Can a Community Foundation be too generous?

This is a question I’ve been asking myself lately. Interestingly, generous isn’t a word you hear often in conversations about philanthropy. Measurable? Sure. Return on investment? Yep. But we shy away from the concept of generosity.

After 14 years in the field, I think I understand why. We want to ensure our donors and the community see our commitment to only funding the most efficient, well researched, and most importantly, effective programs. Our focus on metrics and accountability is crucial to the profession and quality grantmaking.

But once that has been established, why not acknowledge the fact that philanthropy is fundamentally generosity in action?

If plans, proposals, ideas, models, case studies, and data are philanthropy’s oxygen, then generosity is its carbon dioxide. We take all of that critical analysis and synthesize it into an exact dollar amount and funding strategy. What happens next – the grant, scholarship, or donation – is an expression of trust in and respect for the recipient of the funding. That’s a pretty generous thing to do.

As a community foundation, we provide a place for generous people to make arrangements to continue giving money away forever. Every year, we set up more funds and see more people come through our doors with great ideas and plans.

So, no, I don’t believe thoughtful philanthropists can be too generous. As long as we continue to be deliberate as we breathe in, we should be grateful we’ve been gifted with the opportunity to be part of our generous community that only gets stronger when we breathe out.

Seneca Falls

On September 16, a group of local volunteers, donors, and activists jumped on a bus to head to the site of one of the most subversive, divisive, and dangerous events ever staged. Daring as that might sound, we weren’t tackling a controversial issue like abortion or capital punishment. We didn’t spend the day at a political rally. No, we went straight to the beginning of the story. The Community Foundation took a field trip to Seneca Falls, NY.

It’s hard to imagine somewhere as sleepy and quaint as the Finger Lakes could hold such an exalted place in American history. Yet before these hills were known for growing reisling grapes, they were famous for growing truly radical thinkers. It was here that the movements for both women’s suffrage and the abolishment of slavery were nurtured and eventually launched onto the national stage.

The central event that really put Seneca Falls on the map was the first Women’s Rights Convention organized by Elizabeth Caty Stanton and her remarkable group of friends on July 19-20, 1848. Together, women’s rights leaders, abolitionists, and other 19th century freethinkers gathered to declare that all people must be treated as equals – regardless race or gender.

I probably don’t need to tell you that these concepts weren’t exactly welcomed by the rest of society, which is proven by the fact that women weren’t granted to the right to vote nationally until 1920 – fully 72 years later. (You can accuse the leaders of the women’s suffrage movement of a lot of things, but don’t dare call them impatient.)

No matter how much of the story you already know, I’d like to encourage you to take time to visit Seneca Falls to immerse yourself in this powerful, and excruciatingly relevant, historical narrative. Visitors are often delighted to find two terrific organizations eager to welcome and teach you all about Seneca Falls and the never-ending struggle for equality.

Women’s Rights National Historical Park

National Women’s Hall of Fame

This is a day-trip that every Finger Lakes resident should make a priority. We are lucky to have these places in our backyard, and without our support and attention, these sacred spaces could someday be forgotten.

We focus much of our work on the philanthropic legacy of our region and how that translates into grants and scholarships, but the Finger Lakes has a spectacular legacy of ideas combined with passionate people and friendships that turned these ideas into movements. Part of our work is making sure their work continues, and the least we can do is take the time to remember them.

Vague-Blogging is the Worst

Are you familiar with the term “vague-booking”? It refers to those frustrating social media posts that allude to something great or terrible happening in a person’s life but offer no details. Usually the writer is trying to get people to ask “what’s wrong” or “tell me more,” as they are looking for attention.

Well, buckle up, because I am about to annoy the world by “vague-blogging!”

The Community Foundation is in the earliest stages of planning a pilot philanthropic project, and we are looking for young adults who grew up in the area we serve that would like to move back. 

Right now, that’s all I can tell you. I’m sorry! I know I’m being the worst.

But if you know someone that fits the description, can you let them know that Randi at the Community Foundation would like a chance to chat with them for a couple of minutes?

Feel free to pass along my email address

A few months from now, I will be able to explain what we have cooking, and I’m pretty sure you are going to like it. In the meantime, thanks for your help AND patience!

Ta ta for now!

A Peek Behind the Curtain

You may have noticed a bunch of acronyms appearing in community development conversations lately, like URI (Upstate Revitalization Initiative), PRI (Poverty Reduction Initiative), and DSRIP (Delivery System Reform Incentive Payment.) These programs are pumping a lot of money into the Southern Tier to jump-start economic growth in an area that has been struggling for decades.

To those not intimately familiar with the levels of state and local government involved, I can imagine the whole thing seems like a mystery. One day you open the newspaper (or more likely, Facebook) and see a headline reading “Elmira receives $1 million to fight poverty” or “$55 million heading to St. James Mercy Hospital in Hornell.” Though it looks like these things just happen, the truth is far more complicated. And dare I say… interesting?

I had the pleasure this week of seeing one of these decision-making processes from the front row.

A few months ago, the Governor invited communities to apply for another one of those pesky three-letter-programs: DRI. This one stands for Downtown Revitalization Iniative. The winning city will receive $10 million for projects to bring a struggling downtown back to life.

The DRI Team! Left to right: Jennifer Miller, Randi Hewit, Dan Mandell, Andrea Ogunwumi, and James Gensel

The DRI Team!
Left to right: Jennifer Miller, Randi Hewit, Dan Mandell, Andrea Ogunwumi, and James Gensel

Elmira’s team of planning professionals (ranging from city community development staffers to civil engineers) sprang to life and created a plan called Refresh Elmira. In addition to identifying 19 properties ready for mixed-use redevelopment, they built improved wi-fi, streetscapes, parking garage experiences, and a well-planned walkable corridor linking Elmira College to the river into a thoughtful strategy intended to serve the already 8000+ downtown residents and 1000 more on the way.

It took at least a dozen people nearly 100 hours to put this plan on paper. That’s the kind of work that is never celebrated. Some crazy number of meetings, emails, and google docs later, Elmira was invited to the final step of the selection process: a seven minute presentation of the plan.

It turns out several of the people that would make the most sense to present this work were not allowed to do so according to the rules of the competition. So the team needed to find someone knowledgeable enough about the various pieces of the plan to understand the details, but independent enough not to represent a huge conflict-of-interest.

With the clock ticking, the team reached out to the person they deemed most likely to ask a group of strangers for millions of dollars without hesitation: me. In a day that felt almost like I was starring in a legal thriller, I had to shrink hundreds of hours of planning into seven minutes – with only 24 hours until it was go-time. Thanks to that same team of planners, I had a great PowerPoint deck to cue me as I rehearsed (over and over again) my talk down to a crisp 6 minutes and 48 seconds. 

We were allowed four experts in the room to answer questions for no more than ten minutes following the presentation, so the five of us met at City Hall before travelling together to Binghamton University. The conversation flowed as we drove, sometimes diving deep into the plan, and other times changing the subject to give our minds a rest. We arrived an hour and 15 minutes early to make sure we had time to check the slides on the big screen, and for me to get comfortable with the sound system and podium before the committee arrived, at which time we were sent to a holding room down the hall.

For an hour we waited for our chance to make our pitch. We snacked a little and considered all the possible questions that could come from the folks about to vote on our plan’s fate. I went quiet as I mentally ran through those seven minutes over and over again.

Then it was time. We were brought into the room. Everything was exactly as we had prepared: the slides looked great, the microphone was positioned exactly to my height, and the podium was at the angle I needed to see my audience and the screen simultaneously. With every hair in place and freshly applied lipstick, I walked to the front of the room in my favorite heels and go-to “I mean business” black dress to convince this group of people that Elmira is the best possible place to invest $10 million in downtown revitalization.

I won’t bore you with the details of the next 17 minutes, but we all feel like it went really well. Afterward, there were lots of hugs and high fives in the hallway. We giggled with the rush of adrenaline that follows every great public speaking moment and is every bit as intoxicating as a runners’ high.

Perhaps you are wondering if we won the $10 million? So are we! We won’t know until the Governor’s office makes an announcement sometime in the next week or two. But the next time you see a headline along the lines of “Elmira secures funding for downtown revitalization,” you’ll have a better idea of what happened along the way. I can assure you the-story-behind-the-story is filled with a lot of sweat and laughter-induced-tears (no blood, fortunately!) 

Wish Elmira’s downtown luck!

June - you have finally arrived!

The chance of waking up to snow fades, stopping by farmers' markets goes back on our to-do lists, and our lawn mowers spring back into action.

Perhaps the most exciting day of June - the one circled in bright red pen on Community Foundation calendars all over town - is the last day of school. Graduation celebrations, ranging from Kindergarten all the way to the "big one" fill backyards and local parks with beaming students and bittersweet parents wondering where the year went.

But my mind isn't on the seniors we will watch walk across the stage later this month. Instead, I am thinking about the juniors waiting in the wings for their final year to begin in September. As the penultimate official summer at home starts later this month, I have a very special request to make.

(Why beat around the bush?)

By now, your college search should be in full swing, and as you debate which campus feels right, your parents are wondering if they really need to use shampoo and conditioner for the next few years as they look at the price of tuition at your safest of safety schools.

Can you imagine their delight if you spent some time researching local scholarships this summer? You can even get a jump start on your essays and asking for reference letters before the alphabet soup of AP, ACE, IB, ACT, and SAT consume every waking moment after Labor Day.

This is your chance to turn the next two months into lower student loan payments for twenty years.

Here is the link that can change your life.

If you have questions along the way, don't hesitate to reach out to Katie McConville. (I promise, you can work on scholarship applications and still have plenty of time to binge Friends on Netflix.)

Seniors, good bye and good luck!
Juniors, see you soon!

Philanthropists Are In It for the Long Run

L-R) Randi Hewit (president), Mike Burns (chair, investment committee), John Sirianni (finance officer), and Katie McConville (program assistant) after the 2016 GlassFest 8K presented by the Community Foundation.

L-R) Randi Hewit (president), Mike Burns (chair, investment committee), John Sirianni (finance officer), and Katie McConville (program assistant) after the 2016 GlassFest 8K presented by the Community Foundation.

A common question I hear while out and about is “where does the Community Foundation get the money it uses to make grants?”

People tend to be surprised to learn that it isn’t from the government or an annual campaign. The answer boils down to one word: endowment.

When a donor creates a fund at the Community Foundation (usually through a bequest from their estate after they pass away), we have two important jobs to do. One is to make sure every grant (or scholarship) made from the fund matches the donor’s wishes exactly. The other is to invest the money carefully to make sure it earns enough through various instruments (stocks, bonds, commodities, and the like) to generate income while protecting the fund from too much investment volatility.

We take both jobs very seriously, and as a result we have the privilege of helping endowments work their “magic” in the community for generations. 

The Mandeville Fund for Chemung County is a great example of a permanently endowed fund. When David Mandeville left the Community Foundation $1,579,000 for this specific fund in the early 1990's, his estate stipulated that the grants should benefit the people of Chemung County. Since then, this fund has granted $1,184,000 AND grown to a balance of $1,660,000!

For over twenty years this fund has been making grants to programs benefiting Chemung County and still managing to grow. Hundreds of years from now, it will still be making grants and growing. 

Even more staggering to consider … it will eventually make grants many times larger than the original gift to the fund. Someday this single fund will grant over $1,000,000 PER YEAR.

When we explain that philanthropists are in it for the long run (and wear shirts saying the same thing during the GlassFest 8K), we aren’t kidding. Each day, we know it is our job to make sure these funds last forever. It doesn’t get any longer than that.

We tried that before

How many times have you heard “we tried that before, and it didn’t work”?

There is a lot to learn from studying our past, and the lessons of history are filled with failure, but a great idea might require the perfect conditions to be successful.

Perhaps tiny shifts in the economy, technology, or our physical world create massive waves linked to social progress?

Currently, a group of people in our region are working feverishly to transform Elmira, Corning and the surrounding Finger Lakes into premier destinations for innovators, artists, and other creative types at the cutting edge of economic development. They are also paying close attention to the wonderful energy already present in our communities thanks to the thoughtful folks who were fortunate enough to be born here or discover this region on their own.

Long timers, be warned. They (we?) may revisit some ideas that failed once upon a time.

If you are one of the lucky few to have local experience with one of those failures, please don’t walk away shaking your head. Rather, open up about what happened. Share all the gory details. Somewhere in that story could be the key to what went wrong.

Let’s set aside embarrassment and finger pointing and replace them with honest conversation. Because the conditions now could be perfect for that great idea, and no matter what happened in the past, we will all benefit from these transformations.

So, friends and neighbors, let’s all say this instead: “We tried that before, and when it didn’t work, we figured out what went wrong and tried again.” It might take a little longer, but happily-ever-after is worth the effort.



A Poetry Bank

After a recent talk about leadership, an audience member asked me about my vision for the future of the Community Foundation. I knew exactly how to answer. Every day, we are working to create a community that provides its people the fundamentals needed for dignified lives. Once all basic needs are met, people can pursue their loftier ambitions, passions, and goals, which then strengthen the community. It is a powerful virtuous cycle.

Strategic Community Foundation growth over the next two decades will increase our capacity to make successful grants and lead the essential collaborative conversations that will ultimately address the pressing needs of today and transform this vision into our community’s reality in the not-so-distant future.

After I finished that mouthful, I summarized by saying, “I don’t want our community to need a food bank anymore. I want us to create a poetry bank instead.”

The audience smiled, a few people laughed, and I shared my thanks for the opportunity to answer such a thoughtful question before stepping away from the podium. In the moment, I was using the concept of a “poetry bank” as a conversational placeholder, something that would signify a community that has solved every imaginable social problem.

As days passed, though, I couldn’t stop wondering what a poetry bank would actually do. Why would we ever bother to create one? Is this the height of frivolity? I felt like I needed a much better illustration the next time I was asked about my vision.

That was until I spent Saturday night with 9,000 people at a sold-out Bruce Springsteen concert in Rochester. Men and women traveled from all over the world to see Bruce and the E Street Band perform 34 of their greatest songs. For over three hours, we sang and danced with strangers who, just like my husband and me, find never-ending inspiration and comfort in lyrics written by The Boss over the past 40-odd years.

How many thousands of people have pressed play on “Thunder Road” to hear this particular verse?
The screen door slams
Mary's dress sways
Like a vision she dances across the porch
As the radio plays
Roy Orbison singing for the lonely
Hey that's me and I want you only
Don't turn me home again
I just can't face myself alone again*

Carefully chosen words have the power to prevent us from doing something dangerous. How many people considering suicide were helped by hearing a man sing, “I just can’t face myself alone again”?

Isn’t this a poem? All of a sudden, in an arena with 9,000 people connecting over words, a poetry bank doesn’t feel frivolous. 

Certainly a community plagued by high unemployment rates, a growing drug-addiction crisis, and crumbling infrastructure will be tempted to consider poetry a luxury. Not to mention we are far from the days of not needing a food bank.

But - let’s not get so burdened by facing these problems head-on that we lose sight of what life will be like once we solve them.  

With a chance to make it good somehow
Hey what else can we do now?
Except roll down the window
And let the wind blow
Back your hair
Well the night's busted open
These two lanes will take us anywhere
We got one last chance to make it real
To trade in these wings on some wheels
Climb in back
Heaven's waiting down on the tracks* 

It is clear to me now that a poetry bank isn’t the destination. It’s the map. So climb in back; we have a lot of ground to cover before dark.

*Springsteen, Bruce. “Thunder Road.” Born to Run. Columbia Records/Sony, 1975.