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Foundation for the Carolinas raises $1 billion in past two years

Foundation research began Tuesday on the planned Carolina Theatre renovation. Workers with AXIOM Foundation of Charlotte operate a drilling machine at the park in front of Carolina Theatre on March 22, 2016. The park has been blocked off and drilling of soil samples is being done to find out where foundations will be created to build a new building on top of the park. Work will start this summer.
Foundation research began Tuesday on the planned Carolina Theatre renovation. Workers with AXIOM Foundation of Charlotte operate a drilling machine at the park in front of Carolina Theatre on March 22, 2016. The park has been blocked off and drilling of soil samples is being done to find out where foundations will be created to build a new building on top of the park. Work will start this summer. rlahser@charlotteobserver.com

Foundation for the Carolinas has amassed a whopping $452 million in contributions for charitable use in 2015, giving it a record $1.78 billion in assets. The foundation plans to celebrate the news during its annual meeting Thursday at the Charlotte Convention Center.

More than $1.08 billion of that money was raised in the past two years alone, a feat that has drawn national attention to the Charlotte-based nonprofit.

As a result of the burgeoning assets, FFTC broke a series of annual records, including issuing 14,532 grants (up by 2,263) and hosting an all-time high of 2,492 charitable funds, all based out of its office on North Tryon Street.

The $1.78 billion represents a doubling of the agency’s assets in the past five years, an accomplishment that is predicted to keep it ranked high among the nation’s biggest community foundations. In the U.S., FFTC is ranked No. 2 for total giving and No. 9 based on the size of its assets.

When compared against all the nation’s 400 largest foundations, public or private, it is in the top 10 percent, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy.

Michael Marsicano, president of the foundation, says even he was surprised at the $452 million in contributions made last year, because it defied annual giving trends by tens of millions of dollars. “I’m astounded. I thought we might have hit $300 million,” he said.

Marsicano said he expected a drastic drop in 2015 contributions, because 2014 totals were inflated by “extraordinary events” such as the sale of locally based Family Dollar. (More than $45 million in stock contributions were transferred to the foundation by former Family Dollar CEO Howard Levine.)

Instead, he said, the foundation managed the second-biggest annual increase in its 58-year history.

Marsicano says the $452 million collected can be attributed to a combination of things, including bigger-than-expected gifts from philanthropists, nonprofits expanding their endowments and the opening of many new funds.

Philanthropic experts around the country say what’s happening in Charlotte is unique, however.

“If you interview the top 100 foundations in the country, they’ll say Foundation for the Carolinas is among the most progressive in the United States,” said John Davies, head of the Louisiana-based Baton Rouge Area Foundation.

“It has a reputation of not shying away from the thorniest issues you have in Charlotte. And it is not just compiling studies. It wants to see the needle move, so it will convene people, build consensus and find solutions.”

Examples include: Project LIFT created to raise graduation rates on the city’s west side; A Way Home endowment to stabilize housing for low-income families; and the Economic Opportunity Task Force, studying Charlotte’s lack of economic mobility for the poor. (A Harvard study ranked Charlotte last among 50 cities in upward mobility.)

Also high on the foundation’s agenda this year is the start of a $39.8 million renovation of the Carolina Theatre into a civic meeting hall. The theater shares a wall with the foundation’s headquarters.

Thomas Peters, president of the Marin Community Foundation in California, says he has called FFTC on more than one occasion for advice.

“Many of us, my foundation included, have long been in the ‘billion dollar club,’ but it isn’t money alone that makes a top-tier foundation,” said Peters. “It’s about community leadership and bringing together public and private energy and resources.”

FFTC is also getting attention for using “nontraditional ways” of bringing money to charitable use, including such things as accepting donations of real estate, percentages of businesses and foreign currency. In recent years, it has seen everything from fast-food restaurants to gas stations donated in the name of charity.

Former First Union Bank executive Ross Annable is among those who have benefited from the foundation’s willingness to take such gifts. He and his wife, Michele, created a charitable fund through the foundation in late 2014, using private securities from a startup company rather than a lump sum of cash.

The money from that exchange is funding scholarships for a veterinarian school, among other things.

“I compliment the foundation for having found a way to make it work, because it makes much more money available to charitable causes,” said Annable, noting he and his wife began giving out grants quickly through the foundation. “We saw the benefit of putting the money to work in our lifetime.”

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