Blue Cross Foundation grants steady

Kathy Higgins
Kathy Higgins

Ret Boney

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Although its assets have dropped and there’s no guarantee it will receive any cash this year from its corporate parent, the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina Foundation still is on track to hold grants steady this year.

And it is possible grantmaking will go up in 2009, says Kathy Higgins, president of the foundation, whose mission is to support the health of vulnerable populations, build healthy and active communities, and foster community impact through nonprofit excellence.

The foundation is honoring all commitments, including multi-year grants, and Higgins says 2009 grantmaking likely will be in the range of $7.5 million to $10 million, compared to $7.46 million last year.

Since January 2008, the foundation’s assets have dropped to about $78 million from $92 million.

However, it received $20 million from the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Corporation at the end of 2008, and will use those funds for grantmaking over the next three to five years, says Higgins.

That’s in addition to the 5.5 percent of its assets the funder typically puts toward grantmaking, a percentage that doesn’t include some large commitments for which the foundation has already committed funds.

“One of the ways we wanted to make sure our grantmaking was not changing was to combine not only our interest on our corpus, but our pass-through dollars from the corporation,” she says.

Most years, those funds from the corporation go straight to the corpus to build up the foundation’s asset base, but the board this year determined the immediate needs in the community could not be overlooked.

“A decision was made to look at this economic downturn and focus on organizations that are fulfilling our mission and are also strongly impacted by the economic downturn,” says Higgins.

As a result, the foundation in April awarded a $2 million “boost grant” to help the state’s free health clinics, over and above a five-year $10 million grant awarded in 2004 and another five-year $10 million commitment that begins this year.

That infusion was “immense, absolutely huge” for the 77 free clinics across the state, says Jason Baisden, executive director of the North Carolina Association of Free Clinics.

“It is a blessing,” he says. “It means fewer layoffs and no reductions in services. It won’t be the silver bullet that answers all issues, but it gets darn close.”

While demand at clinics across the state is up, in large part from a client base that is new to free clinics, fundraising is down, as are foundation grants, says Baisden.

This latest grant will bring to $22 million the commitment made to free clinics over 10 years.

“We can’t express our gratitude adequately,” he says. “There are no other foundations doing this kind of thing.”

To date, the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Foundation has been able to keep grants going without cutting salaries, staff or programs, in part because the organization runs “a very tight ship,” Higgins says.

“We’re very conservative in how we run our operations,” she says, noting the foundation has one program officer for each of its three focus areas. “We’re lean,” she says. “Our focus is on how to maximize our grantmaking.”

In addition to providing grants, the foundation is hoping to boost the nonprofit sector through trainings.

Its latest workshop, held in the eastern part of the state and focused on financial stability, drew a waiting list, as well as enough requests from the western half of the state to prompt the foundation to schedule an encore in Greensboro in June.

While nonprofits across the state are struggling right now, and Higgins says the effects of the recession on the sector could be significant, she calls herself an optimist.

“In some ways, change is always hard and difficult, and this has been dramatic,” she says. “It requires us to think creatively and broadly and that might be a very healthy thing for many nonprofits.”

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