Two decades ago, two men transplanted into critical leadership roles in the Columbus area took stock of their new home and noticed that there was a void in a philanthropic community that was driving change in the arts, education and downtown communities. There were givers, large and small, but there was no community foundation to pool those funds.
John Greenman, then the publisher of the Ledger-Enquirer, and Jack Goldfrank, the head of the Mead Coated Board Division that was then headquartered in Phenix City, were from Ohio. There were community foundations in Dayton and Akron, where the two men came from.
Simply defined, a community foundation is a tax exempt, nonprofit, publicly supported philanthropic organization with the long-term goal of building permanent, named funds, for the broad-based public benefit of the residents in a given area.
“Why not here?”
That’s the question Greenman and Goldfrank asked. Others in the community, most notably estate attorneys Alan Rothschild Sr. and his son, Alan Jr., and Chattahoochee Valley Fair board member Lovick Corn were already exploring the such a philanthropic arm.
Last week, the Community Foundation of the Chattahoochee Valley celebrated 20 years of giving. It started with $800,000 in cash, $1.7 million in endowments and 14 donors.
Today, there are 300 funds under the Community Foundation of the Chattahoochee Valley umbrella. The organization, under the leadership of President and CEO Betsy Covington, has $170 million in assets and has awarded $155 million in grants across the broader Columbus region.
That is a compounded annual growth rate of more than 29 percent.
Greenman and Goldfrank did not do this alone, but they asked the right question and the community answered it in the right way. It should also be noted that both men retired in Columbus.
Tuesday, the Community Foundation gathered its stakeholders, those who have helped along the way and key nonprofit and community leaders to celebrate.
But it wasn’t a party, it was a call to action. And the man making the call was another out-of-towner. David I. Dodson, president of MDC, a North Carolina-based nonprofit that is deeply rooted in the South and committed to finding solutions to issues with generational poverty and lack of educational and upward-mobility opportunities.
It was clear Dodson was preaching to the choir; he even noted that. Like any good preacher, and Dodson holds a master’s in Divinity from Yale University, he set the table with a question.
“How many of you believe that where a person starts in life should not determine where they end up?”
If we answer that question honestly, we all believe that we should rise or fall on our own merits. That’s the core of the American Dream. But guess which part of America has the most people stuck where they start? It’s the South, it’s Georgia, Alabama and the Carolinas.
There are five primary factors that people in this part of the country have less of a chance to move up in the economy and enhance their quality of life, Dodson said.
▪ Residential segregation.
▪ Income quality.
▪ Local school quality.
▪ Family structure.
▪ Social capital.
The first four made perfect sense, but the fifth one was more perplexing. Then Dodson asked a simple question that brought it into perfect focus.
“Who got their first job because of somebody you or your family knew?” he asked.
A lot of hands in the room shot up.
Dodson divided Columbus into five income levels. There is a 69 percent chance that someone born into the lowest income level will remain in the bottom two levels their entire life. There is a 19 percent chance they will get to the third level, an 8 percent chance they make it to the fourth level and a 3 percent chance they make it to the top level, according to Dodson’s statistics.
The reason Dodson was in Columbus was to get those who are already making a difference with their generosity and their efforts to think about giving in a different way.
Paul Ylvisaker first coined the phrase “passing gear” philanthropy in his 1989 essay, “Small Can Be Effective.”
“Social action is usually a slow process,” wrote Ylvisaker, an educator and urban planner from Cambridge, Mass. “Foundations by stepping in can speed up the process, acting as ‘society’s passing gear.’ ”
“We need more and different philanthropy to address the South’s adaptive challenges,” Dodson said.
With those resources, the focus needs to be on the youth and young adults in the lowest income brackets. Those are the people most vulnerable in today’s society and who get stuck in generational poverty.
Interestingly enough, a Superior Court judge who was in the audience was asked what he thought about the presentation.
“By the time they get to me, it’s too late,” he said.
That is what has to be figured out. How does this community get people into a job with a living wage and a chance to break the bonds of generational poverty before they get in front of a judge who is going to send them to prison?
Seems like the questions just keep getting harder, doesn’t it? But we’ve got to ask them.