116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Les Garner, retiring from Greater Cedar Rapids Community Foundation’s top role, reflects on years as ‘servant leader’
Garner prepares to retire May 31 after nearly 30 years of service to community
CEDAR RAPIDS — The fields were freshly plowed when Les Garner and his wife Katrina arrived in Iowa for their first visit in mid-April in the 1990s, when Garner wondered if he could make this change — if he could uproot his life and start anew here across the country.
As they stood on the walkway outside The Eastern Iowa Airport and waited for their ride, they silently looked across the horizon. What struck Garner was the lack of trees, coming from heavily wooded North Carolina. He had his doubts, but his wife, a gardener, saw the black dirt and thought of what an opportunity it would be to plant things in the ground and watch them grow.
“You could say we definitely put roots down here,” Garner said — still in Linn County approximately three decades later.
Garner has been a steadfast community leader since he arrived, first serving for 16 years as Cornell College’s president starting in 1994, and later stepping into the role of Greater Cedar Rapids Community Foundation president and chief executive officer in 2010.
He will retire from his role at the helm of the Community Foundation at the end of the month, ending decades of quietly leading, listening and working to benefit the Cedar Rapids metro area.
Among the initiatives Garner undertook at the Community Foundation were:
- MICRO program launched in 2015 in partnership with local governments and nonprofits. The effort looks to support entrepreneurs and spur small business development. It received the Secretary’s Award for Public-Philanthropic Partnership from U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in 2018.
- Community Betterment model to help smaller Linn County communities, including Mount Vernon, promote philanthropy in their own communities. The community can grow funds for an endowment and for current use, with grant allocations being made by a committee from that community. The Garners provided the lead gift for Mount Vernon’s fund.
- Internally, the Community Foundation’s “Double Your Impact” strategy has approximately doubled assets, boosting grantmaking impacts to make a difference in the community. Garner said the organization awarded about $6 million in grants annually when he arrived and now averages about $12 million a year.
- Involved in convening partners including the city of Cedar Rapids, Linn County and the Cedar Rapids Community School District to create the Creating Safe, Equitable and Thriving Communities Fund, uplifting a focus on youth and community equity. Those efforts evolved into the Group Violence Intervention initiative that has helped reduce gun violence among at-risk victims and offenders.
Dan Baldwin, Garner’s predecessor, successfully built the assets and grantmaking capacity, leaving “a great foundation to build on — no pun intended,” Garner said with a smile.
It takes many people working together to make something happen, Garner said. The Community Foundation’s role as a funder is important, he said, but so is its capacity to convene and bring people together to identify how to best coordinate their individual efforts through meaningful, productive conversation.
Garner likened serving as president of a community foundation to being the conductor of an orchestra: “I don't make any music. I don't play any of the instruments. But to have a successful orchestra, you have to have lots of talented musicians who are playing together in a coordinated way. I think a similar thing is true about a community foundation.”
Karla Twedt-Ball, the Community Foundation’s vice president of programs and community investment, will succeed Garner and assume the top role June 1.
Garner’s foundation work started with 2008 flood recovery
When Garner arrived at the Community Foundation, Twedt-Ball said he hit the ground running while the organization was in the thick of helping the community recover from the 2008 flood. He was able to tap into existing donor relationships to engage them in these efforts while also supporting staff and learning quickly at a time when the community faced high levels of need after great devastation.
He’s personable, good at relating to people, smart, a problem-solver and natural teacher, providing a mix of the strategy and relationship-building skills that the leader of the Community Foundation needs, Twedt-Ball said.
Garner was able to bring people to the table to help make the community better, Twedt-Ball said, because he is a good listener who learns from conversations, creates ideas, rallies people around them and finds new ways of tackling or considering a challenge.
“We are an organization that is a forever organization in the community and we work with so many different constituencies, so he has always been really good at knowing how to bring people together and draw on the strengths and interests of various groups,” Twedt-Ball said.
As she prepares to step into his role, Twedt-Ball said she’ll miss having a thought partner in Garner who understands community systems and how to move forward on key issues facing the Cedar Rapids area.
With a servant leadership mindset, Twedt-Ball said Garner understands the work “is about the community, it's about other people” above all else.
As Garner described being a servant leader, he said, “the leaders who accomplish the most are not the ones who are necessarily out front leading the charge, but in fact are the ones who are enabling other people to do their best and to do it in a way that is supportive of other efforts so that their individual efforts are magnified.”
Garner says his impact was on the people he worked with
Now as his retirement date approaches, Garner is embracing the uncertain nature of a legacy — never truly knowing the full impact of one’s work but trusting the roots planted will bloom into something meaningful over time.
Both Cornell and the Community Foundation have provided wonderful opportunities, Garner said. He’s been able to create new things working with people in the community, on various boards and on his staff who all come together daily to figure out how to best help the community.
“The impact I think an executive has is the impact you have on the people you work with and the people you come in contact with,” Garner said. “It's the extent to which I have enabled those people to be better at what they do that will be the real lasting impact. I may never know what it is.”
“Institutions change, communities change, so people change. too. But the real impact you have is all those individuals and the way that they can work to make the community a better place.”
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