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Corporate giving shift

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Growth in Charlotte poses challenge for charities to engage donors.

By Todd Cohen

CHARLOTTE, N.C. [03.15.04] — The Arts & Science Council, United Way of Central Carolinas and Foundation for the Carolinas all raise more money than most of their counterparts throughout the U.S.

That fundraising success is rooted in a corporate culture created by a handful of corporate executives who, as they climbed the ranks at their firms and built them into national giants, involved themselves, their employees and their institutions in Charlotte’s civic life.

Now, as they move beyond the foundations laid by Hugh McColl, Ed Crutchfield and the late Bill Lee, respectively, Bank of America, Wachovia and Duke Energy represent a philanthropic legacy and challenge, charity executives and fundraisers say.

“Charlotte’s greatest strength is perhaps its greatest vulnerability,” says Lauren Batten, president of philanthropic consulting firm Vandever Batten. “It has become more of a challenge for nonprofits to maintain the focus or attention of the corporate leaders.”

The city’s biggest companies and their executives still donate money and time to local charities, but those contributions are more focused and selective than in the past, charity experts say.

And because those firms now also operate in many other communities, and hire local executives and managers from other towns, local charities face the big job of involving newcomers in their work.

“The global company that’s been born in these companies is going to, by necessity, mean less civic time,” says Michael Marsicano, CEO and president of Foundation for the Carolinas. “The challenge, the question of our time, is how to engage.”
And the rules of engagement have changed.

“When I was at NCNB in the early 80s, it was outright explicitly said, that’s what your responsibility was, to give to the community,” says Karen Geiger, associate dean for the McColl Graduate School of Business at Queens University and former director of work family programs at Bank of America, formerly NCNB.

Philanthropy at the city’s financial institutions, in turn, was rooted in the city’s Presbyterian Scottish tradition of “everyone who is part of the community needing to create the community,” she says. “Banks thrive when the community thrives.”

Bill McKoy, retired director of the Urban Institute at UNC-Charlotte, says giving and volunteering in the region are closely tied to faith-based activities.

A national survey three years ago found that giving, volunteering and faith-based activities in Charlotte were stronger than in all but a tiny handful of U.S. communities.

“There is more cohesion here than you find in other communities, and therefore money is raised, because of the business leaders and the fact that they agree on these things,” he says. “Even though there is competition in terms of business, there tends only to be good competition in terms of participating in community events.”

The small group of corporate chiefs who spearheaded corporate giving has given way to new leaders, posing challenges for charities to diversify their funding base, experts say.

And while corporate philanthropy in Charlotte still is strong, and some retired executives are starting to make even bigger individual gifts than in the past, “one of the things nonprofits have to do is develop relationships with other corporations in the region, not just the banks,” says Anne Udall, executive director of the Lee Institute.

Another challenge is to “make the case for what they do well,” she says, and even “look at combining services with other nonprofits, honing in on their missions so that we don’t have nonprofits all doing the same thing.”

Harriet Sanford, president and CEO of the Arts & Science Council, says that although new corporate leaders and managers do “not always have the same connection to the community” as did their predecessors, that older generation “groomed and cultivated a management base that was equally engaged.”

Still, while some of those younger managers sustain that philanthropic tradition, the challenge is to “convert” leaders who are new to the community, she says.

“We have to understand we have a responsibility relative to educating people,” she says, “both about how things work and the role that our nonprofit institutions play, and the role they would play as our partner in that, because we can’t do it alone.”

Dependence on the trio of big corporate donors creates a “huge risk,” says Gloria Pace King, president of United Way of Central Carolinas. “If something happened to any one of the three of them, we would be seriously impacted.”

Philip Blumenthal, president and director of the Blumenthal Foundation, says the big challenge for charities is to develop an “ethic” of individual giving.

“If you don’t find ways to engage people, they’re not going to give,” he says. “You have to find ways to personally engage them so they feel they’ve got a personal stake.”

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