Virginia’s community foundations donate without fanfare

The reach of community foundations extends into nearly every part of Virginia

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Print this page by Gary Robertson

They are the quiet stewards of philanthropy in Virginia.

They do good works but rarely make a splash or try to bring undue recognition to themselves.

Virginia’s 27 community foundations have disbursed hundreds of millions of dollars over the years from their endowments, but many Virginians hardly know they exist.

Unlike many charities, community foundations generally do not make annual appeals for funds with high-profile publicity and event-driven campaigns.

Instead, they typically work with bankers, trust officers, lawyers, financial planners and others to secure gifts from persons who want to help their communities either now or after their deaths by establishing charitable funds, usually with favorable tax advantages.

The reach of community foundations extends into nearly every part of the state for a myriad of purposes.

For example, the Eastern Shore of Virginia Community Foundation recently made a grant of $150,000 over three years to help build a new firehouse in the Bloxom community.

In the Tidewater area, grants from the Hampton Roads Community Foundation support arts organizations and help needy youngsters prepare for kindergarten in an area that once had the state’s highest rate of kindergarten repeaters.

In western Virginia, a grant from the Foundation for Roanoke Valley helped purchase 60 pairs of shoes for rural seniors being served by the Botetourt Resource Center.

The seniors couldn’t afford to buy the shoes on their own and were too proud or too embarrassed to ask.

The shoe purchase, along with a $50,000 grant for building repairs and facility upgrades, threw a lifeline to the Resource Center in Buchanan,  which serves seniors and other hard-pressed families in Botetourt County.
“It’s like Santa Claus every day,” said Robyn Dobyns, who runs the center and raises money for it from churches and other organizations.

The foundation’s efforts to help seniors in Botetourt County is part of a five-year, $1.5 million initiative that the foundation launched in May 2009 to improve the physical, mental and emotional well-being of older adults in the Roanoke region.

Many community foundations have signature projects similar to Roanoke’s focus on helping seniors.

Generally speaking, community foundations award grants in two basic ways.

The first is an open-application process in which a group applies for a grant. The foundation’s staff reviews the applications and the groups that are applying and then awards grants to those who are chosen.

The second way is through donor recommendations, based on the interests of the donors who created particular charitable funds. These are called donor-advised funds.

Sometimes, however, community foundations take a proactive approach and award grants that address an important community challenge or initiative.

Giving to foundations

Some of the biggest gifts to community foundations occur when businesses are sold.

For example, when Richmond-area businessmen William H. Goodwin Jr. and Beverley W. Armstrong, then the principal owners of AMF Bowling Inc., sold the company in 1996 for $1.37 billion — they and their partners had purchased it 10 years earlier for $223 million — they created supporting foundations at The Community Foundation Serving Richmond and Central Virginia (TCF).

As a result, the foundation’s assets jumped dramatically, from $60.5 million in 1995 to $193.7 million in 1996.

That came on the heels of a $40 million boost with the addition of the Jenkins Foundation, which was formed after the sale of the Retreat Hospital, a nonprofit Richmond hospital, to HCA in 1995.

Today, TCF has assets of $619 million.  Its assets had risen as high as $667 million in 2007. That was before the stock market suffered a dramatic dip in response to a nationwide recession.

TCF is the largest community foundation in Virginia by assets and is the third largest in the Southeast, according to recent figures.

Some community foundations, such as TCF, also have regional affiliates. For example, TCF has helped to create three community organizations in the Northern Neck and Middle Peninsula: River Counties Community Foundation (1996), Mathews Community Foundation (1999) and Gloucester Community Foundation (2000).

The regional affiliates have local advisory boards and raise charitable capital in their own communities.

But they remain components of the host community foundation. In time, as their resources and administrative capabilities grow, the regional affiliates could become independent community foundations.

The recession hammered nearly all charitable institutions, including Virginia’s community foundations.  But the assets of community foundations have risen as the stock market has improved and donations have rebounded as well, officials say.

For instance, TCF received gifts of $36 million in 2007. That total fell to $17 million in 2008 before rising to $40 million in 2009.

While multimillionaires, and sometimes billionaires, are community foundations’ donors, they are only part of the story.

Another chapter includes people like Dal Paull, a former Norfolk area DJ and radio music director. He established a $59,000 fund in 2005 with the Hampton Roads Community Foundation. The fund provides small grants to Little League teams to help buy equipment and uniforms.

Paull, who has added to the fund over the years, says he established it to honor his father and to promote baseball, a game he loves. “People have this impression that a small group of ultra-wealthy people are doing all the philanthropy. That’s not true,” Paull says.

One foundation really rocks

Virginia community foundation donors run the gamut of interests and occupations. One of them is rock star Dave Matthews of the Dave Matthews Band. He established The BAMA Works Fund to support local, regional and national charities.

John Redick, the president of the Charlottesville Area Community Foundation, handles the particulars of The BAMA Works Fund, working with Dave Matthews and his advisers. The fund currently has assets of about $10 million.

When Redick, a former college professor, began working with the Dave Matthews Band about eight or nine years ago, his then-teenage daughter suddenly took a much greater interest in his day job. She gave him a fast tutorial on current music. “I learned a great deal that didn’t come with a Ph.D. in foreign affairs,” Redick says with a laugh.

Officials say each of Virginia’s community foundations shapes itself according to the environment in which it operates.

The Charlottesville Area Community Foundation, for example, does something that most community foundations don’t do. It advertises.

When Redick became executive director of the foundation in 1998 — he was named its first president in 2002 — the foundation considered itself the best-kept secret in the community.

“We slowly came to the conclusion that we were hurting ourselves and interfering with our mission by not talking more about ourselves,” he says.

So, the foundation began to run informative, low-key advertising that told the story of its work in the community and showed donors’ dollars were being put to good use for food banks, youth and family services, scholarships and other causes.

During the past decade, Redick says, the foundation’s assets have risen from $10 million to more than $100 million, as more people have seen the advantages of channeling their philanthropy through a community foundation.

The foundation’s advertising has targeted publications and venues that might reach an audience of potentially generous givers. Individual donors creating funds has been the vehicle for the growth of the Charlottesville Area Community Foundation. “There are a lot of small arrangements,” Redick notes.

Even in what is considered the most affluent area of the state, Northern Virginia, community foundations are at work to address unmet needs.

Eileen Ellsworth, president of the Community Foundation for Northern Virginia, said that when her staff learned that demand at a local food bank spiked from 800 to 1,300 families a week, the foundation shared that information with donors. “We had one donor in 2009 give us $100,000 for poverty relief grants — food, shelter, clothing,” Ellsworth says.

The foundation has focused on aiding military families in the region and has sought contributions from regional defense contractors.

Because inheritances and estate settlements often prompt gifts to community foundations, officials expect their assets to grow. Boston College estimates that $41 trillion in wealth will change hands by 2052.

“We’re sitting at the cusp of the largest transfer of intergenerational wealth in history,” says Darcy Oman, president and CEO of TCF. “I think the future is bright.”

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