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Moline Foundation leader looks back on a career of spreading joy in the Quad-Cities

Moline Foundation leader looks back on a career of spreading joy in the Quad-Cities

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Joy Boruff, executive director of the Moline Foundation, talks about her retirement in her office on River Drive in Moline on Dec. 17.

MOLINE — Talk about “Joy to the World.”

After 32 years of nonprofit leadership and communications development in the Quad-Cities, Joy Boruff is ready to write a new chapter in her life story, retiring this month as president/CEO of The Moline Foundation, and looking to check a few more things off her “Joy” list.

“I have a 'to-do' list and a 'Joy' list,” the warm, giving 65-year-old native of Fort Dodge, Iowa, said recently from her downtown Moline offices at Bass Street Landing, 1601 River Drive.

That latter set includes personal plans, such as spending more time with her family. Boruff is looking forward to becoming a first-time grandmother; her daughter, Amy, 34, is due in January.

Both she and Boruff's son, Scott, 37, live in Chicago, and Joy and her husband got a new RV last summer they're itching to try. Boruff's 89-year-old mother lives in Arkansas, and the couple also owns a home in southwest Michigan, near Warren Dunes on Lake Michigan.

“I have the best job,” Boruff said of The Moline Foundation, which provides funding to health and human services, education, community development, the arts, and other charitable organizations. It currently has $23 million in assets, gives grants of about $800,000 a year, and has given out $43 million over its history.

“I have the best staff — these people are absolutely wonderful,” Boruff said of her handful of full- and part-time staffers, including two college interns. “I have a great board. They're just so dedicated; they love our community.”

“Under her leadership, The Moline Foundation has grown tremendously in size and capability to improve the lives of those in our community,” said Steve Kruse, the nonprofit's board chairman. “Her leadership skills and extensive knowledge of the local communities have been invaluable in making The Moline Foundation such an important and positive force in the seven counties we serve.”

Those counties are Rock Island, Henry, Mercer, Warren, Henderson and McDonough in Illinois, and Scott County in Iowa.

Boruff will be succeeded by Paul Plagenz, the foundation's vice president of advancement and engagement, who's been co-working with her in the position this month. 

Love for the Q-C

The Moline Foundation was launched in 1953 by Moline businessman Robert Swan. His ancestors were owners and co-founders of Moline Plow Company, a farm implement business that eventually became Minneapolis-Moline, then White Tractor and Agco. The family fortune became the foundation of the most enduring charitable enterprise that's ever been established in Moline.

Upon his death in 1953, Swan left $350,000 ($4.6 million in today’s dollars) to start the organization, first known as the Moline Community Trust. It is one of 59 such trusts — and one of the richest — in the U.S., Boruff said. It was run by volunteers for the first 48 years of its existence.

Boruff was a journalism major at Iowa State University, and she held a variety of marketing and public relations jobs, including a stint at WOC radio, before starting her own business, Joy Communications, in 1981. In 1988, she became the first communications director for Moline-Coal Valley School District and first executive director of the Moline Public Schools Foundation.

That was during the pit of the Midwest farm crisis, which sent the Quad-Cities economy reeling. Boruff was part of “Vision for the Future” discussions at a time when people in the area were working hard to rebound – consolidating groups to create a regional visitors bureau and creating organizations such as River Action and Quad City Arts.

“You have to have shadows to appreciate the light,” Boruff recalled. “We really needed to tell the story. You had wonderful school systems, teachers and students.” She was part of the effort across the Quad-Cities for school districts to hire PR professionals to better promote and fund local education, and keep the population base from dropping further.

Though it happened before she joined Moline Foundation, Boruff was proud to see it give a major gift of about $800,000 for construction of what is now the TaxSlayer Center in Moline, which opened as The Mark of the Quad-Cities in '93.

In 2001, she was chosen as the first full-time employee of the foundation and tasked with establishing an office and developing and managing charitable assets. Previously, the foundation was based in the office of whoever was chair of the five-person board — then Joe England of Deere & Co., who was retiring.

“We had no accounting system; it was like starting a businesses with five bosses,” Boruff said. She established accounting, budgeting, grant-making and fundraising procedures. She hired and directed staff to support what became a 10-person board. Boruff helped establish the East Moline Community Fund as an affiliate in 2011.

A foundation for the future

Boruff said she admires the Bible verse Hebrews 11:10: “For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God,” comparing her organization to a foundation on which to build a community.

“A foundation creates trust and stability,” Boruff said. “I want people to know their money is not going away. I want to help people fulfill their charitable dreams.”

One such dream was the first-phase opening in late 2011 of the new Western Illinois University-Quad Cities campus at 34th Street and River Drive, Moline. “It was so important to have a four-year public university here,” Boruff said.

In early 2009, the college received $1 million in contributions from a partnership between the John Deere Foundation and Moline Foundation for WIU's new engineering program, which began in the Caxton building downtown. Boruff helped make that possible with a matching grant from the Grand Victoria casino in Elgin, Ill.

“She's an absolute genius; everything we are today has been because of her efforts,” said Bill Pratt, director of the WIU-QC engineering school, adding that he heads the only public engineering program in the Quad-Cities.

The Moline and Deere foundations also combined to give a second grant of $750,000 to WIU-QC engineering to help expand the program to offer a master's degree, Pratt said.

“There's about 10,000 engineers in this region, 1,200 companies within a 50-mile radius. ... If I was able to, I'd graduate a lot more engineers. It's not hard at all to keep people in the area," Pratt said.

Funding from private sources like Moline Foundation is all the more important for education, arts and the like in the face of declining state and federal government funding, Pratt said.

Of Boruff, he said: “She is the person who's been the wings of this thing. We love her to death. We hope for the best for her.”

Hard to fill her shoes

Boruff also is proud of efforts like starting the new Mercer County YMCA in Aledo; helping support the “Nourish to Flourish” food program in the Sherrard School District; and being fiscal sponsor for Moline-based Fourth Wall Films, enabling the documentary filmmakers to secure other needed grants.

Boruff said she loves history and helping to feed the region's “soul.”

“You're always going to have people who are hungry, homeless and poor,” she said. Those needs must be met, but quality of life keeps people in the area, Boruff said. “There's nothing like going to see live theater, the symphony.”

The 50 fall 2019 grants from the foundation range from $25,000 for a new WQPT tower for local public television station WQPT to $30,000 for a new East Moline Public Library.

Plagenz, the incoming CEO, has been Boruff's colleague since last April, after being on the other side of the table, seeking funding while on staff for the Quad City Symphony Orchestra, Junior Achievement, and WIU.

“It's been fantastic. She's so knowledgeable, passionate about the community,” he said. “It's going to be hard to fill her shoes.”

“I've learned to be a humble servant of the community; Joy taught me that well,” Plagenz said. “Always be learning, look for new opportunities, ways we can continue to make this community better.”

Boruff will continue to do that in March, when she returns to the foundation for a few months to work on a needs assessment, and strategic giving to meet those needs. Plagenz said he'll also analyze whether and how to fill the position he's leaving.

A winner of the Girl Scouts' Gold Award and Athena Award from Women Lead Change, Boruff also has served as president of the statewide Alliance of Illinois Community Foundations; president of the Association of Fund Raising Professionals; secretary of the Iowa State Alumni Association Board of Directors; and secretary of Quad Cities Contributors Council.

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