Foundation for the Carolinas started with $3,000. Here’s how it’s grown in 60 years.

Renovation of uptown Charlotte’s historic Carolina Theatre at Belk Place is among projects of the Foundation for the Carolinas, which has its annual meeting Thursday.
Renovation of uptown Charlotte’s historic Carolina Theatre at Belk Place is among projects of the Foundation for the Carolinas, which has its annual meeting Thursday. dlaird@charlotteobserver.com

Foundation for the Carolinas set records for assets and grants to nonprofits in 2017, the organization will announce at its annual meeting Thursday, and is developing a lucrative new source of donations.

The foundation, which is marking its 60th anniversary, was founded in 1958 with a $3,000 gift from the United Way. Last year its assets hit a record $2.5 billion, up from $2 billion a year earlier, making it the nation’s sixth-largest community foundation.

Grants to nonprofits reached $420 million, another foundation record. Contributions to charitable funds held by the foundation hit $550 million, the second-highest in its history. The entity once called the Greater Charlotte Foundation now serves a 13-county region of North Carolina and South Carolina.

“We’re setting records after six decades because our fundholders are active, engaged and committed to our region through the grants they distribute,” foundation president and CEO Michael Marsicano said.

The nearly 29,000 grants made in 2017 went to causes including disaster relief, education, human services, arts and culture, animal welfare, religious institutions and the environment. The foundation manages more than 2,600 charitable funds on behalf of individuals, nonprofit groups and corporations.

The foundation’s flagship program is the Robinson Center for Civic Leadership, which is named for philanthropists Sally and Russell Robinson and works with community partners and donors to address the region’s greatest needs. The center is involved in projects including renovation of uptown Charlotte’s historic Carolina Theatre at Belk Place, the economic mobility council Leading on Opportunity and the regional greenway system called the Carolina Thread Trail.

Separately, a foundation subsidiary, E4E Relief, awarded $13.1 million to help the employees of client companies cope with natural disasters. Another $5 million in donations flowed into programs managed by E4E Relief.

For much of its history, the foundation relied on gifts such as cash, stocks or real estate. But about five years ago the foundation began working with business owners who want to continue running their enterprises while also helping their communities.

Charlotte developer John Crosland Jr. set an enduring example. In 2002, years before his death in 2015, Crosland began working with a foundation executive vice president, Holly Welch Stubbing, to leave his share of the family business behind for charitable work. He created the Crosland Foundation, a subsidiary of the Foundation For The Carolinas, Davidson College and Virginia’s Episcopal High School, which gets funding from the profits of his company.

Another foundation subsidiary, the Community Investments Foundation, helps business owners give interests in their enterprises to charitable causes while retaining control of their businesses. Most potential donors are planning for who will run their businesses when they’re gone, or working toward a sale of the business, Stubbing said.

“It’s really driven by the basic premise that most American wealth is held by private businesses,” she said. “Ninety-five percent of charitable giving is by cash, but most wealth is held by family businesses. It was just a real opportunity for innovation.”

Since 2013, the foundation has received about $175 million in business-interest gifts that are now worth $225 million, Stubbing said. It expects another $100 million to $200 million in such gifts from estate assets.

Local tech company MapAnything announced last October its intention to pledge 1 percent of the equity in its company to the foundation. The gift is part of MapAnything’s commitment to Pledge 1%, which helps early-stage companies pledge a portion of their future growth to local nonprofits.

The gift allows MapAnything “to be charitable now and in the future, when the shares are liquidated,” the foundation says. Money from the liquidation will be used to create a foundation fund through which the company can make grants to nonprofits.

Robert Muggah, an internationally known expert on cities, will be keynote speaker for Thursday’s sold-out annual meeting before 1,500 business and civic leaders.

Bruce Henderson: 704-358-5051, @bhender