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Serving donors – Foundation aims for $1 billion

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By Todd Cohen

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Michael Marsicano has big plans for the $230 million-asset Foundation for the Carolinas: In a decade, he says, those assets should grow to $1 billion.

That growth will flow from better serving donors, particularly through more sophisticated use of technology, and from strategic partnerships with financial services firms, he says.

“Traditionally, the Foundation for the Carolinas has balanced equally donor services and community services,” says Marsicano, who last September succeeded the retiring Bill Spencer. “It is clear that we will need to move toward placing more time, energy and money into donor services.”

Marsicano has spent his first months on the job listening to the foundation’s board and staff, as well as donors and financial institutions. He also has asked key board members to act as an informal strategic planning committee.

This year, he says, will be devoted to internal planning and reorganization. The goal is to “put more time, money and energy into wealth transfer and working with donors.”

The foundation is taking on “more a donor service role that would lead to asset development, as opposed to a community service role, which is just making grants,” he says.

Fewer people, in turn, will focus on administering grants. Fewer grants will be made, and they’ll be larger than in the past.

Marsicano also aims to boost the foundation’s use of technology to give donors interactive tools to make contributions, track their funds and give advice on grants from their funds.

Once it has shifted resources to better serve donors, he says, the foundation early next year will launch a planning process to better link donors to the community, to specific causes and to one another.

The focus on donor service reflects a big shift among community foundations throughout the U.S.

More than a dozen big community foundations, including the Foundation for the Carolinas, have formed a strategic alliance to find ways to work more closely with financial services companies and to make better use of technology.

Courting charitable donors has become a huge and aggressive business. Charitable assets managed by Merrill Lynch, for example, have grown from less than $300 million four years ago to more than $4 billion.

The alliance hopes financial services companies will help market community foundations to investors to set up charitable funds at the foundations that the companies could manage. The alliance also hopes to develop software systems and Web tools to make it easy for donors to track investment income and grant activity for funds they create.

“By and large, as Americans, we believe in privately informed visions of public good,” says Marsicano, who previously served as president and CEO of the Arts & Science Council for 10 years and before that was executive director of the Durham Arts Council for seven years.

“And so I trust donors. If you put your energy into assisting them, the payoff for the community will be great.”

Under Marsicano, Endowment for the Arts & Sciences at the Arts & Science Council grew from $30,000 in 1989 to nearly $54 million in 1999.

At the Durham Arts Council/Royall Arts Center, Marsicano increased annual revenues by 397 percent and increased the endowment by $2 million.

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