Nonprofit leader to explore new, private path

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WALLA WALLA — Lawson Knight is excited.

Not an unusual state for the leader of Blue Mountain Community Foundation to be in, noted Dan Reid, president of the organization’s board of trustees. The way Knight embraces new challenges is just one of the many things he and others will miss, Reid said.

After 11 years at the helm of the foundation, Knight tendered his resignation at last week’s board meeting, putting a period at the end of time that has seen tremendous growth under his leadership.

Blue Mountain Community Foundation started in 1984 as a way for local philanthropists to make long-term investments in this community. It’s part of a group of more than 750 community foundations. Since securing its first endowed fund, the foundation has grown to more than $32 million put into 260 charitable funds.

The organization dispenses more than $200,000 in annual grants that support efforts from education, employment, health and economy, housing and social support. Money is also funneled into programs for kids, art and music.

Knight is leaving to pursue a global business venture, but will continue to live with his wife and three children in Walla Walla.

He is joining former labor economist and fellow Walla Walla resident Arum Kone, plus an out-of-state partner, to develop a software system that uses 800 sources of public information to distill useful nuggets of information, Knight explained.

“I hate using terms like this, but it’s essentially a big data project,” he said.

It’s also the way he will stay in the nonprofit world, he said. The information gathered by the still-developing technology is seldom used on local levels, but can be invaluable in helping community-development organizations understand the communities they serve.

“It uses all kinds of components, it will give leaders better information about how to modify their programs,” he explained.

Rural areas such as Walla Walla may benefit the most from the insights the new business venture will offer, Knight said.

And that’s important to him. Knight and his wife, Cyndi, are raising their family here and have no intention of leaving anytime soon, he said.

Nonetheless, Knight’s departure — slated for sometime around Labor Day — leaves a trail of disappointed board members and support staff, Reid said Friday. “He’s going to be hard to replace. He’s got some qualities that made him the go-to guy for nonprofits.”

Traits, for instance, like an “uncanny ability to pull from his data bank — his brain,” Reid said with a laugh. “He has all these connections with all these nonprofits that are amazing. And he can articulate so well, just off the cuff.

“The biggest gift Knight brought to the table is a way of pulling the Walla Walla Valley’s numerous nonprofit agencies into a collaborative circle that allowed for maximum potential of dollars and determination,” Reid said, conceding he tried to talk Knight into staying. “How do you replace that? You can replace the good fundraiser, the good administrator, but (Knight) has the desire and the love for the nonprofits. He has the heart.”

Knight’s work at Blue Mountain Community Foundation makes for an attractive position to offer the next executive director, and a search committee is already at work, Reid said.

“On the positive side, Knight is staying in the community and will continue to do those things that make him special. He’s gotten the organization to a point it’s ready to fly. He’s planted all these seeds that over time will bear fruit.”

Knight, he added, “is still a young guy and he’s got an opportunity and you can’t fault him for wanting to do something else in his career. We were lucky to have him this long.”

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