In January 2020, Cammie Vail filed her six month's notice for retirement following 17 years as the Palo Alto Community Fund's executive director. Little did she know that her final months in the role would bring unprecedented challenges for the Midpeninsula as the coronavirus pandemic unfolded.
By mid-March, Vail and the fund's board of directors established the COVID-19 Relief Fund, providing direct financial support to families and nonprofits assisting vulnerable residents. By the time she stepped down in June, the fund had given away $1.07 million in donations.
"We were really trying to uncover and spread our funds into targeted ways that would ... address the problems that people were facing because of COVID-19," she said.
In honor of her local service, the Palo Alto Chamber of Commerce and Palo Alto Weekly are recognizing Vail with the "2020 Outstanding Professional" Tall Tree award on Thursday, April 21. (The awards program was put on hold in 2020 and 2021 due to the pandemic.)
Vail's interest in the nonprofit world grew while working at Apple, where she was employed for 13 years until 1999. She was part of the community relations group that formed grants, sent computers to K-12 educational groups and organized volunteer opportunities. She also volunteered at Hope House, a residential drug and alcohol treatment center for women in Redwood City. Interacting with the women at the facility opened her eyes to how "life can be very fragile at times," she said.
Vail said a friend persuaded her to apply for the executive director position at the Community Fund in 2005 after the end of her term as president at the Junior League of San Francisco, where she had volunteered since the 1980s.
Looking back, Vail said she is grateful for the support of the fund's leadership team during her 17 years. In her first year as executive director, she estimated that the fund distributed about $170,000 in grants. By her final year, the total amount of annual grants rose to about $660,000.
Over the past 10 years, the Community Fund has held brown bag lunches for nonprofit executive directors to swap stories, resources and ideas over a meal. The organization also hosts an annual training where its grantees can listen to a speaker on topics such as fundraising or social media.
"I loved getting to know the current executive directors of the grantees and other nonprofits in the community because they're the ones that are really doing the work," she said. "We're just helping in our small way by giving them some funding."
Over her career, Vail said she's learned how to bring cohesion to a group, such as coordinating with a 25-member board.
"I got a lot of satisfaction out of leading people into a group decision," she said.
After her departure, the Community Fund established the Cammie Vail Leadership Grant, which supports local nonprofit leaders. It's a retirement gift from the board that Vail said took her breath away, much like being recognized with a Tall Tree award.
"It makes me feel really proud that I made an impact. I just do my job," she said. "To be acknowledged and rewarded for it is really above and beyond what I could have ever expected."
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