Gifts that keep on giving

“People realize that if they don’t help the organizations they believe in, no one else will.”

– Pat Smith, executive director, Community Foundation of WNC

“Mostly I did this because I’m incompetent,” jokes local philanthropist Rob Pulleyn. “Really, they keep better records than I do.”

He’s talking about the Community Foundation of Western North Carolina. Established in 1978, it now manages $98 million in charitable assets and has distributed more than $60 million to area nonprofits.

“It’s a way for me to organize giving,” says Pulleyn, adding that the Community Foundation “gives me access to smaller organizations and alternative projects that I would never have known about otherwise.”

Apparently, Pulleyn is not alone in his enthusiasm for this brand of philanthropy. “Last year,” notes Executive Director Pat Smith, “we received over $5 million in bequests.”

A charitable history

Asheville must have looked pretty good to New York attorney Ray Hust when he decided to retire here a quarter-century ago. But after settling into his new home in the mountains, he realized that something precious was missing: a way for local people to invest in their community over the long term. So Hust unretired himself to get the project started, and the Community Foundation of Western North Carolina was born.

Community foundations typically enable people to make charitable donations through their estates — a sort of planned giving for the afterlife. Deciding what causes to donate to after you die may sound a little morbid, but at that point, you probably won’t need the money.

Fred Goff, an attorney and banker in Cleveland, developed the concept back in 1914. It involves establishing multiple trusts and funds, managing them with an eye toward preserving charitable capital, and making grants that respond to community needs within the defined geographic area served.

At first, Hust’s foundation focused on the immediate Asheville area. The beginnings were modest: The Junior League and the United Way each established an endowment. “It was tiny,” Smith observes. “There was only about $1 million in assets.”

That might not seem like small potatoes to some, but it’s chump change compared to what the foundation– which broadened its mission in 1982 to cover 18 WNC counties — handles today.

“Philanthropy is needed more than ever as we see the downsizing of government funding,” says Smith. “More and more people are leaving a gift to their community through their estate.”

It’s been nearly a century since Goff’s idea took root; today, community foundations are one of the fastest-growing types of philanthropy in the U.S. More than 650 such organizations collectively manage more than $30 billion in assets. North Carolina alone boasts 18 community foundations, and our local one ranks among the top three in terms of total assets.

“There’s more [individual] wealth in this country than ever before,” says Smith, adding, “People realize that if they don’t help the organizations they believe in, no one else will.”

The Community Foundation of WNC manages funds created by both individuals and families. The income from those investments enables the organization to make charitable grants based on donors’ preferences. Gifts can be made either in a donor’s name or anonymously, and benefactors have the option of designating which types of programs they’d like to support.

“Some people make arrangements ahead of time as to how they want the money to be spent,” Smith explains. “There’s the arts, the environment, education — we’ll do [what they ask].”

Communications Officer Evie Sandlin White remembers when philanthropist Anthony Kushigian came to the foundation a year before his death with a specific request. “He was very concerned about the effects of hunger on those in need — children, adults and the elderly,” she recalls. “He created a fund that would help ease the suffering of disadvantaged people in WNC. The Normac Fund, named for his company, is a field-of-interest fund that focuses on meeting needs related to hunger and nutrition.”

Kushigian passed away in 1999, but his commitment to ending hunger lives on. And by making a significant contribution to his fund, Kushigian was able to expand its purpose to include medical and prescription aid so that impoverished people wouldn’t have to choose between food and medicine. The Normac Fund has also supported such efforts as Meals on Wheels in Buncombe County and children’s programs on healthy eating in Cherokee County.

A sense of place

From its home base in Asheville, the Community Foundation serves Avery, Buncombe, Burke, Cherokee, Clay, Graham, Haywood, Henderson, Jackson, Macon, Madison, McDowell, Mitchell, Polk, Rutherford, Swain, Transylvania and Yancey counties. Foundation grants support a diverse range of programs covering the arts; children, family and elderly needs; community-building; environmental causes; education and scholarship programs; and health care.

“We helped MANNA Food Bank buy their first refrigerated truck,” says Smith. “We helped fund the hospice program in McDowell County — five years ago, it was one of only two counties in the state that didn’t have hospice. We helped Consumer Credit Counseling expand onto the Cherokee reservation. We helped to create the Affordable Housing Coalition.

“In the arts,” she continues, “we funded the Urban Trail, Parkway Playhouse and the Asheville Arts Council [among others]. In environmental causes, we made a grant that funded the Health Department’s project to survey residents of Madison County who might be straight-piping (dumping sewage directly into streams). We funded the Yancey County Extension Service project to grow galax [a type of native greenery used by florists] on former tobacco farms.”

And while some of those projects require large sums of money, Pulleyn is quick to point out that “the Community Foundation is encouraging to people who might have only $5,000. By putting [that money] with the Community Foundation, it can earn some interest and you get the tax deduction — and you can spend the rest of your life deciding how to spend the money.” In this case, of course, “spending the money” means directing it toward some worthy cause.

Pulleyn represents a different kind of donor — not an elderly person looking to make a contribution through his estate, but a younger one who wants to see his money doing good in the community while he’s still alive and kicking.

He’s been involved with more unusual projects, such as daycare for the children of migrant workers, and Spanish lessons for county officials. This year, Pulleyn began participating in the Community Foundation’s Partners-in-Giving Program, which gives interested potential donors a chance to choose pending grant requests to fund.

“Foundation staff reviews the grant applications, conducts site visits, and prepares summary reports for the donors,” White explains. “Partners-in-Giving donors review the information and select which projects they would like to support. There is no obligation. Donors receive a report from the grantee that documents what was accomplished with the financial support one year after the grant is awarded.”

For Pulleyn, it seems to be a good match. “A lot of people have one or two places where they want to leave their money,” he points out. “That’s cool, but I wanted to be involved with making decisions — and not have to wait until I die.”

The Community Foundation has been serving the needs of both communities and donors for 25 years now. To mark that milestone, the group planted 25 trees in Asheville’s Livingston Park on Sept. 15 and staged a Silver Anniversary Gala in the Grove Park Inn’s Heritage Ballroom three days later.

Pat Smith has been with the organization since 1984, watching it grow from a fledgling operation to one that ranks 73rd in the nation in terms of assets. That growth, she believes, reflects the way the foundation empowers concerned individuals to follow their heart’s call. “People feel a lot of love for their communities,” she observes. “Especially in North Carolina — people really care about this place.”

[To learn more about the Community Foundation of WNC, call 254-4960, or visit their Web site (www.cfwnc.org).]

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts writer and editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs.

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