Building a region

By Ret Boney

Born and raised in the mountains of North Carolina, Pat Smith has put down her roots, and her hopes and passions, in the state’s western counties.

As president of the Community Foundation of Western North Carolina, she has been building up the region for more than two decades, and has plans to increase her efforts.

“Our role is to increase philanthropy for western North Carolina,” she says, “and to be that link between people who have resources and want to make good things happen but don’t have the expertise and knowledge to do so.”

That’s a big job for the 18 counties the foundation serves, given that the region doesn’t have the same philanthropic tradition or resources as other areas of the state, including the Triangle, Triad and Charlotte.

“We don’t have the large corporate presence or the families that go behind those,” she says.  “We don’t have that history of large giving.”

But Smith believes that over the past two decades, people have discovered western North Carolina and put it on the philanthropic map, and some of those large gifts have followed.

“They love this place and they want to give back,” she says.  “They want to protect the environment and promote the arts.”

The foundation, with assets of about $135 million and grants of $6.9 million last year, is the third-largest community foundation in the state, Smith says.

With 18 employees and more than 700 funds, it serve a region “from Murphy to Morganton” that is home to more than 2,100 nonprofits, not including religious groups.

Pat Smith

Job: President, Community Foundation of Western North Carolina, Asheville

Education: B.A., business, UNC-Greensboro

Born: 1946, Elkin, N.C.

Family: Philip Smith, attorney; son and daughter, both age 29

Hobbies: Flower gardening and landscaping

Currently reading: “Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking,” by Malcolm Gladwell

Philanthropic hero: Ray Hust, founder of the community foundation: “If he hadn’t hung in there, we would not have this organization today.”

Started in 1978, the foundation remained small for the first decade or so of its life, with assets peaking at $5 million in 1990.

That year, the same year Smith took over, the foundation began working with attorneys and financial advisers, a strategy that, coupled with word-of-mouth from donors, ignited the funder’s growth.

Within five years, assets had jumped to $25 million, Smith says.

“We have a very strong relationship with professionals in the community,” she says.  “We pay a lot of attention to those relationships and that has helped us.”

That initial involvement has grown to include an annual seminar for professional advisers that has been held for the past 15 years, and advisers now account for the foundation’s largest source of referrals.

The foundation’s newest initiative is Women to Women, a giving circle with 207 members each contributing $1,100 a year for a minimum of three years to a fund to help women and girls become self-sufficient.

The effort has already doubled its goal of 100 members and $100,000 per year in grantmaking funds, which are awarded by a grants committee made up of members of the giving circle.

Next on the horizon is an effort in collaboration with four other mountain-area funders to build the capacity of nonprofits in the 18-county region.

To be launched in 2006, the Western North Carolina Partners for Nonprofit Success will provide nonprofits with networking opportunities, training, consulting and organizational-development grants designed to bolster capacity.

Trained as a certified public accountant, Smith developed an interest in trust work early in her career, an interest she found was satisfied by her part-time accounting work for the foundation that began in 1984.

“A lot of what we do is help people plan what they want to do with their treasure and how they can use it to improve the community,” she says.

When the executive director’s job came open, Smith applied and took the helm in 1990, when the foundation’s assets stood at $5 million.

Today, they hover around $135 million and, during Smith’s tenure, the foundation has awarded more than $70 million in grants.

Looking out over the next decade or two, Smith wants the community foundation to continue supporting nonprofits as the mountain counties grow and change.

“We are a region that has been discovered and is growing,” she says.  “How we deal with that growth is very important to our future. Making sure people can live and work here is a critical issue.”

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