Charlotte funder aims to hold grants steady

Laura Meyer
Laura Meyer

Ret Boney 

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Even though its assets have plunged by more than $200 million in the last 18 months, and gifts it receives are behind schedule, Foundation for the Carolinas expects it grantmaking to remain fairly steady this year.

The Charlotte-based community foundation awarded $103 million in grants last year, and Laura Meyer, the funder’s executive vice president, says the foundation is on track to stay close to that in 2009.

“Philanthropy is such an ingrained part of our relationships,” she says. “I wouldn’t be surprised if we have another $100 million in grantmaking this year.”

As of the end of March, the foundation’s assets under management totaled just over $600 million, down from a peak of $841 million at the end of 2007.

At the same time, gifts to the funder and its 13 affiliate foundations have slowed, totaling about $6.4 million in the first quarter of this year, down from $20.1 million in the first quarter of 2008.

“The lack of sizable incremental gifts coupled with the down investment economy is not a pretty picture,” says Meyer.

With assets expected to rebound about five percent in April, she remains cautiously optimistic about support for area nonprofits.

“Donors are currently making and meeting their commitments,” says Meyer. “So much depends on the remaining eight months of the year. Fourth quarter is always the wild card because it traditionally is the most sizable for gifts.”

The “vast majority” of the foundation’s over 1,700 funds are donor-advised funds, which do not have a corpus or endowment that fluctuates with the markets, but operate more like a philanthropic checkbook.

And while donors are putting less into these funds currently, they are still paying out to support causes they are about.
“People are being more reticent about contributions, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t being cash shored up,” says Meyer. “There are donors who are stepping up in a new way. The question is for how long and for what purposes.”

Already this year, the foundation finished paying out the almost $2.7 million it raised for its Critical Need Response Fund, created in December to help local residents affected by the economic downturn.

Until the road ahead comes into better focus, the foundation is putting in place measures to protect its financial position and preserve funds for grantmaking.

It has trimmed its base staff by 15 percent, laying off four people and eliminating two unfilled positions, and provided no bonuses last year, with raises only when job content changed.

It also has reduced its budget by significantly shaving line items like travel and professional development.

And in March, the foundation revised its spending policy, lowering to four percent from five percent the annual share of assets over a rolling three-year period that it awards in grants.

The guidelines are somewhat different for funds that are significantly “underwater,” or whose worth has fallen below its original value, Meyer says, and the foundation plans to review its entire spending policy again in 2010.

While that sounds like less money available for grants, Meyer is hopeful and says the foundation is willing to tap its reserve funds if necessary.

“We may be revisiting our whole concept of the grant-distribution side,” she says. “But at this juncture we have a pretty good view of the holes and how we propose filling them.”

That’s good news for area charities, which have seen demand for their services soar while donations dwindle.

Demand at Crisis Assistance Ministry, which provides food and shelter for the homeless, is up 35 percent year over year, says Meyer, and Salvation Army’s Center of Hope, a shelter for women and children, has seen a 21 percent spike in need.

Much of Meyer’s optimism comes from her confidence in the community, which she believes will step up to meet the mounting challenges.

“This is a very charitably focused community,” she says. “As people become more aware of the need that’s out there, there’s going to be more of an impetus to do some shoring up of nonprofits and those they serve.”

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