Philanthropist Katherine Fulton honored with national award
Sunday was one of those unforgettable fall days in the Sonoma Valley, framed with a tapestry of explosive color and the smell of leaves and Halloween in the air. I was assigned to write about Sonoma Valley philanthropist Katherine Fulton, who had just won the prestigious 2022 National Philanos Willoughby award honoring visionary woman philanthropic leaders. Philanos is a national organization founded by visionary Colleen Willoughby, whose mission is to accelerate philanthropy through woman’s collective giving.
After being invited to sit with Fulton in the office of her tastefully decorated Sonoma home, the first thing she said to me was, “I want to make something perfectly clear to you, I don’t want you to write an article about me winning an award, and I don't want to talk about myself.”
What I would come to understand about this prescient and insightful woman over the next three enlightening hours was her clear and sincere avoidance of “I” statements replaced instead by the very essence that is at the core of everything she does and believes, “the power of we.”
Her “brainchild,” the Sonoma Valley Catalyst Fund, was started in her backyard during the pandemic with a group of dedicated, like-minded people. Their mission was to improve Sonoma’s collective response to the global pandemic. In partnership and cooperation with Impact 100 Sonoma, a woman’s global giving fund, Community Foundation Sonoma, and Rotary, this fund allowed nonprofits the ability to meet the overwhelming needs of the community during the pandemic.
Drawing from the collective giving model, Catalyst mobilized teams of frontliners, business leaders, service clubs, volunteers and donors and accomplished the impossible.
In total, 125 donors gave more than $1.6 million; conducted over 80 listening sessions with community leaders to identify the greatest needs; funded 44 grants, filling gaps that nonprofits could not bridge with the extra support, provided meals, groceries, and essential items to over 7,200 people; funded vaccination drives and outreach for 7,250 at-risk Valley residents; enabled 107 families the ability to safely isolate; supported 1,700 youth with tech, school supplies, literacy mentoring and mental health services; assisted 460 renters and 77 landlords with rental documentation to prevent evictions and partnered with Rotary to provide pandemic stipends to 175 businesses. All of this during a pandemic.
A native of Virginia, Fulton grew up inspired by her grandmother and mother. At that time, women from a certain social class didn’t work, so her mother became a full-time community volunteer and continued doing that work for the rest of her life. This family model was also a carry-over from her grandfather and great-grandfather. They instilled in the family the belief that when you are lucky in life, you have a responsibility to do whatever you can to share what you have.
Fulton loved team sports and played basketball in high school and college. It was this experience that she credits most with her signature “power of we” philosophy. She observed that the best players did not always win the game, the best teams did, and she’s been inspiring and playing on winning teams ever since.
She spent almost the entire ‘80s in North Carolina as a young journalist and the editor for an alternative newspaper she started and affectionately refers to as the Village Voice of the south.
Struggling with her sexuality, she also spent most of that time entirely in the closet. “I actually think of that time and experience as having saved me as it gave me access to many kinds of suffering and oppression that otherwise, as a white person and as a person of relative privilege, I never would have understood in the same way,” she said. “Also, when you’re a journalist, political and community reporting, you see things that most people don’t get to see, and you get to understand things that many people don’t get to understand.”
Her graduate education, or what she thinks of as her graduate education, was the world and her personal experience and relationship with it.
She likens her father to the North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms, with the same misogynistic and racist behaviors.
“I feel like I understood from being a woman of my generation and being a lesbian of my generation, living a lot of my life in the south, that I had a visceral understanding of many kinds of suffering. Suffering that, otherwise, as a white person and a privileged person, I would not have had,” she said. “I think in many ways this saved me, and it opened my heart and expanded my consciousness about the things that are most important.”