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The Connector – The Foundation for The Carolinas is one of the largest community foundations in the country managing more than 1 billion dollars in assets. My story explores the driving force behind the tremendous impact the Foundation is making on the community and their charismatic leader.

As busses from neighboring schools rolled up in front of The John Crosland School in early October of last year, a quiet milestone was taking place inside. The school, formerly the Dore Academy, was hosting its first athletic event even though they have more than 30 years history of operations in Charlotte.

Cramped and lacking facilities and adequate green-space for athletics at its prior Myers Park location, the school, an independent K-12 facility dedicated to supporting children with learning disabilities, had never before been the “home team host” for such an event.

Only weeks earlier, the school celebrated the opening of its brand new facility in southwest Charlotte. The opening was made possible in large part by a significant $1.1 million dollar gift by John Crosland Jr. with the support of the Crosland Foundation, a supporting organization of Foundation For The Carolinas.

Foundation For The Carolinas connected Crosland and Dore Academy together years earlier seizing upon the opportunity to recognize Crosland’s commitment to children with learning disabilities through renaming the school.

Fostering relationships between those in need and those with means to support and service those needs is only a small part of the significant contribution the Foundation makes to the Charlotte community. It serves the region (Charlotte-Mecklenburg and 12 surrounding counties) in both quiet and highly public ways, taking a leadership role in facilitating public/private discussion and action in addressing the most pressing community needs.

The Crosland School’s Director of Development, Jennifer Nichols noted that the Foundation was instrumental in making the link between the school, Crosland Jr. and the foundation that bears his name.

“Mr. Crosland personally told me he saw his support of the school as a way to extend his family and help other children,” said Nichols. “Without the help and intermediary role of Foundation For The Carolinas and their acknowledgement of the community’s need, I’m not sure this would have happened. I know Mr. Crosland is an exceptionally quiet philanthropist, and I know it was through the encouragement of people close to him that helped make this happen.”

Community nest egg

Through years of operation, the Foundation’s impact has been felt on projects as far ranging as the Regional HIV/AIDS Consortium project, Crossroads Charlotte, the Carolina Thread Trail, the Critical Needs Response Fund, Project L.I.F.T., the Levine Center for the Arts, and dozens of other civic, cultural, and philanthropic initiatives. Their direct involvement and frequent leadership role is testament to the credibility and reach they have in the community.

The nonprofit organization was established in 1958 as a community foundation, offering a “nest egg” and permanent endowment to support changing community needs. The Foundation exists to provide support to individuals, families, corporations and nonprofits in making a positive impact in the community. The Foundation operates under a mission of inspiring philanthropy and strengthening the region through innovative initiatives and quality services to both donors and constituents.

According to a preliminary year-end report distributed by the Foundation, they are closing in on one billion dollars in assets owned and represented. They manage nearly 2000 charitable funds for individuals, families, nonprofits and businesses. As of 2011, total grant making since the Foundation’s origin has exceeded one billion dollars. They distributed roughly $157 million in 2012.

These figures underscore that the Foundation operates as one of the largest community foundations in the country.

CF Insights, a national community foundation resource organization, ranked FFTC 14th in assets, 7th in gifts (contributions to funds), and 4th in grants (contributions from funds) for 2011. The organization tracks the roughly 800 or so community foundations across the United States.

Staff size is about fifty fulltime positions, with resources on hand to help donors coordinate their giving, manage fund assets, review and administer grants and gifts, and facilitate relationships across public, private, and institutional lines.

While the business model of the Foundation is managing many endowments, the Foundation is not itself endowed.

All their operating funds come from fees for the services they provide and contributions. Even their new and stunning building located on Tryon Street in the former space of the Mint Museum’s Craft and Design collection was a gift from Bank of America. The Foundation makes each of its 17 conference rooms available, at no charge, to any nonprofit or community based organization during weekday business hours.

The Foundation is home to an extensive art collection, featuring an array of works donated and on loan from the Luski family and other entities. Sonia and Isaac Luski, who contributed much of the collection, are among Charlotte’s premier arts patrons and philanthropists. The building has been named the Luski • Gorelick Center for Philanthropy in honor of the four families’ generosity to the Charlotte region.

The collaborative and inclusive role demonstrated by the FFTC and their leadership is routinely cited by community leaders as a national model of innovative philanthropy, involved and engaged with the community they serve.

Michael Marsicano, the right leadership fit

“There is no question the Foundation is seen in a very favorable national light as an institution that gets things done,” said long time community and civic leader Mac Everett.

“They are true collaborators and no one emulates that spirit more than [President & CEO] Michael Marsicano.”

Everett should know. He headed an internal search committee for the Arts & Science Council in 1989 that identified Marsicano as the top candidate to head up that organization. Everett noted Marsicano’s energy level and understanding of the arts from the practitioner’s side as two characteristics that won him over.

Marsicano ultimately took that lead role at the Arts & Science Council, bringing him from Durham to Charlotte. During his time in that organization, he built a solid record of accomplishment and network of relationships that would well serve him when he crossed Tryon Street and went over to lead Foundation For The Carolinas ten years later in 1999.

“I don’t think anyone that knew Michael was surprised at the move,” said Everett. “In his time at ASC he was looked to as a savvy collaborator, builder and someone who made things happen. The Foundation was a logical fit for Michael and the right next move for him in terms of opportunity.”

With a daily schedule that has fewer openings than seats at the Dean-dome for a UNC/Duke game, Marsicano makes each visitor feel as if he is the only the person on the calendar that day that matters. Gracious and generous with his time, the meticulously button-downed Marsicano is as at ease in a west-side neighborhood association meeting, as he is jawing with corporate chieftains behind closed doors in boardrooms scattered along Trade and Tryon.

The quality he possess that make others equally as comfortable as he is can only be described as “genuineness.” Marsicano seems to know no strangers and can very quickly cut to the heart of a matter, even with those he’s meeting for the first time.

Evolution of philanthropic landscape in Charlotte

“The philanthropic landscape in the Charlotte region has changed during my tenure at the Foundation,” said Marsicano, “And our mission, how we serve our community has evolved as well.”

According to Marsicano, when he first arrived he found Charlotte was dominated by large corporations and their executives who were as active and involved in the creating and building of their companies as they were in the development of the city of Charlotte. Most civic initiatives nurtured at that time were in large part the result of a combination of efforts by local governments and corporations, the public/private partnership that Charlotte became known for was very real and robust, said Marsicano.

What’s changed over time, said Marsicano, is that as these corporations grew and became global concerns, the focus of their executives shifted beyond the region outside of Charlotte while at the same time, Charlotte’s explosive growth brought more and more people and a greater diversity of businesses and community needs.

Large corporate campaigns, particularly in support of United Way and the Arts & Science Council, continued through much of the 2000’s as the largest and most recognizable forms of community philanthropy, though this has seen a dramatic shift particularly since the economic downturn that began in 2008.

“During the nineties, we saw a tremendous increase in private philanthropy and individual giving,” said Marsicano, “Corporations continued to give generously, but corporate executives began to wane in initiation of civic affairs. In their place, we saw individuals of means begin to both create new foundations, expand charitable giving through existing foundations, and put forth meaningful solutions to civic challenges.”

Marsicano cited the example of The Leon Levine Foundation, who responded to the unprecedented need in the winter of 2008/2009 for food, shelter and clothing by issuing a challenge grant to the community in its initial $1 million support of the Critical Need Response fund. The fund was administered jointly by the FFTC and United Way of Central Carolinas.

According to the Foundation, the CNR fund received donations of $2.7 million in its first year of operation and $3.9 million in its second year, for a total of more than $6.6 million. All monies collected were distributed to the community through nonprofit agencies that provide families and individuals in need with emergency assistance.

The Foundation has also evolved over time in playing a larger role as a community catalyst and civic leader. In 2008 they established the Center for Civic Leadership (recently named the Robinson Center for Civic Leadership) as they looked to broaden their role as a coalition builder and committed partner in addressing community wide issues and challenges.

Marsicano has some very clear philosophies regarding community engagement, true collaboration (the Carolina Thread Trail project involved no less than 75 different municipalities over the 1500 miles of publically accessible greenway under construction), sharing of ideas and problem solving as opposed to simply serving as an underwriter and distributing funds to agencies and causes. These involve research, education and aggregation of learning across organizations and institutions.

Always in tune with the latest research in philanthropy, The Foundation noted trends at play with donor demographics – notably between older baby boomers that are more likely to give to institutions and the subsequent generation of younger Gen X and Y donors who are more likely to be cause inspired. These trends have given way to different approaches requiring organizations such as the Foundation to be not only responsive, but proactive in the way they approach potential donors.

Crowd source funding tools – micro-donation web/based programs that target individual donors, such as the Arts & Science Council’s Power2Give, can be effective ways to directly engage donors according to Marscicano.

Carol Hardison, CEO of Charlotte’s Crisis Assistance Ministry spoke about the Foundation’s extensive research capabilities and how their work in establishing the Community Catalyst Fund in 2009,  a special fund created to make grants that foster efficiency, effectiveness and innovation, has dramatically impacted the way her agency views its relationship with partner agencies. Last year, Crisis Assistance Ministry received a $100,000 grant to establish a free community furniture bank, acquire new warehouse space, and develop a distribution plan with partner agencies.

“The Foundation Community Catalyst fund plays the role of strengthening agencies in the context of solving community-wide problems,” said Hardison. “They did an enormous amount of research in looking across the region’s nonprofits, identifying high priority need areas and obstacles and challenges agencies face. I see them as partners and [advisors]; they really are invested in us and work with us through their guidance and resources to help us see how we can best leverage our efforts.”

The Foundation’s grant has allowed Crisis Assistance Ministry to proactively seek input from partner agencies and learn, for example, of the difficulties in more quickly moving those in poverty out of assistance situations. Hardison indicated that considerable progress has been made in streamlining the process and evaluating all the requirements of moving out from under homelessness.

Connecting the tables

In Charlotte, public/private partnerships and collaboration on large scale charitable projects are more the norm than the exception.

“There was a time in the past where we had one big philanthropic table in Charlotte, and as the community grew,” said Marsicano, “the table got bigger. The growth has been so comprehensive of late and the interests and needs so diverse, that today smaller ‘tables’ are being established. I see the Foundation’s role as helping connect those in the philanthropic community and leveraging the vast knowledge and diversity of expertise we have in getting things done.”

He cites the facilitative role the Foundation played with Project L.I.F.T., a community wide effort to support primary education and raise graduation rates within underperforming schools, as an example of making connections and taking advantage of the Foundation at its best, organizing collaborative efforts. The project involves public, private and corporate partnerships and crosses many lines.

The roots of the program grew from the initiative and efforts of a Charlotte based family foundation. According to Anna Spangler Nelson, The C.D. Spangler Foundation’s grants and investments in children from Charlotte’s west side from birth through college garnered a great deal of attention from other foundations.

There was so much interest (including prominent involvement of the Leon Levine Foundation) a CMS Investment Study group was organized through the FFTC. According to Nelson, the committee was made up of 13 members representing the different foundations and community leaders passionate about education.  Project L.I.F.T. (Leadership and Investment for Transformation) was launched in 2011 and just this summer reached its $55 million fundraising goal.

Monies will go to increasing the amount of dollars spent per student per year in the targeted schools by 15% through enhancing technology in the classroom, recruiting, training and retaining the best teachers and administrators available, engaging community and parental support, and extending the school year.

Unique circumstances require unique action

The breadth of projects that the Foundation has been involved in has at times found Marsicano and the Foundation in some unique circumstances.

Their bid to restore the dormant Carolina Theatre in a purchase deal for $1 was approved by Charlotte City Council in early December. Plans for the space include an office building and a non-profit hub, in addition to restoration of the theater.

Are Marsicano and the Foundation overstepping their reach or becoming a real-estate development firm?

“Flatly, no,” said Marsicano. “The likelihood of our involvement with this space had it not been contiguous to our property was not very great.  But being next door, seeing the huge success of user volume of this building helps us see some very real possibilities.”

“Recently the city hosted 17 different neighborhood associations in our facility to discuss neighborhood issues – the neighborhoods each used different conference rooms,” continued Marsicano. “Wouldn’t it have been wonderful if all the associations could meet with not just their boards, but neighbors as well in a 1200 seat auditorium and be part of a larger discussion? These things can happen, though they require a true theatrical space. There are many applications for the space that make sense for us.”

“Foundation For The Carolinas will find a developer and project manager; we are not going into the real estate development business,” he added.

Wealth transfer, estate giving

What’s next for Marsicano and the Foundation?

“I love what I do,” said Marsicano, 56. “I hope to have many years left in my role. What’s next here is our greatest work perhaps and work I may not see fully realized. We are working very hard with the philanthropic community on wealth transfer and estate giving. In the next 10 years, many of our families of great means will be in the position of planning their estates, which becomes very important to our community.”

“70% of individuals who make charitable contributions through their estate plan do so because they are asked by nonprofits. We need to ask. A lot of what is going to take place over the next several years is having the series of discussions that focus here,” noted Marsicano. “Houses of worship and universities have extensive infrastructures to do this, it is increasingly more important for community foundations to make certain that community needs are known and get appropriate funding.”

As the Charlotte community continues to grow, it’s comforting to know the track record for successful community development and impactful giving is in strong hands with Foundation For The Carolinas.

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