Katherine Smock Conover '69: Improving Lives Through Leadership

As president of the Community Foundation of Jackson Hole, a nonprofit that awards more than $700,000 annually in discretionary grants to positively impact the community, Katharine Smock Conover ’69 oversees more than $70 million in assets and a staff of 11. Passionate about social justice, she came to this work after her children were grown and she decided to get a master’s in social work from the University of Denver. She has served in leadership roles in several Wyoming organizations related to domestic violence support and prevention. In 2015, Katharine received the Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce’s Citizen of the Year award.

In October 2018, Katharine attended her 50th Reunion, along with 14 other members of the Class of 1969. Though she was only at Country Day her senior year—her father was relocated to Charlotte—she says, “It didn’t take long to feel a part of the school.” Katharine is clearly a “doer,” so we decided to ask her some questions.

How did you get started in the nonprofit sector?

Once I became a mom, I began to see the world around me in a new way; and then when we moved to Wyoming from Manhattan, I really understood how insular I had been. While it felt like a privilege to be a social worker, early on, I realized that I could be more effective as an advocate for social change. For instance, as a social worker, I used storytelling so others could understand better what life was like for our clients. Today, my job is to translate the broader needs of the community to others: legislators, donors, prosecuting attorneys, anyone who can be helpful to nonprofits. Storytelling is my most effective tool.

How do you make giving more effective?

Effective organizations run effective programs, so I encourage donors to look at what the organization has been able to accomplish. There is nothing more important for an organization than an effective leader, and we need to be recruiting and compensating the best leaders. I try to reorient people’s thinking and say, “Your CEO is paid a lot because they are worth a lot. Why should we ask a highly qualified leader to take a vow of poverty to work every bit as hard to lead a nonprofit?” I’m trying to reposition people’s thinking about nonprofits: Change it from donating to “a charity” to realizing that nonprofits are an investment in all of our futures. Nonprofits protect our values, they keep us safe and alive, and they enhance our lives. They take care of all the aspects of our lives that we truly care about.

Your foundation has a Youth Philanthropy program. Why is this important?

We created this program so that high school students in Jackson Hole can learn how to evaluate grant requests and make tough strategic decisions by awarding grants to local organizations. The Youth Philanthropy grants open up the decision-making process to kids so that they are really learning about community concerns and how they can be addressed the most effectively. My advice for students at any high school, including Country Day, is to involve others as much as possible so that what you start will be sustainable. If what you are doing is important, then make sure you engage others so that the work can continue after you go to college.

Final thought?

I believe that we all have an inherent need to be useful—it’s as important as our need to love and be loved. It doesn’t have to be sensational. Being a “doer” means asking oneself, “What can I bring that no one else can?” When you serve others, the favor is returned tenfold.