Greensboro funder focuses on growth

Walker Sanders
Walker Sanders

Todd Cohen

GREENSBORO, N.C. — Ranging from a pay freeze and a dramatic cut in spending for training and travel to the reuse of file folders and a policy of no longer printing out internal documents, the Community Foundation of Greater Greensboro is reducing spending to cope with the impact of the recession.

But the foundation’s 14 employees still have their jobs because meeting the organization’s priority goals requires “every single person here,” says Walker Sanders, the foundation’s president.

“The times are tough and we’re going to be sure we’re there and are pro-active and responsive to the needs that are there,” he says.

The recession has been tough on the foundation, which has seen the value of its assets fall to $87.3 million from $114.3 million at the end of 2007.

And total contributions to the foundation in 2008 fell to $13.5 million from $17.5 million in 2007.

Grants the foundation awards, however, grew to $12.7 million in 2008 from $11.7 million in 2007, mainly because the foundation in recent years has acted as fiscal agent for a growing number of community projects, with grants for those projects flowing through the foundation.

In mid-2008, when it was clear the economy was deteriorating into a recession, Sanders says, the foundation’s board and staff took a hard look at the organization’s expenses.

While cutting as many operating expenses as it could, he says, the foundation concluded it did not want to make any staff cuts because that could undermine “a very strong strategic plan that’s in high gear.”

The foundation was “created to be a long-term permanent entity that would provide the resources for this community when the times are tough,” he says.

And with the foundation fully staffed for the first time since the 2002 recession, he says, it needs its entire staff to focus on its priority goals of addressing immediate community needs and expanding its resources to address future needs.

The foundation created an emergency fund that is available to local groups facing crises in their operations.

The foundation used some of that money to seed, in partnership with United Way of Greater Greensboro, a special fund to address immediate needs for emergency shelter and food.

That effort, known as Operation Greensboro Cares, raised $400,000 in three weeks in December, and all the money was distributed by the end of March.

Sanders says funding requests to the foundation in the first three months of 2009, both for operating support and for expansion of services to meet rising demand, grew by two-thirds compared to the same period in 2007.

As part of a strategic plan it adopted in 2006, the foundation has been working to increase its own financial capacity, improve its philanthropic services, serve as a “trusted community partner,” and boost its marketing and communications.

The financial effort has included raising endowments for women and public art, and from young professionals.

Those efforts have raised roughly half the $3 million targeted for women, one-fourth of the $2 million targeted for public art, and three-fourths of the $1 million targeted from young professionals.

The foundation also plans this year to begin endowment efforts to raise $5 million for housing needs and another $5 million for unrestricted grantmaking.

To improve its philanthropic services, the foundation has invested in technology to help donors use the web to track and handle their funds at the foundation and to make recommendations on grants to be made from those funds.

Efforts to be a trusted community partner include the foundation’s role in initiatives such Hispanics in Philanthropy; the Guilford Green Foundation, a group that focuses on issues involving lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender people; the Guilford Education Alliance; and Gate City Company.

Gate City Company, which the foundation created in 2007 to address local housing and community-development needs, works closely with the city of Greensboro and has proposed relocating the central office of the Guilford County Schools to the city’s brownfields project at South Elm and Lee streets.

“We believe putting 500 jobs there will attract additional investment,” Sanders says.

To boost its marketing and communications, the foundation has revamped the look of its website and added features such as videos that tell stories about its work.

And this fall, the site will add features that connect donors with community causes they can support.

Another strategy the foundation is using to cope with tough times, Sanders says, is to keep communicating with its donors and thank them for their support.

“This is the time when nonprofits really need to get out and go to their funders and constituents, thank them for what they’re doing, and be very transparent in what they’re seeing and experiencing,” he says.

“Now, it’s more important than ever that some of these services are being provided,” he says. “Everyone is hurting. It’s important to communicate.”

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