Philanthropist Katherine Fulton honored with national award

‘The power of we’ helps influence instrumental giving in Sonoma Valley.|

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.”

In the early ’90s, the question loomed large of what would happen to journalism because of the internet. Fulton spoke at conferences and worked on trying to help journalists adapt to what was ultimately coming. As a result of that work, she was hired by an East Bay consulting firm called Global Business Network to develop strategies to help newspapers succeed in the new face of journalism. Wanting a change from North Carolina, she moved to California with her talented artist wife, Katharine, where the two finally settled in Sonoma Valley. By the late ‘90s, it became clear to her that part of the future of journalism would be bound in fundraising, and she started a project on the future of philanthropy.

Having spent the last 20+ years in global philanthropy, she felt she now had the insights to take everything she had learned globally and apply it to helping the community she called home thrive.

“As a white person of a certain age and a certain class, I can’t go do grassroots political organizing in communities I’m not from. The community I am from is this one, and together with the people in my community, I can work to make sure that our community is doing what we can to deal with the growing challenges that we have right here at home.”

The Catalyst Fund was started from a need to create a flexible, nimble strategic entity that could move quickly and get the funds distributed to the organizations that could do the work they already were doing on a larger scale. In partnership and cooperation with Impact 100 Sonoma and Sonoma Community foundation, Catalyst was given $150,000 to launch. They gave grants once a week during the pandemic and became recognized nationally as one of the most successful giving circles. They operated with the belief that while we can’t change what's happening in Washington, we can change what's happening in our backyard.

The money from the Catalyst Fund is raised here, the money stays here, and the money is given away here. Fulton makes it clear again that while she won the prize, the work was done by “the we.”

Sonoma Valley faces the same issues that the nation and the world face. Environmental, housing insecurity, climate change, drought, fires and inequality. By combining resources and talent, we can get things done. It’s about fostering relationships, getting to know people, and building trust. Change can’t happen unless people work together.

Fulton says that one of her favorite projects was the vaccine campaign. When the vaccines arrived, communication was messy. The county would say go talk to the doctor; the doctor would say go talk to the county. The county had the vaccines but no vaccine campaign in place. Hospitals don’t usually do vaccine campaigns but said if they had the funds, they could. The Catalyst Fund gave Sonoma Valley Hospital $50,000, and the next week they hired a coordinator. Within a few weeks, they built a community partnership event at the high school and got over 3,000 people vaccinated 6-8 weeks faster than they would have otherwise.

Catalyst approached rotary and said if we give you $50,000 will you match that, without hesitation, they said yes. This provided the funds for food assistance and the outstanding organization, Food for All / Comida Para Todos, which delivered over 200 meals and 200 curbside pick-ups weekly to Latino families, many elderly, and kids who couldn’t get out of the house.

This was all possible because a community came together and built a model that had never been done before. The idea of bringing people together who didn’t normally work together but had skill sets to do the work that needed to be done was a success.

What does the future hold for Catalyst? They’re taking what they learned from the pandemic and creating a permanent fund to deal with urgent, emergent, and chronic challenges. They will continue to ask the question of how a community can address the challenges of the future, listening and learning from the mistakes of the past.

At 67, Fulton shows no signs of slowing down and understands too well that the pandemic was the first proof of concept but won’t be the last. She will continue to champion the power of we and finishes our interview with this, “we are not thinking our way into a new way of acting; we are acting our way into a new way of thinking.”

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