Retired businessman Ray Hust and a group of local forward-thinking people gave the Community Foundation of Western North Carolina its start in 1978, according to the organization’s 2008 year-end report. The group’s start-up name was “The Community Foundation of Greater Asheville,” and it enjoyed initial support from United Way and the Junior League. Operating with an all-volunteer staff in donated office space, the foundation had $141,507 in assets at the end of its first year. By 1980, it had contributed $7,575 in grants and scholarships. Two years later, the organization’s board expanded service to its current service area, the 18 westernmost counties of North Carolina.
The foundation has grown steadily under the direction of presidents Pat Smith (1990-2008) and Elizabeth Brazas (2009-present). Smith began her professional career as Asheville’s only female CPA in the 1970s. In a March 2005 article in WNC Woman, she recalled that the foundation had “so few resources [around $1.5 million in 1984], the foundation was only making a few thousand dollars in grants. Community foundations were a new concept, and it was hard for people to understand what the long-term impact could be.”
By 1990, the foundation had $5 million in assets. Within a few years, it had provided key early support to Pack Place, the Affordable Housing Coalition of Asheville and Buncombe County, and RiverLink.
The foundation staff and board coordinate with area charities to stay current on pressing areas of need. In the early 2000s, when David Liden was a board member on the grants committee, he recalls that the targeted grant areas were education, health, environment and the arts. The foundation’s current targets are early childhood development, farms and food, people in need, and natural and cultural resources.“I don’t know of any organization that better understands the needs of nonprofits across the region,” said Liden
Current board member and local attorney Sarah Thornburg says what attracted her first to the foundation, and what continues to be attractive to folks, is its commitment to local matters. “It applies the buy-local attitude that is popular in this area to the world of philanthropy. Increasingly, there are other foundations that donors could choose and to which local donors could give a lot of money, but the advisors [of those funds] might be in big cities in other states. With the Community Foundation, donors in Western North Carolina are benefiting charities in Western North Carolina.”
Both Liden and Thornburg get excited about the Community Foundation’s ability to help families, including those with modest means, establish a fund. With the foundation covering overhead costs and providing logistical help, Liden’s family was able to establish a small fund of its own. “The kids pick the fund’s focus each year, and they will continue to have input after I’m gone,” Liden explains. Thornburg echoes this sentiment and applauds families who approach giving in this way. “I think it is a beautiful circle,” she says, when creating and managing a fund involves more than one generation.
According to The Council on Foundations, a membership association that offers accreditation to community foundations and other public-philanthropic partnership groups, there is no part of the country untouched by foundations helping communities. The Community Foundation of WNC is one of the Council’s 1,700 foundations and corporate-giving groups.
The regional nonprofit has three functions: to make grants and give scholarships; to consolidate and organize giving by individuals, corporations and organizations; and to provide leadership for solving pervasive community problems. In practice, when the foundation receives a gift from a philanthropic partner, those assets go into a fund where it becomes a renewable resource to generate annual grants and scholarships. About 75 percent of disbursements are distributed to nonprofits according to the donor’s advice, with the remainder distributed at the discretion of the foundation.