Gaston funder focuses on local economy

Ernest Sumner
Ernest Sumner

Ret Boney

GASTONIA, N.C. — Even before the market slide and recession that rocked the U.S. three years ago, Gaston County, located outside the banking hub of Charlotte, N.C., was taking steps to prepare its citizens for a changing economy.

With textile jobs disappearing or moving overseas, community leaders were exploring how to retool the county’s workers for new and different jobs.

That effort is even more important now, with nearby banking jobs evaporating and the jobless rate stuck above 10 percent.

Gaston Career Climb, a collaborative effort of several local organizations, was developed to help local residents navigate that shifting landscape.

That type of collaborative effort is the sweet spot for the Community Foundation of Gaston County, which aims to link the resources of residents with the needs of the community.

Since Career Climb’s inception in 2008, the foundation has poured almost $300,000 into the effort, says Ernest Sumner, executive director of the Gastonia, N.C.-based funder.

“It’s been hugely successful,” he says. “Projects like this are something we’ll move into more in the future.”

In its first three years, Career Climb provided job-readiness training and certification for 2,210 adults and high-school students, surpassing its goal of 1,500, says Sumner.

Area employers have agreed to give hiring priority to program graduates, and Sumner expects in February to have hard data on how many of those graduates have found employment.

Beyond getting people back to work, the effort, which is led by the nonprofit Gaston Together, is making partners of leading community organizations, including the Glenn Foundation, First Gaston Foundation, Duke Energy, Gaston College and the Gaston County Schools.

That type of cross-industry collaboration likely will continue to be a focus going forward, particularly given the recent economic upheaval, as it allows the foundation to leverage its investments in the community.

Like almost every other foundation in the U.S., the Community Foundation of Gaston County took a hit during the market slide of 2008 and the recession that followed.

Assets and grantmaking at the foundation fell, while spikes in unemployment and foreclosures created heightened demand for the funder’s resources.

But things are looking up, says Sumner.

Gifts to the foundation grew by more than about 10 percent to $4.1 million last year, following a 12-month period that saw a 60-percent spike in gifts.

That strong showing helped bring the foundation’s totals assets to almost $54 million as of the end of 2011, and Sumner expects assets to regain their pre-recession peak early this year.

The organization also added 23 new funds last year, bringing the total number of funds under management to 325 and marking the largest increase since the foundation was created in 1978.

“We’ve been in the community a good bit, working with financial advisors and certified public accountants,” says Sumner, who joined the foundation in the spring of 2010.

Community education has been a focus over the past year, says Janet Spencer, the foundation’s donor-development coordinator, noting that explaining the complexities of a community foundation can be challenging.

“The most important thing is to net it out into the four things we do,” she says. “Those are managing funds, building endowments, awarding grants and doing good things in the community.”

With about three-quarters of the foundation’s assets held in funds with strict guidelines for how they can be spent, about a quarter remains “unrestricted” and can be used to address community needs as the foundation sees fit.

In 2010, about a third of those unrestricted funds went to human-services agencies to address basic needs like hunger and housing, more than in pre-recession years, and that likely will be even higher this year.

And the foundation’s 10-year-old Run for the Money annual event is helping get even more money to local charities.

Through the run, participants raise money for their favorite nonprofits, and a portion of the contributions they receive are matched by the foundation.

Last year, about 2,000 people contributed a total of almost $1.3 million to about 120 nonprofits through the run, with the foundation providing about $170,000 in matching funds.

Over the past 10 years, the run has raised a total of more than $10 million in operating funds for local nonprofits, including about $2 million in matching funds from the foundation.

“A lot of participating nonprofits do not have the means to create their own fundraiser,” says Spencer. “They don’t have the staff or the budget, so the run enables them to have a fundraiser and gives their donors the opportunity to have their gifts matched.”

In addition to funneling needed resources to participating nonprofits, the run helps build their fundraising databases, she says.

With a new executive director on board and the recession in its rear-view mirror, the foundation is looking to the future.

In mid-2011, the board brought in a team of consultants who spent a couple of months “looking us over,” says Sumner, and the resulting report likely will serve as a catalyst for some changes at the foundation that can make the organization even stronger, he says.

“They said we were healthy and there are a lot of opportunities for good change,” says Sumner. “I feel like a number of new priorities will come out of that.”

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