One of Donna’s favorite parts of her job is working with people who want to enhance the community.
By Kelly Barbazette
Twenty-six years ago, Donna Pray veered off course as a stay-at-home mom and volunteer to accept a job offer with the Gilroy Foundation. That job set her on a new career path to help link millions of dollars of charitable gifts to the vital needs of the community of Gilroy.
Recently I had the privilege of chatting with Donna, 73, about her work as the executive director of the nonprofit organization that has awarded $15.8 million in grants and scholarships since 1980.
“This job fell in my lap quite by accident,” Donna said. “I never thought I would work in the nonprofit world and I can’t imagine not working anywhere else. It’s so gratifying.”
In 1977, Donna moved to Gilroy with her husband of 52 years, Ron, and their four children.
At that time, Gilroy’s population was about 18,000. She was volunteering at her children’s schools and doing the bookkeeping for Ron’s financial planning business in 1995 when she was tapped to help organize and maintain the records for the Gilroy Foundation.
In the mid-’90s, the nonprofit group was completely run by volunteers and didn’t employ any staff.
Founded in 1980, the foundation was created by local leaders to offer a way for residents and companies to donate money to meet the needs of Gilroy in the areas of health, education, recreation, technology, culture, and civic services. It awards annual grants to nonprofit groups and scholarships to local students in high school, college, or vocational schools.
Donna accepted the offer with the caveat that she didn’t want to work from home, where she thought she would become distracted with household tasks.
She set up a small downtown office and soon her six-hour-a-week job grew. With the help of free training seminars for nonprofit groups, Donna quickly learned how to create an effective board of directors and attract volunteers with the skillsets needed to help the Gilroy Foundation thrive.
In the ’90s, Donna also became a member of the Gilroy Arts and Culture Commission and the Gilroy Library Commission. Additionally, she joined the Gilroy Assistance League, of which she is still a member.
In the meantime, the Gilroy Foundation’s endowment continued to grow.
In 2001, it received a big donation and within 18 months the endowment went from $480,000 to exceeding the $1 million goal Donna had set. The group moved to a larger office and hired a part-time assistant and a part-time events coordinator.
Then, everything changed July 28, 2019. That day, a mass shooting occurred at the Gilroy Garlic Festival. The gunman killed three people and wounded 17 others. Partnering with the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, the Gilroy Foundation responded quickly to set up a fund for victims and their families. Within the first 24 hours, $250,000 was raised. The final checks of the Gilroy Garlic Festival Victims Relief Fund, which exceeded $1.9 million, were distributed in May 2020.
Donna and her team worked around the clock during that 10-month period to collect all the money raised, distribute the funds to the recipients, and follow strict guidelines to protect the recipients’ privacy. She’s now working about 30 hours per week as the grants and scholarship cycles overlapped for a while.
“I still work weekends because it needs to get done,” she said. “I feel very loyal and passionate about the foundation that the work needs to get done.”
One of Donna’s favorite parts of her job is working with people who want to help or enhance the community and match the donations with groups that will make those improvements happen.
One example is an annual grant given to the Gilroy Parks and Recreation Department that pays for scholarships for children who can’t afford program fees. In working with volunteers she’s continuously amazed by the strengths and talents flourishing in Gilroy. She also appreciates interacting with the donors and attending community events.
“It’s a joy to come to work. I love my job,” she said. “I can’t believe that I moved here in 1977 with my husband and children and I didn’t know a soul — and 44 years later I feel like I know half of Gilroy.”
Donna has a lot of energy and loves directing it in a positive way and enjoys being useful.
“I have no plans to retire. I love my job, I think you got that today. And I can’t imagine what I would do with my time!”
In her free moments, she’s an avid walker and enjoys taking her 70-pound yellow Labrador, Rocco, on three-mile treks through Harvey Bear Park. She looks forward to visiting her four children and seven grandchildren soon. She also adores reading historical novels and listening to audiobooks while gardening or driving.
When asked what advice she’d give to other women pursuing their goals, Donna recommended to do what you love or what satisfies you.
“Don’t have a job that you’re not a good fit with because you will end up unhappy,” she said. “No matter what it is, do what you love, because you will be happy and successful. And when I mean successful I never mean money . . . Success means that you’re doing something that makes a difference either in your life or someone else’s life.”
Kelly Barbazette, a former journalist for Bay Area newspapers, is a freelance writer. She lives in Gilroy with her husband and two daughters. She can be reached at [email protected]