Foundation leader reaches out

By Merrill Wolf

RALEIGH, N.C. — Elizabeth Fentress has lived in Raleigh “so long that nobody can remember where I’m from, including me,” she says.

With a resume that includes stints with prominent North Carolina institutions, she is about as entrenched as a person can be in North Carolina’s cultural, political and social life.

Yet there was a time when Fentress could not imagine anything worse than living in North Carolina.

Fresh off a plane from boarding school in Switzerland, the young Fentress was distressed, to say the least, to learn that her father was moving his business and family from New York City, where she had grown up, to Gastonia.

“I thought my life was over,” Fentress recalls.

Now, Fentress raves about the Tar Heel state, especially its people.

And as president of the North Carolina Community Foundation, she and her colleagues are doing all they can to help those people build permanent assets with which to enrich the quality of life in communities across the state.

Founded in 1988, the foundation is dedicated to building philanthropic resources in communities where they have not traditionally existed.

For every Raleigh or Charlotte – where the arts, education and social services benefit from the charitable giving of wealthy residents – there are many North Carolina towns with no such pool of donors but pressing needs nonetheless.

The foundation provides a mechanism and technical assistance to help North Carolina communities – especially in rural areas — create and nurture philanthropy, drawing on what resources they do have.

Elizabeth Fentress

Job: President, North Carolina Community Foundation

Born: New Jersey, 1940

Education: B.A., English and political science, Belmont Abbey College

Family: Two grown sons and daughters-in-law, three grandsons

First job: Editorial assistant

Currently reading: “The World is Flat,” by Thomas Friedman

Hobbies: Her grandchildren, cooking, reading, traveling, gardening

Inspirations: Eleanor Roosevelt, Margaret Thatcher

Its affiliates in more than 60 of the state’s 100 counties work with local residents to identify charitable needs and to establish endowment funds that respond to them in perpetuity.

It takes only $5,000 to establish a fund that in time can vastly multiply the amount of charitable dollars available for a given cause.

Anyone can contribute, in any amount, to funds designated for a wide variety of purposes.

A small sampling of causes addressed by more than 1,000 funds includes support for scholarships, disaster relief, a high-school band, 4-H clubs, churches, arts festivals and drug-awareness education.

“It is a very large tent under which many people operate,” Fentress says. “If you are a person who has a charitable intent or dream but not so much disposable income, it’s a great place to pool your money and efforts.”

The foundation facilitates local funds’ operations by providing back-office services such as bookkeeping, investment management, websites and other guidance and support.

“One of the hallmarks of the foundation is the level of service we provide,” Fentress says. “We’re very hands on. … We see it as an investment in the future of these counties.”

Fentress was the foundation’s first employee, having been asked by long-time friend Lewis R. “Snow” Holding, chairman of First Citizens Bank, to help him realize a philanthropic dream first suggested by his late father.

Community foundations were relatively rare then, and although she had a solid background in nonprofit fundraising, Fentress “didn’t quite know how to go about it,” she says. “We invented it as we went along.”

With modest initial investments from several banks, which still manage the foundation’s money, and additional backing from Holding, she began crisscrossing the state to help people of all means understand their unrealized philanthropic potential.

She found herself drawing on all her previous work experiences, which ran the gamut from editorial assistant at a New York publishing house and women’s-section writer for The News & Observer in Raleigh to first director of the N.C. Museum of History and fundraiser for the N.C. Museum of Art, a private secondary school, the N.C. Center for Public Policy Research and the state bar association.

“All the different things I had done…all of a sudden became the primary tools that I needed,” Fentress says. “I look back on all the jobs I’ve been privileged to have, and whereas it looks like I couldn’t keep one, they’ve all added up to the job I have today, like building blocks.”

In 17 years, the foundation’s assets have grown to over $100 million, enabling distribution of more than $3 million in grants each year.

“One reason we have been successful is that we like to celebrate each one of our counties and the differences they have,” Fentress says.

Giving trends she’s noticed in recent years include greater emphasis on economic development, health and social services — with less money going to arts and culture — and growing contributions from African-Americans.

She says she and her staff of 20, including several in offices across the state, continue to be impressed and excited by North Carolinians’ creativity and generosity.

“What donations are made are the result of someone’s decision-making about their assets that involves sharing them with other people,” she says.

More and more, “everyday people who are not people of great means are learning how to make their money do more for charity, and using the foundation to help them achieve that.”

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