Fundraising Visionary Cynthia Adams

An oil crisis spurred fundraising trailblazer Cynthia Adams to create the Alaska Funding Exchange in 1991. She took the formula national when she founded in 1999. Now, with 35,000 members and more than 165 nonprofit partners, Adams' connects grantmakers and grantseekers throughout the U.S. and internationally.

The beginnings: Single Mom on the Last Frontier

Take an oil crisis, a single mom and a little cabin with no running water north of Fairbanks, Alaska, and you might think "Movie of the Week," not philanthropic success story. But talk to Cynthia Adams - or any of the national foundations, nonprofits, schools, women's groups and Alaskan Native villages she's helped - and you'll change your mind.

"Life in Fairbanks with a small child was challenging in 1976. We lived the first 10 years in small cabins without running water, sometimes without electricity or phone," Adams says. But like most working moms, Adams juggled motherhood with a fierce dedication to her work with the Northern Alaska Environmental Center.

To fully understand the challenges facing fundraisers in the Land of the Midnight Sun, consider that Alaska nonprofits survived for many years off the state's generosity.

"We were rich in oil revenues from the development at Prudhoe Bay and the construction of the Alaska pipeline," Adams explains. "But as those revenues declined, many of our critically needed nonprofit organizations went into a tailspin. The didn't know where to turn for help, and even if they could identify funding sources, they didn't have the skills necessary to pursue the opportunities."

Adams experienced these challenges firsthand, first as a fundraiser for local nonprofit organizations in the late 1970s, then for public radio and public television in the mid-1980s. She was appointed Director of Economic Development for the Fairbanks North Star Borough, where she launched a successful grassroots economic development program based on the philosophy of sustainable development. This was a fairly new approach in the late-1980s and it was not easily embraced.

When the funding scene hit an all-time low in 1991, Adams took her expertise and founded The Alaska Funding Exchange (AFE) with the assistance of 20 angel investors. Her goal? To help create healthy communities and to protect a pristine wilderness in Alaska.

From AFE's humble beginnings in her cabin with two employees, Adams grew the biz with offices in Fairbanks and Anchorage, and revenue to one-half million per year. Recipients included projects as diverse as the historic preservation of a Russian Orthodox church in the Aleutian Chain town of Unalaska, and assisting Ilisagvik College, a tribal college in the northernmost point of Alaska, to strengthen vocational and technical education aimed at matching workforce needs.

By the time Adams sold AFE in 2000, it had already helped nonprofits and tribes secure millions of dollars in funding by assisting them in creating sustainable funding strategies for work and operations, writing and submitting grant requests, and developing leadership within staffs and boards.

Adams Goes National and International

In 1999, Adams took her formula to a national audience with the founding of Remaining true to the mission of helping nonprofits create a healthy funding strategy, GrantStation transforms the process of securing grant awards from a tricky, labor-intensive and time-consuming task to an affordable, efficient and effective process. It boasts 35,000 individual members and over 165 nonprofit partners, Adams' connects grantmakers and grantseekers throughout the U.S. and internationally.

Here's how it does that:

  • GrantStation provides access to a comprehensive, up-to-date, searchable database of private grantmakers that are actively engaged and accepting inquiries and proposals.
  • Additional tools highlight upcoming federal deadlines, links to state funding agencies and an ever-growing international database of grantmakers.
  • Its webcasts offer strategies and top tips for funding success.
  • GrantStation publishes two newsletters highlighting upcoming funding opportunities: the weekly GrantStation Insider (circa 125,000), which focuses on opportunities for U.S. nonprofit organizations, and the monthly GrantStation International Insider (circa 40,000), which focuses on international funding opportunities.

GrantStation's First-Ever Forum: June 13, 2016 in New York City

Building upon GrantStation's first 20 years working in partnership with funders across the country, Adams and her lean team have created GrantStation's first-ever forum: Innovations 2016. Its goal is to bring together leaders in the field of philanthropy to share dynamic ideas and bold approaches that will help nonprofits transform their strategic vision, accelerate their timeline and amplify impact.

The daylong event, slated for June 13, 2016 at New York University in New York City, will combine thought-provoking conversations and 5-minute Ignite talks with time for networking with colleagues. Attendees can learn from and collaborate with foundation, corporate and nonprofit visionaries to discuss the most transformative innovations shaping philanthropy.

"Our forum," says Adams, "is inspired by 16 years of GrantStation's work with the country's leading grantmakers and nonprofits of all sizes, from small, grassroots organizations to large, international associations."

Cynthia Adams, Founder, CEO and President of, is still blazing new trails in philanthropy. Even Hollywood couldn't script it better.