Maureen Highland, executive director of Petaluma’s educational foundation, wins a North Bay Business Journal Nonprofit Leadership Award

Maureen Highland

Executive Director

Petaluma Educational Foundation

200 Douglas Street, Petaluma


Professional background: Marketing

Education: University of San Francisco / Bachelor of Arts, Communication Arts

Number of staff: 3 at PEF, 9 at Alphabet Soup Benefit Thrift Stores

Describe your organization: In 1982, a group of teachers, business leaders and community activists in Petaluma convened to develop funding solutions for area schools in response to major budget deficits throughout the California school system.

The outcome was the creation of the Petaluma Educational Foundation (PEF), a privately funded, nonprofit organization whose primary goal is to raise money in the community to benefit education. Since the foundation was founded, PEF has awarded $7,580,695 in financial support to schools and students through our programs.

PEF receives no public funding. The foundation raises funds from individuals, corporations and foundations. In addition, PEF manages Alphabet Soup Thrift Stores with two locations in downtown Petaluma. All proceeds from Alphabet Soup benefit the mission of PEF.

Since 1983, PEF has granted more than $3,766,185 to teachers and administrators to fund projects not covered in the school budget. The purpose of our grant program is to reward innovative academic programs and foster excellence in education for all Petaluma area students.

In addition to our grant program, PEF is honored to manage 74 scholarship funds for donors who provide the foundation with clear criteria for selecting recipients. In 2020, we awarded $238,075 to seniors graduating from all seven Petaluma high schools, bringing the total to $3,814,510 awarded since 1990. PEF manages over $5,052,594 (as of December 2019) in invested and endowed funds with clear directions as to how the funds will benefit the schools in Petaluma.

We also manage component funds for school-related organizations and clubs. With funding for our schools uncertain, the role PEF plays is more important than ever. Opportunities exist for all levels of support.

Tell us a little bit about yourself: I have worked to be instrumental in increasing the impact of PEF’s role in building partnerships with individuals, local businesses and stewarding growth opportunities for the foundation’s endowments, scholarships and grant programs.

I consistently aim to demonstrate professionalism and a cooperative attitude securing PEF’s longevity as a front-runner of educational advocacy in the community and a strong partner for local organizations wishing to enhance the positive impact on all 12,000 students annually enrolled in our 38 local schools.

I was born in San Francisco and raised in Marin County. I moved to Petaluma with my husband, Steve, in 1993, and we have three adult children (25), (22) and (19), plus a son-in-law and two young grandchildren.

My experience volunteering for various organizations, participating as an active board member for nonprofits, and professional business experience all prepared me for my current role at PEF.

Graduating in 1991 from University of San Francisco, I spent my career prior to joining PEF in 2011 strategically implementing and exceeding marketing and business goals for clients as a marketing consultant and earlier in management roles at prominent Bay Area organizations such as PIER 39 Ltd., CBRE/Vintage Oaks at Novato and Basin Street Properties.

What is your role in the organization?

Executive Director

How has your organization been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic?

We all have had our daily lives impacted by COVID-19. Here in Sonoma County, the effects of the pandemic are adding to an already struggling region still recovering from the devasting fires and other natural disasters.

As with any occurrence of this magnitude, it impacts individuals, segments of the community, and professional industries in different ways. We are chartering new territory as an educational community.

For the teachers the concern over connecting with their students and engaging them to provide effective learning content and strategies requires an entirely new set of tools in the distance learning format.

For the students, all are seeing the world around them change at an unprecedented speed. Where they previously found stability (home, school, family and friends) they now are isolated and the uncertainty of when this will end is amplified as they look to those they count on to be the “calm in the storm” can no longer shield children from their concerns surrounding safety and health, financial losses, unemployment, along with secure housing.

Some segments of our community are experiencing the impacts of COVID on a more urgent level. PEF supports all 12,000 TK-12th grade students attending our 38 Petaluma area schools. Many students we serve in the Petaluma area are faced with obstacles far beyond what we can imagine as a result of all these compounding challenges.

In addition to addressing the changes for our local students and schools, PEF operates two downtown benefit thrift stores. The suspension of business from March – June, and now with a limited operating schedule has been a tremendous challenge in keeping the business open and store staff employed.

We have a talented team and dedicated family of volunteers in place who worked tirelessly to prepare the retail outlets for re-opening and now operating under new safety protocols. Our volunteer base includes many in the most susceptible age group for COVID so we are needing more volunteers to lend their support at the stores.

What are the ways your organization responded to increased demands for services, and fiscally, in what has your organization been forced to adjust?

We knew very quickly with the onset of COVID-19 our programs would not look the same this year. Our team of staff and board members who oversee the PEF Grant Program were proactive in engaging our educators and district leaders to discuss how to effectively serve our students during this time.

Adapting our program for this academic year with a focus on the top two shared immediate needs of schools and adjusting our grant award threshold is allowing us to provide much-needed funding supporting Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) and Technology Tools (access & devices) to every one of the 38 campuses we serve. Just a few examples of this include:

McNear Elementary recently applied for a grant they called “Tech for Teaching and Learning in Trying Times.”

We were able to award them $5,000 for headphones, keyboards, styluses, and iPad stands. They wrote in their application that this will help “To ensure equity for our students, improve the functionality of our current tools, and adapt to the new platforms…”

Going online has been challenging for all educators. But Live Oak Charter School faced a unique challenge because their curriculum is based on Waldorf inspired, low/no-tech, interactive learning.

So, they reached out to Petaluma Education Foundation for help rebuilding lessons from the ground up. We were able to grant $5,000 to provide students with physical learning materials, meaningfully connect students and teachers, and improve distance learning technology.

“Students would share feelings of isolation, depression, and anxiety with their teachers…” - Penngrove Elementary Charter School principal Amy Fadeji, speaking on kids’ reactions to the pandemic.

Our 2020 impact grant priorities are all about supporting students through distance learning. Amy’s school was awarded $5,000 to develop tools and curriculum to help students feel safe, accepted, valued, included, and celebrated.

St Vincent de Paul High School wanted to make at home learning more like classroom learning. With a $5,000 grant through our “Technology Access” Impact Grant, they were able to purchase 50-inch Smart TV monitors and movable webcams for all their educators. This new tech means teachers can move freely as they teach, just like they could in a room full of students.

Miwok Valley Elementary sent us this photo of students in the new noise cancelling headphones, purchased with a Petaluma Education Foundation “Technology Access” Impact Grant.

“The headphones work wonderfully!” said school principal Mary Reynolds, “All background noise is eliminated, and students can hear each other, as well as the teacher clearly. The students I was with today had such a sense of pride and accomplishment.”

What achievement are you most proud of?

Personally, it would be my family. Each one of them are people of strong character and provide a source of encouragement and support to each other and those around them. Professionally, it would be navigating the past six months.

Literally, my job expanded overnight to include tasks that typically would not be part of my regular workload by were essential to keep us moving forward during uncertain times. The team immediately dug in and thoughtfully addressed so many unanticipated hurdles to accomplish our set goals for the fiscal year while also planning ahead for the next 12- 24 months.

Most recently our work to produce a successful virtual live-stream BASH gala in early September and since then PEF awarding over $88,000 in grants with more to be announced by the end of November.

What is your biggest challenge today?

Helping our team, board, and partners look to the future. All our lives, personally and professionally, have been impacted in ways we could not imagine.

The past six months have been draining. Families are impacted, volunteers are impacted, the 12,000+ students we serve are impacted and I try to acknowledge that in every conversation.

I listen, empathize and offer an opportunity to see how we can increase our role/impact/support helping us all find purpose at such a confusing and emotional time. Everything changed and nothing has changed: our students need our support. We have to identify opportunities to secure the much-needed funding in new ways. We have a ways to go before coming out of this time and I must lead with optimism and clear vision to keep our mission moving forward.

What is the next major project either under way or on the horizon?

Growing the PEF Endowment. As a nearly four-decade organization, we have successfully established our programs, engaged the community, and created incredible partnerships to position us as a reliable resource for our students and schools.

Growing our endowment would move us to the next level of strategic planning increasing our impact for years to come. It would also pay tribute to the incredible legacy so many community members have created through their dedication to the mission of PEF.

What product or service would/or is helping you do your job more effectively?

Zoom. Love it or hate it, it is allowing us to gather our board, staff, educators, and stakeholders during this time. Having virtual face-to-face conversations and regular check-ins with each other has helped keep people engaged and inspired to find ways to see the silver-lining of being forced to try new avenues to introduce people to PEF.

How do you think your profession will change in the next five years?

Nonprofits are constantly adapting to best serve the needs of their community. How people view philanthropy and their role in it has been shifting in recent years.

It is important we all feel what we do matters. Conveying to supporters how their specific gift is making a difference will be more important than ever before.

As for our mission, the instructional environment changed quickly over the past six months. What it will look like six months or a year from now is still unknown.

PEF’s role has always been to partner with our academic community and navigate a way for us to bring individuals and businesses together to support students. There will be new needs as well as new opportunities to develop creative solutions to address those needs.

Describe a fond memory you have about working with a staff member or client of your organization?

Our board does a bus tour to the schools to see our PEF Grant awards in action. We literally board a school bus in the morning and head out to campus to see our grants in action.

Seeing the board members learning directly from teachers and students about how PEF is helping to elevate the educational opportunities for all students makes their commitment to PEF tangible and also shows our students they have people out there working to make their academic experience the best it can be.

Our board stops at a park to share a bag lunch, creating an opportunity to be social and connect with each other outside the board room. The students love sharing, the teachers have the opportunity to express their gratitude in person, and our board gains a true understanding of their impact on local schools.

Plus, riding in the big yellow bus with all these grownups reliving their youth makes for some fun stories that are always shared.


Stress relievers: Being outside: the beach, the mountains, sitting on our deck - just taking in the air and surroundings to recharge

Social media you most use: Facebook

Buzz word from your industry you dislike the most: Major gifts: Every gift is major. Every gift will create impact. If a person is giving at their capacity, no matter the amount, it is major. They have chosen to partner with your organization and that should be valued and celebrated in a major way.

Typical day at the office: Every day is different which makes me excited to go to work.

Before COVID, the day usually started with arriving at the office, checking in with my co-worker, answering emails and making calls, attending in-person meetings.

Mid-day staff sits down together and shares lunch, talk about our families, personal interests, etc. – just to connect on things outside of projects we are working on. Then it is back to our desks, more meetings and calls and visits doing outreach to donors and partners. I miss the ability to engage with our community in that way.

Best place to work outside of the office: Visiting campuses we serve, talking directly with the students impacted by our programs. It is one of the things I miss most at this time. When we see our grants in action or hear from a recent graduate it really brings it all home to why we do what we do. Their excitement is inspiring, and I want to share that with those partners who make these programs possible.

Words that best describe you: Strong character, loyal, genuine, reliable, hardworking, dedicated, and fair

Maureen Highland

Executive Director

Petaluma Educational Foundation

200 Douglas Street, Petaluma


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