Henderson County funder sparks teamwork

McCray Benson
McCray Benson

Ret Boney

HENDERSONVILLE, N.C. — When western North Carolina’s largest mental-health care provider folded in 2006, it left a void in the community that went beyond its own doors.

Emergency-assistance groups like the Hendersonville Rescue Mission, Blue Ridge Community Health and Mainstay Domestic Violence Center, which had referred clients with mental-health needs to Western Mental Health, were left to look for help for these clients on their own.

It was a time-consuming task that both diverted them from their mission and required skills outside their core expertise.

When the recession arrived two years later, and demand for emergency-assistance services grew, so did the need for mental-health support.

Seeing that need, the Community Foundation of Henderson County last year provided grants of more than $100,000 to fund collaboration among local human-services agencies.

The goal, says McCray Benson, president and CEO of the foundation, was to find out how those organizations “could work together to deal with the needs they have, but also get back to the core services they provide helping all people who need emergency assistance.”

Working together, the groups evaluated their needs and recommended that a portion of the funds be used to hire professional caseworkers who now handle the care of clients with mental-health needs.

Only six months old, the effort has no formal data yet, but Benson says anecdotal feedback is positive.

“This will help them serve more efficiently and effectively the populations they are trying to serve,” he says of the collaborating agencies.

That has been the case for the Hendersonville Rescue Mission, whose homeless shelters take in almost 1,500 people a year, many of whom struggle with mental-health issues, says Tim Jones, the group’s director of operations.

“Before, you could almost pay a full-time staffer to keep up with the weekly changes in the mental-health-care system,” says Jones. “Now we can focus on what we do, which is feeding, sheltering and helping people find jobs.”

In the first few months of the new program, about 70 of the rescue mission’s residents have seen one of the two mental-health therapists who come to the shelter to see patients.

“This program is probably one of the most creative solutions to a problem we’ve seen in a while,” says Jones.

At almost half the foundation’s total for unrestricted grantmaking of $200,000 to $250,000 a year, the foundation’s flexible investment in the collaboration is significant, and it’s telling of the funder’s commitment.

For the Hendersonville-based community foundation, about 10 percent of its grants are unrestricted, mirroring the share of its $78.1 million in assets not held in funds earmarked for specific purposes.

And with those unrestricted funds, Benson aims to have the greatest impact possible.

“When flexible, the charitable dollar goes a lot further,” he says.

Given the strain the recession has placed on the local community, and on the nonprofits serving that community, flexibility has become even more important.

With that in mind, the foundation during the recession invested about $80,000 over two years in the needs of local organizations address growing basic needs throughout the county.

The effort convened heads of local safety-net organizations monthly – including the Department of Social Services and the Salvation Army – who discussed local needs and could tap into the pool of funds to address them.

The money, which matched federal stimulus dollars, came from the foundation’s unrestricted grantmaking pool, along with contributions from broad-missioned donor-advised funds and directly from concerned individuals.

And although the effort was time-limited, the collaborative nature didn’t end when the money stopped, says Benson, noting that core members of that group still meet occasionally to keep on top of community needs.

Recession had an impact on the foundation as well.

The market crash left about 10 percent of the foundation’s 480 funds “underwater,” or at a lower value than the original purchase price of the assets, such as stock, that were donated to the fund.,

So the foundation temporarily halted grantmaking from those funds.

The result was a drop in overall grantmaking to about $1.9 million in 2009 from a high of almost $3 million in 2007.

The foundation also felt the impact of the recession as gifts to the funder slowed.

“People are cautious and aren’t sure what the future holds,” says Benson. “There’s a bit of a delay in some of the decision-making in whether to give because donors aren’t sure if they’re really seeing a light at the end of the tunnel.”

But things have begun to look up, he says.

By the end of fiscal 2011, only four funds remained frozen, gifts had begun to come in again and grantmaking was back up to $2.4 million for the year.

An advantage of the community foundation, says Benson, is that generous donors were able to step up to make larger distributions from their donor-advised funds than they had in the past.

“That helped the community and helped donors pace their giving so that in a year they couldn’t personally give, they had donor-advised funds to give from,” he says. “People become heartbroken when they feel there’s not enough help and they step forward regularly to help.”

Looking ahead, Benson says the challenge in the community is shifting from short-term to long-term assistance needs and in “adjusting to economic change.”

With the same number of people over age 65 as under age 21, and with the majority of residents born elsewhere, Henderson County is unusual, he says.

Luckily, the community “adopts newcomers very quickly,” he says, and those transplants in turn adopt the community as their own.

And that’s an advantage as the foundation helps the county navigate changes in public-funding streams, population shifts and the loss of textile and furniture manufacturing jobs.

The “value-add” for the foundation in such an environment, says Benson, goes beyond just grantmaking. ­­

“It means convening, helping by being a partner in the community as we find solutions to community problems,” he says. “There are a lot of folks looking at what’s next on the horizon. Community foundations are a good place for a lot of that to come together.”­­

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