Leadership change at Gaston County philanthropy

By Sonia L. Johnson and Todd Cohen

GASTONIA, N.C. – In the 12 years John Edgerton has served as executive director of the Community Foundation of Gaston County, its assets have grown to $90 million from $10 million.

Now, with retired Wachovia executive H. Spurgeon Mackie Jr. set to succeed Edgerton on Nov. 1, the foundation is studying its future.

And while it may fine-tune its strategy and goals, the foundation will continue to work to help donors “get the most bang for the buck in a charitable way,” says Edgerton, who is retiring but will stay on through the end of the year.

“We will be very much attuned to helping the donors do good things,” he says.

Founded in 1978, the foundation over time has tried to fill part of the gap in local philanthropy created by the loss of local headquarters, including those of big textile firms, and the acquisition of local banks by larger institutions.

That job continues to be critical in the face of escalating social problems, he says.

“The needs are constantly growing,” he says, “and it’s a challenge to the community to halfway keep up with the need.”

The foundation houses roughly 260 funds created by donors, including roughly $15.4 million in “unrestricted” money.

It has made $44.8 million in grants since it was founded, including $7.4 million in 2005.

Based on competitive applications, the foundation makes about $400,000 in grants each year to local nonprofits from its unrestricted funds.

Unrestricted support has ranged from a community development loan to the U.S. National Whitewater Center, a water-and-outdoor recreation facility that also received support from donor-advised funds at the foundation, to a grant to the Heart Association of Gaston County for a medicine-assistance program.

For the past four years, the foundation also has used some of those unrestricted funds to provide matching money to Run for the Money, a 5K race and nonprofit fair that raises money to help local agencies address budget shortfalls, Edgerton says.

Including matching dollars from the foundation, which has contributed about $300,000 each of the past few years, plus funds raised at the event, which attracts over 100 nonprofits, the event over the past four years has generated about $3.7 million for local agencies, Edgerton says.

“This has become big public high-profile event,” he says, “Its basic purpose it to help operating nonprofits that are struggling in today’s environment.”

As part of the transition in its leadership and the development of a new strategic plan, the foundation suspended its unrestricted grantmaking this fall.

“We’ll still spend all the money, but in one cycle,” Edgerton says.

The foundation will make its next unrestricted grants next spring.

Before it hired Edgerton, a former broadcasting executive who had worked in Charlotte, the foundation was managed by volunteers.

About a year ago, says Edgerton, 70, he told the board the foundation needed a younger leader who could take it “to the next level.”

Mackie, who recently retired after a 32-year career with Wachovia, says a big focus of the foundation will be working with donors to create planned or deferred gifts, which typically involve assets other than cash.

Mackie says he also wants to convene groups sharing a vision of an improved Gaston County.

The foundation, he says, “needs to take a leadership role in the community by helping leaders come together to prioritize, pooling funds to make a bigger impact in the public good without being political about it.”

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