Natalie Kelinske

By Jen Naylor Gesick

Making connections

Natalie Kelinske is passionate about her community, her family and doing her part to improve the lives of those around her. Not only was her volunteer work instrumental in getting the West ISD elementary school bond passed last year, she also works full time as the director of communications and donor services for Waco Foundation, serves on Mayor Kyle Deaver’s COVID-19 strategic communications workgroup and is mom to two preschool-aged girls, Caroline and Claire.

WACOAN: Are you working from home now?

Kelinske: I’m doing a little bit of both. I’m home some days, and we’re kind of rotating in the office. So a little bit of both, but I’m home today.

WACOAN: Tell me a little bit about the work you do.

Kelinske: I work at Waco Foundation. We’re the community foundation for McLennan County. I’m the director of communications and donor services. So, I fill a couple of different roles.

One of the things I do is work to communicate our programs and our initiatives. We have a lot of partnerships with local nonprofits, and I get to work with them and build on those partnerships.

I also have the privilege of working with our donors. I’m helping to identify different charitable programming and activities in our community and letting our donors know about those and helping them find fits for their own philanthropic objectives. Of course, some donors have their causes and they direct their contributions to those causes, but we also have some donors who always want constant updates about what’s going on in the community and what is something that they may not know about that they could give to. And so, it’s really a joyful experience to bring donors’ passions and line them up with opportunities in the community and make those matches.

WACOAN: What else does the Waco Foundation do?

Kelinske: A community foundation does so many things, but our overall mission is to improve quality of life in McLennan County. So a big part of our work is working with our nonprofit sector and building capacity and awarding grants and serving as a partner to strengthen our local nonprofit sector because they’re the ones on the front line providing the services that our community relies on.

But then on the other side, we also have donors who have established funds at the foundation who have an interest in giving to the nonprofit sector. We work with them to share what’s going on, what they may want to learn more about and what they might be interested in. So we really have a responsibility to understand what’s going on in our community in terms of the charitable work and also what our donors’ interests are so that we can match those up when there is a fit there.

WACOAN: About how many nonprofits do you work with?

Kelinske: Oh gosh, we serve over a hundred nonprofits every year in some form. Whether that’s grant-making or some type of capacity-building or training program. We also manage reserve funds and endowment funds for several local nonprofits, so I would say we have strong partnerships with a large portion of our nonprofit sector in McLennan County.

WACOAN: Is there anything else about your work that people should know about?

Kelinske: We’re always striving to become a stronger partner. Part of our organizational culture is to be a learning environment. So, I just think that’s helpful for people to know the foundation is always here to listen. And that’s really how we build these partnerships. We are hearing from our nonprofits, we’re hearing from our donors, and we’re hearing from our community members, and we’re always trying to learn more about the need, more about the issues and how as a community we can solve some of the problems that we have.

WACOAN: In regard to solving problems, what are some of the bigger issues you see in Waco?

Kelinske: Waco is a very unique community, but in a lot of ways our issues are not unique. We have people who live in poverty, there are people who are food insecure, you know things that most communities of size deal with.

One of the things that Waco Foundation is heavily focused on right now is race equity and the role equity, or the lack of equity, has played in systems over generations and how that impacts the world that we live in today. Our board named race equity a priority initiative a year ago, and that’s really part of the learning role that we have right now. We have trainings that we partner with the Cooper Foundation to facilitate in the community about the history of racism and how it has infiltrated systems. And then we work to continue to learn every day about how that plays out in our own community. So that certainly is a priority area that impacts every other social service in our community.

WACOAN: What did you study in school to become a communications director?

Kelinske: I majored in public relations when I was at Baylor, and I have worked in for-profit and nonprofit positions all related to communication. My intro into the nonprofit communications world was actually a volunteer position when I lived in Dallas. I volunteered for an animal rescue group called Metroplex Mutts, and I handled a lot of their communications, a lot of their press. And I just thought, wow, what a great way to marry the world of public relations with things that you’re passionate about. That was a great big lightbulb for me that you could really put two things that you love together and hopefully make a difference for whatever matters to you.

WACOAN: That’s wonderful. I don’t think many people know that a lot of things can come to you through volunteering and giving back like that. You find out a lot about yourself and what you love.

Kelinske: I agree. I think volunteerism kind of feeds my soul. As a working mom with two kids, I have to be very strategic about my volunteerism now, but I do think that its important and also a way to really exercise your passions and to build your skill set in different things, too. It allows you to try new things, and I’m a very supportive of that. I think that’s important.

WACOAN: What are some ways you’ve been able to strategically volunteer as a working mom?

Kelinske: The last big volunteer project I did was the West ISD elementary school bond election, and I co-chaired it with another great, great person [Katelyn Kasberg]. I felt very strongly that the community needed a new elementary school for safety reasons, for fiscal responsibility, and there was a lot of need there. I was asked if I would serve as a co-chair and volunteer in that capacity. I was honored to be asked, and I felt like it was such a worthwhile project. It was a lot of hours, but people came to help and support and offer their time, and we were able to get that through. It felt so good at the end of the evening when all of the results came in. It makes all of that worth it.

WACOAN: Tell me a little bit about that process. What kind of work did you do? Was it like an education campaign for the community?

Kelinske: We held multiple town halls that were so well attended. It was so encouraging and uplifting to see folks invested in this, and people on both sides who really just wanted to learn the facts. And that was really the focus of our efforts, to just present the facts, be very transparent and answer all of people’s questions. We did a series of Q&A articles for the local paper, we hosted town halls, we answered all of the questions through social media — and sometimes they’re really difficult questions — but our goal was to be factual and transparent and give people the information so they could make the decision that was best for them and their family. And that’s all we can ask of people.

WACOAN: And when was that?

Kelinske: So that passed, in November 2019. So just a few months ago.

WACOAN: Tell me a little bit more about West. A lot of us go there, and we know there are kolaches, but what else? What do you love about West?

Kelinske: Yes, I love the kolaches. I think you have to say that. They’re so good.

You know, I grew up in a small town, and then of course my husband grew up in a small town so that was really what we were used to and what I envisioned for our family. The West community is so close-knit. We’ve lived here since 2012, but really going through as a volunteer for the bond election, I really got a chance to get to know so many more people and the love that they have for their neighbors is just remarkable. I think it makes the West community really unique. They’ve gone through some struggles and come together on the other side of that. So, I love the people. They’re friendly, they’re giving, they really believe and live a life of taking care of your neighbor, and I think that’s really admirable.

WACOAN: How were the shelter-in-place orders and working from home for you and your family?

Kelinske: Yeah it certainly presents challenges, working from home and caring for children. I’m really fortunate that I can do my job remotely so there wasn’t a big gap in service that we were able to provide to our constituents. I’m grateful for that.

I will say navigating working from home and parenthood was the biggest challenge. And it just took us awhile to get into a groove of doing schoolwork and work-work and then housework and all of those things. It took awhile, but I do feel like we’ve found a groove. And we’ve had to adapt so many times just within this time period. I’m grateful my kids are kind of rolling with things. But they’re small and take guidance a little bit more easily. There were certainly some stressful days in there, especially at the beginning.

Then the whole health aspect of it too is so important. Part of my work has been on Mayor Deaver’s strategic communications workgroup and communicating the factual information about the COVID-19 situation in Central Texas. So that kind of bleeds into things too. When you have all of that information and you’re trying to get it out and you’re trying to take it in and then you’re trying to balance your home and your work and things like that, it can just make for a stressful situation.

WACOAN: I didn’t realize you worked with the mayor’s communication group. What is that like?

Kelinske: I’m actually co-chairing that group with council member Hector Sabido. Mayor Deaver created four workgroups right at the beginning of all of the COVID-19 crisis. They include business and individual recovery, education and social services, health and communications. I was again honored to be asked to co-chair the communications piece with council member Sabido, and what we said from the very beginning is our job is to distribute factual information to people that is relevant to their lives in Waco and McLennan County. We make sure that everything we put out is available in English and in Spanish. Right now, we do a newsletter that is twice a week, that’s available in English and Spanish, and we really are focusing on three to four messages in each issue that are relevant to our lives here in McLennan County.

Then we also launched a Waco Safe campaign, which was really about face coverings. It was a grassroots social media campaign. Wendy Gragg really helped us get that off the ground. And right now, we’re working on a business and tourism campaign that will be focused on how businesses are working to keep their patrons safe, and what we can ask of patrons and tourists and visitors to keep our community safe.

WACOAN: Is there anything else you want to say about this whole life-changing pandemic?

Kelinske: I think there’s a lot of difficulties, and Wacoans are resilient and I have no doubt that we will get through this COVID situation. But I do think that on the philanthropic side and the charitable side, we’re going to really have to do our due diligence and learn about the evolving needs and how we can best provide support because I think it’s going to look very different than it’s potentially ever looked before.

WACOAN: How do you think it will be different?

Kelinske: Well, I think a lot of different things. I think the slow down in the jobs market is tremendous and small businesses and things like that. I think there are people who have been kind of thrust into poverty who have not been in poverty, and we need to learn about that and understand what that means and kind of adjust our work because the nature of this is it’s going to be different then it has been. There’s so many parts that will go into recovery and certainly the charitable sector will play a role in that.

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