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Photo by Jay Paul
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Molly Dean Bittner, Michelle Nelson, Darcy Oman and Kim Russell (from left) in a meeting at The Community Foundation. Photo by Jay Paul
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Oman and her husband, Gerry Dzura, with their dog, Abby. Photo by Jay Paul
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Oman poling a small boat on China’s Yangtze River in the area of the Lesser Gorges, during a 2010 trip.
When Darcy Oman, now recognized as one of the most powerful and influential women in Richmond, arrived in the city in the early '80s, she took the only employment she could find: breaking up boxes at a J.C. Penney warehouse. She had to work.
"I took student loans that took me forever to pay off," she said, echoing a familiar lament of many young people today.
Her job at J.C. Penney was followed by an 18-month stint as the first female car salesperson at what was then Capitol Lincoln Mercury on West Broad Street.
Before moving to Richmond with her husband, Oman had worked in the development office of Russell Sage College in Troy, N.Y., and then as a development consultant at Southern Vermont College in Bennington, Vt.
Before that, one of her jobs had been at the Good Shepherd Center in Philadelphia, which operated a nonprofit residential program for troubled girls. It was there that she learned she was a better administrator than a caregiver.
Then, at the age of 32, she found herself selling cars in Richmond. She felt adrift and was looking for opportunity.
That opportunity arrived in November 1985, when a Richmond philanthropy trying to find its own footing went on a search for its first full-time staff member.
Oman's experience in nonprofits and fundraising, coupled with a good interview, won her the job.
But her introduction to the board she would report to was anything but inspiring: "This is Darcy Oman, the new staff person, and she sold cars."
From such an improbable beginning, Oman and The Community Foundation serving Richmond and Central Virginia began their ascent toward a level of success that no one could have ever forecast from "Darcy Oman … she sold cars."
At age 60, Oman — now president and CEO of The Community Foundation — is just two years away from her self-imposed retirement in 2015. She wants to travel more, see the world and trim her to-do list. Having exceeded all expectations, she will have completed 30 years on the job, and The Community Foundation will face a job search that carries significant implications for its future. When Oman was hired, the foundation, established in 1968, had accumulated a little more than $1 million in assets. "The board's vision was to increase the profile of the organization, maybe double the assets over 10 years," Oman says. Turns out they should have added a lot more zeros. Today, the foundation has assets that are estimated to approach $800 million — a final audit wasn't complete at press time — and according to the Columbus Foundation Survey of community foundations, in 2011, the latest year for which data was available, it was the nation's 17th largest nonprofit of its kind. No one was projecting that The Community Foundation would develop into the behemoth that it has become, or that it would have such an impact across a wide spectrum of charities and good causes. The nonprofit has handed out a staggering $600 million in grants. Those grants have funded everything from the Richmond Folk Festival to projects helping substance abusers beat their addictions. Supporting organizations within the foundation also have poured many tens of millions into colleges and universities and into cancer research and health care. Oman, many agree, has brought together a diverse group of individuals and organizations under a huge umbrella of goodwill and good works, and she kept the engine running at a blistering pace. In 2009, Oman was named by Virginia Law Weekly as a member of the inaugural class of Virginia's Influential Women. Oman began shattering precedent when she became one of the first two women to join the Richmond Rotary Club. Her membership began in January 1989, just after a U.S. Supreme Court decision upheld a lower court's decision opening Rotary to women. A year later, Oman shook things up once more as the first local Rotarian to become pregnant.
In so many ways, Oman is a study in contrasts. Though she was born in a small Massachusetts town and has always been a free spirit — her husband calls her an "adventuresome spirit" — she has successfully navigated Richmond's conservative Southern culture. Admittedly, it took a while for some people to get used to fact that she rode a motorcycle. That was not the Richmond way; it was not what a woman did. But it was what Oman did. She began riding as a passenger when she was a teenager, eventually buying her own motorcycle in 1980, "a new cherry-red Moto Guzzi V50, [with] 500cc V-twin engines" — when she was in her late 20s. Oman is a serious introvert (her Myers-Briggs type indicator says so), but the duties of her job continually push her out front. Perhaps it helps that she was voted class thespian in high school: She knows how to play a role. She vacations at a remote and rustic West Virginia cabin, striving always to keep things simple. However, she is equally adept at swiftly shifting gears to hobnob with millionaires, Richmond's blue bloods, and movers and shakers from every field After graduating from rural Hiram College in Ohio, where she double-majored in sociology and religion, Oman had every intention of earning a doctorate in sociology from the University of Oregon. Her preparation for grad school involved putting everything she thought she'd need into a backpack and taking along a bicycle. But Oman found the graduate school program too regimented and stifling, especially when compared with her experience at Hiram, where students could design their own majors, drawing from many different disciplines. She decided she had made the wrong choice and decided to go to work instead of going to school, taking her job at the Good Shepherd Center. Oman's life took a sharp turn when she met and married Gerry Dzura, who has a doctorate in rhetoric. Not long afterward, they moved from New England to Richmond, where Dzura served as principal of the Richmond Montessori School, before starting a child-care company in the Montessori field. Oman's idea of a big weekend at home is cooking and cleaning as a family to help slow life down. Daughter Jessie, a government and Hispanic studies major at the College of William & Mary, says the family has a mantra that resonates through everything they do. "What we say," Jessie explains, "is that you work for everything you have. Everything you have is a product of what you do. That's the kind of woman she is. She is willing to work to get things done."
Oman vividly remembers the words of D. Tennant Bryan, the tall, courtly and powerful publisher of what were then the city's two daily newspapers, when he told her that she was the winning candidate for a job at The Community Foundation. Bryan was chair of the committee that interviewed her. "Tennant could be imposing," Oman says. "He lowered his glasses to the very tip of his nose and said, ‘Ms. Darcy, you have vindicated yourself.' "And I had no idea what I had done that required vindication," Oman says with a laugh. "But those are words which echo in my brain today because it was such a startling experience." Barbara Ukrop, a civic leader and a member of the family that reigned as the monarchs of the Richmond region's grocery stores for years, was also on the selection committee. She thinks that Bryan and others admired Oman's spunk as much as anything else. "She's not a hale fellow, slap on the back kind of person," Ukrop says. "What she is, is smart, very articulate, calm, confident and convincing — very convincing." Ukrop added that Oman has needed all those attributes, especially when she's had to deal with some crusty Richmond types who don't particularly like Northerners, don't especially like women in positions of authority and really have to be convinced that a public philanthropy is the best place to park their fortunes for charitable purposes. Ukrop also sits on the board of the Jenkins Foundation, a supporting organization that was formed when Retreat Hospital was sold in the mid-'90s. The board is all-female, and Ukrop emphasizes that they are strong women with minds of their own. She says Oman, who sits in on the board's meetings as The Community Foundation's CEO, has been able to thread that needle, too. "She's very unassuming," Ukrop says. "She doesn't take charge unless she's asked to. "She also takes the minutes of our meeting. I don't think you'll find another CEO doing that — but that's just Darcy."
Unlike the United Way, The Community Foundation does not raise money through annual fundraising campaigns. Instead, it serves as a steward for permanent endowments that might be created, for example, by someone wanting to remember a loved one or a community member, by a bequest in a will or by someone who has sold a business and wants to make charitable gifts in a specific or general way. That's what William H. Goodwin Jr. and his wife, Alice, did in 1996, after Goodwin sold AMF Bowling to a group led by Goldman-Sachs for a reported $1.37 billion. Goodwin and his partners had purchased the company just a decade earlier for $223 million, according to a history of the company. In an interview, Goodwin says that he and his wife wanted to donate 10 percent of the proceeds from the sale to charity. Initially, they had planned to give it away in lump sums to a variety of groups. But he says he had friends who were involved in The Community Foundation, and they suggested that might be a better way to go. Goodwin, legendary for his business acumen, studied the issue and found that the Internal Revenue Service would give him better tax treatment if he went with the foundation rather than giving the money away in one fell swoop. So it was that Goodwin created the Commonwealth Foundations and delivered to The Community Foundation the largest single gift in its history, $121.3 million. Goodwin's friend and longtime business associate, the late Beverley W. "Booty" Armstrong, simultaneously gave $3.2 million to establish the Sarah Hollins & Frances Campbell Foundations. Armstrong later became a Community Foundation stalwart. Charitably speaking, the combined gifts, totaling $124.5 million, were like man's first step on the moon. The earth shook, everyone noticed and The Community Foundation was suddenly a player on a national scale. Overnight, the foundation's assets, which then stood at $60.5 million, were tripled. The Goodwins later created the Commonwealth Foundation for Cancer Research, pouring many additional millions into that effort. Both of the Goodwins' foundations are what are called supporting organizations. They carry out the charitable mission of The Community Foundation, but, among other things, they are donor-directed, meaning the donors decide where the money goes. "Darcy was fantastic in helping us with the IRS," Goodwin recalls. Some years later, when a few members of Congress became suspicious of supporting organizations' tax status after abuses in the system, Goodwin says Oman nearly lived in Washington, lobbying legislators and going over the charitable particulars with IRS representatives. "We ultimately got the ruling we needed," Goodwin says. "Darcy grabs hold of something and is very tenacious." Over the years, Goodwin says he has suggested to friends with charitable intentions that they might want to consider The Community Foundation as a partner in their giving. In essence, he has given the foundation and Oman his seal of approval. In Richmond's highest financial circles — where the givers really give — there is no better endorsement.
Bryce Powell, a real estate developer and president of Midlothian Enterprises, has served multiple terms on The Community Foundation's board of directors. He says the foundation and Oman are well matched in temperament. "We've never been about self-promotion," he says, "and Darcy has never been self-promoting." "What I like so much about The Community Foundation is that it doesn't tell anybody what to do with their resources. It's a conduit, a facilitator." Powell says the growth of the foundation over the past 15 years or so has stemmed from the sale of Richmond businesses and banks, as well as a massive liquidation of securities, all of which put money in the hands of prospective donors with charitable intentions. Oman personally works with the foundation's biggest donors and prospective donors. She lays out the case for partnering with the foundation, says Powell, who has accompanied her on a number of donor calls. "Her quiet confidence makes her a perfect salesman," he adds. Bobby Thalhimer is a former president of the Science Museum of Virginia and a member of Richmond's legendary Thalhimer family of retailers and investors. Hired by Oman in 1999, he is now senior vice president of Philanthropic Services & Donor Engagement at The Community Foundation. He also is a close colleague of Oman's. What has amazed him has been her ability to retool herself as the demands on her and The Community Foundation grew exponentially. "It's a rare leader who can adapt as a organization grows," Thalhimer says. "Some people are good at creating things, some good at managing, some good at turnarounds. "It's rare to find someone who develops new skills as the situation changes. I think her ability to do that is extraordinary." Thalhimer adds that Oman has always believed it's important that The Community Foundation's board members and donors are empowered, through on-site visits and staff reports, with information about the needs of the community. That way, they're not just check writers but policy advisors and change agents.
Every leader leads in a different way. And Oman's leadership style is constantly under review: by herself, her board and employees, and the community. As for her sense of personal style? "I'm not known as a hot dresser. Coupons," Oman says, with a deadpan expression, concealing her amusement at the question. "I don't do my nails. I don't wear nail polish. I do need a haircut. "I really only have two styles: what I'm going to wear at work and which jeans and T-shirt I'm going to wear at home." For years, Oman made many of her own clothes, and her handmade suits were a staple of her professional wardrobe. Talley Baratka, who founded Impact 100 Richmond, a giving circle in which 100 women give $1,000 each to make a grant of $100,000 annually, partnered with The Community Foundation because of its expertise in grant-making. In her former career in corporate philanthropy, she spent a lot of time around other powerful women — women who have turned the way they dress into an art form. And when you think about them, she says, you think about their presence and how they put colors together. "But the women who have real power get beyond all that," says Baratka. "When they walk into a room, you want to know what they think. I have no memory of anything I've ever seen Darcy wear. But I remember what she's said — she can take over a room." Wally Stettinius is a foundation donor and a former board member. As chairman and CEO, he led Cadmus Communications from a $3 million printing company to a $400 million communications corporation. He has observed Oman's leadership style for years. "What she has done brilliantly," Stettinius says, "is to build great [foundation] boards" and to transform The Community Foundation into a great brand. Stettinius says Oman also is the epitome of a servant leader, someone who puts the best interests of the organization ahead of her own. "It's sort of the difference between a politician and a statesman," he adds. John Sherman is the current chairman of The Community Foundation's board of directors. A longtime investment adviser who once led Scott & Stringfellow, Sherman says that in his lifetime, there have been three people who moved the community forward in incalculable ways. He cites Jim Dunn, the former head of the Greater Richmond Chamber of Commerce; Eugene P. Trani, the former president of VCU, who made the school an economic driver of the community; and Oman, whom he says has changed the face of philanthropy in Richmond. "She never seeks credit," Sherman observes, "but she is quietly effective." He says that it won't be long before The Community Foundation tops a billion dollars in assets, and in time, the nonprofit could become an even more transformative force in the community. Oman herself likes to point out that by far, most of the funds initially created for charitable purposes are less than $25,000, and this gives many, many people the opportunity to become donors, not just the most wealthy. Sherman says Oman has an authentic passion for helping others, and that shines through in every task she undertakes. He also speaks admiringly of her personal courage when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, from which she is now in remission. Throughout the ordeal, he says, Oman was a model of professionalism, informing the board during every step of her treatment, despite uncertainty and overbearing stress. She was and remains an optimist on life, Sherman says.
When Oman learned she had breast cancer in 2007, she and her husband plotted a strategy of treatment together. "We consider this our cancer," Dzura says unequivocally. The statement reflects the sharing relationship that they've had since they began dating. Dzura brought two daughters from a previous marriage into the relationship, one of whom lived with them. They subsequently had another daughter together, Jessie. When Jessie was in middle school, the couple made a life-changing decision together. Dzura would retire and stay at home, while Oman would continue to work. With his background in education and as a certified Montessori expert, Oman says her husband was the logical choice to provide child care and ensure a stable environment at home. Oman says she never intended to remain with The Community Foundation as long as she has. "But it's been so rewarding professionally and personally. I've been able to do important community work, and I have been able to retain the confidence of the board's leadership over a long period." At home, Oman says, she and Dzura have always lived modestly. They are not members of any country club, and their children have gone to public schools. "My husband is my best friend," Oman says. "I know a gazillion people, but I've only had a few personal friends." She says she has always been that way. She grew up in a rural area the oldest of five children and had a lot of solitary pursuits. Over the next few years, Oman plans to work with the foundation's board to reach a consensus on where The Community Foundation should go from here. Some voices are calling for transformational projects that will help redefine the foundation's role in the community, but all of that is still under discussion. Whatever comes next, Oman says that there is an enormous amount of work ahead before she retires and writes an ending to her remarkable journey at The Community Foundation. Meanwhile, she has made at least one concession to the passage of time. She has hung up her motorcycle boots. Oman and her husband have passed along the bikes to other free spirits in the family, their oldest daughter, Anastasia, and her husband.