For the past twenty-five years the Maine Community Foundation has been connecting generous Mainers with people in need.
For many kids growing up in Portland’s Kennedy Park, the simple act of owning a bicycle used to be an unattainable dream. Not many in the low-income housing project could afford one. Four years ago, however, Matt Velguth opened the Bike Shop, a nonprofit that sells bikes for as little as five dollars. Parts can be had for a single buck. The money goes into a kitty. Kids who are registered with the club get the money back to spend on guided rides ranging from around the city to fifty miles beyond. No bike? No problem. The Bike Shop also maintains a supply of loaners.
Over the past few years Velguth’s startup has received significant community support, including some $15,000 from the Maine Community Foundation. “They are a strong piece of what we are doing,” Velguth says, noting that roughly five hundred kids, most from low-income households, participated in the club last year. “Things like this need to be supported. It doesn’t just happen.”
Since 1983 the Maine Community Foundation has been making it happen for more than 4,200 Maine nonprofits. With $245 million in assets, the foundation last year gave $16 million to 2,067 recipients. By comparison, the state’s second-largest local fund, the private Libra Foundation, doled out $11.5 million to just thirty-four organizations. But unlike a private family charity in which money comes from a single source, a community foundation is considered a public charity because its funds come from a large pool of donors within a narrow geographical range to support a wide set of interests.
“We say donors give through the Maine Community Foundation, not to the Maine Community Foundation,” remarks outgoing president Hank Schmelzer, who retired from a financial services career in Boston nine years ago to head the foundation, one of just eight statewide community foundations in the country. “We are a public charity created by people setting up funds with us that we manage.”
Imagine a matchmaking service. Only instead of connecting singles, the Maine Community Foundation connects people with money to groups who need it. Contributors specify how their capital is to be used — whether to create a new fund or boost an existing one — and the foundation oversees the gifts, letting donors avoid the administrative and legal costs of going it alone. Take Lee Patterson, past president of the Gilbert & Sullivan Society of Hancock County, who’d tucked away a tidy $12,000 and wanted to provide classical voice training for would-be performers. Eight years ago, he set up a scholarship through the Maine Community Foundation.
“Others have given to [the scholarship], and it has grown over the years — with good shepherding from the community foundation — to $25,000,” remarks Patterson, who helps award up to one thousand dollars in scholarships each year. “It is very satisfying to me, and it helps us add people to the chorus.”
The idea is catching on. Celebrating its twenty-fifth year, the foundation now administers more than one thousand funds and scholarships, each as unique as the interests of their donors. Schmelzer recalls a publishing heiress who was not generally known to be wealthy until she died and the foundation revealed she’d given a cool thirty million dollars to promote animal welfare and social justice, among other concerns. But gifts come in all sizes.
“Philanthropy can be so personal,” says Meredith Jones, vice president of program development and grantmaking services at the Maine Community Foundation. “My mother, who is ninety-two, set up a fund four years ago to cover the healthcare needs of people who live in Eastport after a man who used to work for her got sick and committed suicide because he didn’t have enough money for his medicine. When she dies, memorial contributions will go to that fund.”
The Maine Community Foundation has offices in Ellsworth, Portland, and Augusta and stays informed through travel, a vast network of volunteers, and regional committees. Last fall, the board identified four top priorities: increasing the number of adults with college degrees, protecting the Maine environment, engaging the state’s aging population, and developing the economy through historic preservation and sustainable agriculture.
“These aren’t necessarily unique to Maine,” says Schmelzer, who is retiring this winter. “But they may be a little more of an issue for us than for other states.”
Compared to our New England neighbors, Maine has the lowest percentage of adults with secondary degrees, Schmelzer explains. Its population is the oldest in the nation. The people who live here tend to place a high value on the environment, and while the state has vast open spaces, much of the 1.2 million acres of farmland is threatened by development.
That last threat was the issue that concerned the one remaining brother and three sisters at the country’s last Shaker village, Sabbathday Lake, in New Gloucester. Located on 1,700 acres between two of the state’s largest cities — Portland and Lewiston — the historic Christian community was facing increasing pressure from nearby developers. As a result, the Shakers formed a public/private partnership and raised more than three million dollars — including five hundred thousand dollars from the Maine Community Foundation — to protect their land and buildings through conservation and preservation easements. Without that gift, raising the money would have been “exceptionally challenging,” declares Leonard Brooks, director of the Shaker Museum and Library.
“They don’t always say, ‘Yes,’ ” Brooks acknowledges, noting that the foundation has contributed to the village in other ways as well, such as providing money for events and exhibitions. “Sometimes it’s, ‘No.’ Sometimes it’s, ‘Wait.’ But it’s very helpful, the welcome the Maine Community Foundation gives to organizations like us.”
That welcome began in 1983 with a ten-dollar check from Robert Blum, a retired business executive and civic leader, who most notably helped develop the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts and was the long-term director and vice-president of the Federated Department Stores in New York. Blum, who summered on Mount Desert Island, saw the lack of financial resources in rural Maine and helped establish the Maine Community Foundation by rounding up local friends to get it rolling.
“It’s blossomed into this family of donors doing all this great work,” Jones says.
Kicking back in her Augusta office, which the foundation opened this year, it’s clear Jones enjoys her work. The petite, silver haired, former campaign fund-raiser for gubernatorial candidate Robert Woodbury can’t talk about the organization without occasionally interrupting herself to say, “Isn’t this great? Aren’t I lucky? Do you see why I like this job?”
“It’s not just one donor’s vision,” Jones says, confessing how much fun it is to give away money. “You get to hear from all these people. You learn from them.”
Since its inception, the Maine Community Foundation has focused on making small grants in rural areas. To keep abreast of regional issues, it oversees twelve county funds, through which eleven local committees raise money for local interests. In addition to hundreds of individual scholarships, the Maine Community Foundation oversees sixteen competitive funds. Literally hundreds of Maine volunteers decide who gets the money. Each fund has its own local committee, which selects individual grant recipients based on these common criteria: building leadership, strengthening community, the active participation of benefactors, community collaboration, and proposals that will live beyond the life of the grant.
“They gave us our first grant to buy some steel pans,” says Mary Laury, executive director of Schoodic Arts For All, a nonprofit art and performance center in Winter Harbor, a tiny town of 550 people on the Schoodic peninsula in Hancock County. “We wrote a grant and got four thousand dollars for four pans to start a steel pan band. But, we instantly had a waiting list. The teenagers wanted a band, too. So the next year we bought more. Then the little kids wanted a band. So, now we have three steel pan bands. Three!”
The foundation supports nonprofits in less tangible ways as well. When the Washburn-Norlands Living History Center, a historic homestead in Livermore Falls, faced a financial crisis and was forced to cut its staff and rely on volunteers, it lacked even a basic database of names. The amount it received from the Androscoggin County Fund wasn’t much — just $1,400 — but it was enough to develop a training program and track volunteers.
“We have close to fifty-five volunteers who donated over three thousand hours last year,” says Nancey Drinkwine, the volunteer coordinator and one of only two remaining paid staff members at the center. “Now when anybody comes in, we automatically get a name and number, and we let them know we appreciate them.”
But tough financial times are rough on donors as well. Even philanthropists do a little belt tightening, Jones admits, and donations coming into the foundation have dropped this year. Despite that decrease, grants going out remain the same. Not long ago, the foundation gave $250,000 to an eastern Maine collaborative to address the burgeoning home-heating crisis. Local residents then doubled the award with matching gifts.
“The good news is, we are one large community,” Jones says. “All the people who can help are taking care of those who can’t. We alone can’t make a difference. But we can say, ‘Hey, Maine: Pay attention.’ So people understand philanthropy isn’t just for rich people. It’s for all of us to give back in some way — to repay the community of Maine for those gifts that have been made to us.”
- By: Meadow Rue Merrill