CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – In an effort to spark change from the ground up in three of the state’s poorest counties, Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina Foundation is investing more than $300,000 in a citizen-led effort.
Community Sparkplugs for a Healthy North Carolina is awarding grants of $3,000 each, plus technical support, to a total of about 30 residents of Caldwell, Lenoir and Scotland counties, with the goal of boosting physical activity and access to healthy food.
“We know there are sparkplugs in these communities that want to implement real change but just need support,” says Kathy Higgins, president of the foundation.
For the Sparkplugs project, community can be defined as schools, businesses, neighborhoods, clubs or other networks of people.
Individual grantees can be students, farmers, teachers, retirees, volunteers, entrepreneurs or any other resident with an idea and a passion for change.
And subscribing to the theory that local people best understand their own communities’ needs, the foundation anticipates funded projects will be diverse and could include building a community garden, creating a new trail, changing local policies or improving access to locally-grown foods.
The foundation also will provide individual grantees and communities with technical support, supplied by the Rensselaerville Institute, throughout the planning, creation and implementation of the projects.
And on-the-ground support for the effort is being provided by the Center for Environmental Farming Systems, North Carolina Council of Churches, North Carolina PTA, and North Carolina Recreation and Park Association.
And it will touch base with community members at three-month intervals to check on progress.
“We know it’s people that lead change,” says Higgins. “When you have passionate, committed people who see something wrong in their community and want to make a difference, it’s amazing.”
The Community Sparkplugs investment for this year will bring 2011 grantmaking to a total of about $10 million, Higgins estimates, up from the $8 million awarded last year and the $9 million awarded in fiscal 2009.
Unlike many funders, Blue Cross Foundation’s grantmaking has held fairly steady through the recession, in spite of fluctuations in its assets and in contributions from its corporate parent.
During the market downturn of 2008 and 2009, the foundation’s assets dropped to about $78 million from a high of about $92 million, and have rebounded to about $90 million in unrestricted assets.
That solid performance is due in part to a contribution from its parent of $10 million in 2010, but also is a result of a conservative investment policy that Higgins says allows the foundation to continue to meet community needs during difficult times.
“Our foundation remains steadfast and true and continues to be a dependable source of funding in this turbulent economy,” says Higgins.
To that point, the foundation this year launched a grant cycle for capacity-building efforts, augmenting the trainings it has offered the nonprofit sector for several years.
In its first cycle, the foundation received 23 capacity-building funding requests and plans to award five grants totaling about $90,000 this year.
While the grant recipients have yet to be announced, foundation funding will help one organization conduct a development audit and create a sustainability plan, while another will launch a rebranding and marketing effort aimed at increasing its base of individual donors and volunteers.
And in December, the foundation served as the primary funder for a one-day health-care clinic in Charlotte that treated over 1,100 uninsured patients with the help of about 135 volunteers from its corporate parent.
Those new efforts, well-timed for the post-recession environment, are in addition to the foundation’s long-standing grant programs that focus on boosting the health of vulnerable communities and promoting healthy and active lifestyles across the state.
In its 10-year history, the organization has awarded about 500 grants totaling more than $69 million.
“We’re making investments and creating partnerships out there,” says Higgins. “We’re not just check-writers.”