Mountain funder sharpens focus

Elizabeth Brazas
Elizabeth Brazas

Todd Cohen

ASHEVILLE, N.C. — In the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2009, the Community Foundation of Western North Carolina suspended its annual grants cycle.

Instead, the foundation worked to establish a “recession response fund” to provide operating support for nonprofits in the 18 counties it serves that address immediate needs like food, shelter and financial assistance.

And when it resumes its grant cycle this fall, the foundation for the first time will require that applications for funding, whatever their focus, also address the issues of economic development or job creation.

“People want us to be very intentional with our resources and focused in our efforts,” says Elizabeth Brazas, who joined the foundation Nov. 3, 2009, as president.

A lawyer who worked for Wachovia Bank and other financial-services companies in the areas of wealth management, wealth strategy, risk management and personal-trust administration, Brazas says the foundation aims to be “more strategic in helping connect our donors that have the capacity to give, with projects and programs they’re passionate about.”

And in the recession, the foundation needs to be “honest and realistic about the resources we have when we want to take a leadership role in the community,” says Brazas, who most recently worked as chief client services officer for Threshold Group, a multi-family office in Gig Harbor, Wash., serving 13 ultra-high-net-worth client families consisting of 55 households throughout the U.S.

Formed in 1978, the foundation has 870 funds totaling roughly $150 million in assets, down from a peak of $175 million before the collapse of the capital markets and up from a low of $125 million during the recession.

The foundation received over $18.9 million in contributions in the fiscal year ended June 30, 2009, up from nearly $16.6 million the previous year, and awarded $10.9 million in grants, down from $11.9 million the previous year.

Operating with an annual budget of about $1 million and a staff of 18 people, including two working part-time, the foundation cut two positions in the face of the recession, reduced salaries by 5 percent, suspended its retirement match, and curbed spending for travel, professional development and publications.

In December 2009, it announced it was restoring salaries and its retirement match to previous levels.

Now, the foundation is looking for strategies to improve its own operating capacity as well as that of the roughly 1,000 nonprofits in the 18 counties it serves.

As one of four grantmakers in the WNC Nonprofit Pathways collaborative, for example, the foundation is working with its three funding partners to develop a common grant application process for local nonprofits.

The common grant-application form will seek common data and supporting documents from all nonprofits, with each funder selecting specific questions it wants answered from a common menu, Brazas says.

The foundation also is convening organizations that work in the same fields of interest, such as medical services, to talk about common issues they face.

The foundation also will be working to better engage newcomers and residents who spend only part of the year in the region by talking to existing donors about their own relationship with the foundation.

And it aims to better communicate to all potential donors the fact that anyone can make a contribution, no matter how small.

“There’s a place for everybody here,” Brazas says. “Philanthropy is for everybody.”

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