Heather Larkin: Leading the ACF Into New Work, New Future

As president and CEO of the Arkansas Community Foundation, Heather Larkin oversees Arkansas' only statewide community foundation, one with almost $107 million in assets.

The influence of the foundation, with 27 local offices, extends throughout Arkansas. The nonprofit helps individual Arkansans - as well as families, corporations and other nonprofits - ensure their charitable donations make a lasting difference by connecting donors with causes. Emphasizing local issues, it provides planning services and resources. Since its founding in 1976, it has given more than $70 million to organizations and charitable efforts in the state. 

Larkin, 39, has been with the foundation since 1998, succeeding Pat Lile as its chief in 2008. A CPA and graduate of the William H. Bowen School of Law, Larkin is now leading a transition in the focus of the foundation, one that she calls her most important achievement there.

The Arkansas Community Foundation, headquartered in Little Rock, is moving from a model of building community assets to one of "building community," in Larkin's words. Rather than simply "transact grant checks for donors," the foundation is working to leverage its connections to have a more direct impact in Arkansas. "And that's a major shift in the Community Foundation, and it's been two hard, hard years of work," Larkin said.

Previously, the nonprofit acted more like a charitable bank, Larkin said. "Now what we're trying to be is a community builder."

One example can be seen in Carroll County, where the foundation is working on an initiative called Children Living in Poverty. "And it's not about the Community Foundation solving the problem of children living in poverty or being the experts on that," Larkin said. "It's about the Community Foundation convening different groups that have direct knowledge of that issue, trying to make the community aware of it. And then connect resources to that issue through our own grant-making and through connecting donors of ours to that issue who might care about it."

"We don't need just a community foundation that develops assets," Larkin said. "What we need is a community foundation that builds community. A community foundation is uniquely positioned to do this kind of work."

She cited the foundation's 17-member board as well as its 500 advisory board members, who come from every corner of the state. These board members "know these communities. We cross sectors. We tap into the wisdom in every corner of the state."

Larkin, a native of Charleston and a Hendrix College graduate, began her career as an accountant at Ernst & Young in Little Rock. Her switch from the private to the nonprofit sector wasn't planned. She entered law school because "I consider law school the liberal arts degree of the professional world. I really did have all the intent in the world to practice tax law for a while, but I knew I didn't want to do that forever."

While in law school, she clerked for lawyer George Plastiras of Little Rock, whom Larkin described as a mentor. Plastiras told her about a new post at ACF that he thought would be a good fit for Larkin. Larkin saw potential both in the foundation and in what she could bring to it.

Jerry Adams, president and CEO of the nonprofit Arkansas Research Alliance of Conway, serves on the state board of the Arkansas Community Foundation and has known Larkin for eight years. He called Larkin compassionate and courageous and noted the foundation's new direction.

"She is taking a successful nonprofit and moving it really by her vision and her leadership into a more national community foundation model ... a much more contemporary business model."

As for what her future holds, Larkin is emphatic. "I'm just getting started," she said. "I am dedicated to this state. ... Everything I want to do has to do with making Arkansas a better place to live and I think I can do that at the foundation."