Michael Marsicano

The most difficult aspect of explaining exactly what a community foundation does is finding where to start. Is it the grants? The philanthropic leadership? The advocacy? Is it the services we provide for donors? The space we make available – physically and metaphorically – for civic discussion? The megaphone we provide for nonprofits that need an advocate?

The truth is, Foundation For The Carolinas – like most community foundations – means different things to different people. And while the starting point is not always clear, the ending point is: FFTC’s mission is to inspire philanthropy and empower individuals to create a better community. In short, it’s that push for an improved tomorrow that defines us in all that we do.

In contrast to other types of foundations, community foundations are place-based grantmaking public charities that serve a specific geographic area. FFTC is headquartered in Charlotte, N.C., and works on behalf of citizens in a 13-county region crossing the borders between North and South Carolina.

Community foundations are also unique in that they are made up of a collection of charitable funds. At FFTC, we manage more than 2,500 established by individuals, nonprofits and corporations. These fundholders distribute grants to IRS-approved 501(c)3 nonprofits. Last year, they awarded more than $312 million through 17,000 grants to causes as diverse as the environment, the arts, education, human services, health and others.

As the president and CEO of Foundation For The Carolinas – one of the largest community foundations in the country, with assets of more than $2.2 billion – I have seen firsthand the positive impact individuals can have on our communities. Our fundholders are your coworkers, your neighbors, your fellow churchgoers, your teachers, your elected officials.

Our 2,500 fundholders reflect the diversity of our area, and the issues they hold dear span the spectrum of worthy opportunities. Community foundations are defined by both the geographic location in which they sit and the complex makeup of the donors they serve.

It’s different for the two other most common types of foundations. A corporate foundation might support the same causes as a community foundation but not serve a specific community, while a private foundation might serve a specific “community” but not support a variety of causes. Community foundations are a unique and specific blend.

And it’s those local connections that make us experts in the field. Community foundations provide a voice for local nonprofits, which enables us to shine a light on areas of need and worthy causes. This is the main difference between commercial providers of donor advised funds and community foundations – we have the local knowledge base. Helping donors with our insight into local needs and area nonprofits is invaluable.

When donors give in isolation, they often limit their donations to universities, houses of worship and larger charities. Why? Because, first and foremost, these are great causes. But also importantly, most such institutions have development staff who make the request of the donor. In short, those causes get money because of their sophisticated solicitations.

Who makes the ask for the small ballet company or the fledgling animal-rescue nonprofit or the shelter for the homeless or the under-staffed community center? We do. FFTC helps donors widen their circle of interests to support causes they may not have considered and would not have been sure how to pursue. That is the expertise community foundations provide.

In turn, fundholders become part of something bigger than themselves. There is a collective voice amplified through community foundations, often through our civic endeavors, which attract multiple donor engagements. At FFTC, we established the Robinson Center for Civic Leadership to take on local challenges using discretionary funds, and we partner with other donors, local nonprofits, government and corporations to address areas of social need together as a civic team.

Along with community partners, we have led the charge on many programs you’ve probably read about, such as the formation of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Opportunity Task Force and the Leading on Opportunity Council, both to improve upward mobility in Charlotte. Our fundholders also helped us address local education with Project L.I.F.T. – an innovative, $55 million, public-school reform program – and through a youth literacy initiative called Read Charlotte. FFTC launched the Carolina Thread Trail, a 150-mile greenway; formed A Way Home, a $20 million public/private initiative designed to address family homelessness; and established Charlotte Bridge Home, which helps returning veterans and their families.

FFTC is just one example of a community foundation out of more than 700 across the country, in geographic locations both big and small. Each foundation has a story to tell – and all are happy to share it with anyone who wants to establish a fund.

In telling our story, I appreciate that Foundation For The Carolinas is difficult to describe. It ultimately means we are serving our community and our fundholders in whatever capacity is needed. Solutions are often as complex as the problems they are trying to solve.

Michael Marsicano, Ph.D., is President and CEO, Foundation For The Carolinas