After 55 years of philanthropy, the Charlotte-based Foundation for the Carolinas has surpassed $1 billion in assets, a financial milestone that puts it among the nations most influential community foundations.
Foundation officials say they also set a new high in 2012 for the most theyve ever given out in grants: $159 million.
Details of the record-breaking year will be announced Thursday during an annual foundation meeting that will bring together 1,500 local business leaders, philanthropists and government officials.
Among the achievements:
• A recent poll ranked Foundation for the Carolinas 12th in total assets among 700 community foundations in the nation, ahead of foundations in Boston, Pittsburgh and Atlanta.
• The $159 million in grants in 2012 was the fourth-highest among the 700 community foundations.
Contributions to funds managed by the foundation last year reached nearly $264 million, an 85 percent increase over the prior year.
Foundation CEO Michael Marsicano says hitting $1 billion in assets was one of his goals when he took over the organization in 1999. Hed hoped to reach it three years ago, but then came the recession and the banking crisis, which punched a hole in Charlottes financial industry.
Reaching the goal now is more thrilling, he says, because it appears to be a bellwether of better times ahead for the community.
Foundation Executive Vice President Laura Meyer Wellman said the staff did some cheering when the numbers were crunched.
Its hard to explain how a number can rally a group of people when we know the real importance lies behind the number itself, she says. This is both a community milestone and one for our team. And make no mistake, its galvanizing us to want to do even more.
The ones behind the scenes
Leaders in Charlottes philanthropic community say crossing the $1 billion threshold reflects the increased influence of the foundation, which has backed a series of high-impact initiatives ranging from education reform to mixed-income housing redevelopment.
In some cases, foundation grants helped launch the projects. In others, the foundation produced critically needed data to identify community issues. And in still other cases, it brought together key players to craft long-range solutions.
They are often the one behind the scenes on sticky issues, guiding people with a gentle hand...And thats not easy, because there are often conflicting interests, said Charles Bowman of the Bank of America Charitable Foundation.
Foundation for the Carolinas is involved at almost every turn, when theres been a major change in the community. They may not be the direct contributor to a cause, but they are an influencer.
An example, he says, was the Future of the Library Task Force created in 2011 with help from the foundation after the county slashed the librarys budget by $10 million. Its mission was to help the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library find new footing.
Widely seen as a success, the task force encouraged library advocates and politicians to find common ground. As a result, Mecklenburg County gave an additional $2 million to the library system in 2012, while library officials committed to a series of reforms.
Other examples include the $55 million Project LIFT, a public-private partnership to boost graduation rates in west Charlotte schools, and the Critical Need Response Fund, which brought corporate and private donors together for the sake of shelters and soup kitchens overwhelmed in the recession.
Become the clearinghouse
The foundations clout has been surging as it strings together one winning project after another, said Tom Lawrence of the Leon Levine Foundation, which contributed or pledged millions of dollars toward both efforts.
It has become the clearinghouse for social challenges facing the community, said Lawrence. And its the place where groups come together to find the best way to solve those issues.
Foundation for the Carolinas dates back to 1958, when it was created to build a permanent endowment to address changing community needs. It has since become a philanthropic organization that utilizes financial and investment services to manage more than 1,900 charitable funds on behalf of individuals, families, nonprofits and corporations.
This includes a growing division of employee disaster and hardship relief funds handled on behalf of corporations.
Example: When Hurricane Sandy struck the Northeast, some local corporations turned to the foundation to direct disaster relief programs for their employees in that region.
The foundation now handles 10 such funds, which makes it a leader among community foundations.
Still, the bulk of the foundations work remains managing funds that benefit the 13-county Charlotte region.
Sixty-five percent of the grants given out last year stayed local, including hundreds of thousands of dollars given out by little-publicized efforts like The Reemprise Fund.
Created in 2005 by former Hanes Corp. CEO Robert Elberson, the fund gives out as much as $150,000 annually to encourage entrepreneurial efforts launched on behalf of nonprofits.
Charlie Elberson took the lead as fund trustee after his fathers recent death, and he says the Foundation for the Carolinas has helped with the administrative burden, including filing taxes.
My dad used to say: Writing checks is easy, but giving away money is hard, Elberson says.
I thought it was crazy, but its about giving away money in a way that accomplishes something The foundation understands this and thats how they help.