlier this month, Hugh?
The Fresno Regional Foundation was established in 1966 by visionary and engaged community leaders who knew a community foundation to serve this six-county region would be an important investment in the future. The name change reflects the region we serve — what we know here as the Central Valley — and our work as a community foundation. Twenty-five percent of our grants go outside Fresno County, and many of the issues we deal with, like the drought, extend beyond a single county’s boundary.
What are the current top priorities for the Central Valley Community Foundation and what areas is the foundation currently most active, Hugh?
Our mission is to cultivate smart philanthropy, to lead and invest in solutions that strengthen community as well as to invest in nonprofit leadership and capacity, which we plan to do through our new Center for Community. We provide grants from donor-established funds and in partnership with statewide funders, focusing on issues that matter to our region — helping families so their children succeed by the third grade, reducing teen pregnancy, strengthening arts and culture across the region, investing in regional sustainability, providing scholarships for area youth, helping veterans, training nonprofit leaders (staff and board) and supporting research like the Fresno Community Scorecard that helps track progress. Our donors invest in causes they care about, and we steward their bequests to protect the legacy they entrust to us.
What was the best advice you ever received and who did it come from, Hugh?
Management guru Peter Drucker noted “the best way to predict the future is to create it.” One of the greatest powers we have — as an institution and as people — is initiative. When that gets married to a response deeply embedded in the American story: “not good enough,” the potential is huge. That is how the next generation builds the newest chapter of the American dream.
Who or what has been the biggest influence on your career, Hugh?
My grandfather, who was born in Lincoln, north of Sacramento, started our family’s farming business. He established his career through hard work, asking for help and was shrewd enough to deflect being edged out by his partners. He felt it was important to be fair, to work hard and appreciate family. His advice to one of my siblings (in the 1970s) was “get a haircut and get a job.” There is truth in that simplicity.
My board colleagues from the past 20 years have helped me as a nonprofit CEO, both in shaping expectations and understanding how to work effectively with boards. Their encouragement of my transition from banking was enormous, and their ongoing support has been a source of great strength, particularly in those “crucible” moments.
Where are you from originally and if not the Central Valley, then what do you think about living in the Valley so far, Hugh?
I was born in Michigan, although my family has been in California since the Gold Rush, and spent some time in Europe. From my teens, we were in Santa Barbara, where my mother ran her family citrus and avocado ranch. My wife and I love living in Fresno and have been welcomed very generously by colleagues, neighbors, church and friends. The rumors of hot weather are true! We are happy to be here.
What was your very first job and what did you learn from it, Hugh?
I worked for my grandfather in our family’s tree nursery for the summer, learning how to graft trees and care for young plants. I learned a lot from his manager that summer, who had been a 45-year employee, both about the practicalities of farming and working with people from different backgrounds.
What do you like to do in your spare time, Hugh?
I love to read and garden, and have found great pleasure singing, mostly with community choirs. Over the years I have attended summer programs with the Berkshire Choral Festival and the Tallis Scholars Summer School, as well as singing on international tours with a men’s chorus of singers from across the country.