Wichita Community Foundation to narrow focus of giving

01/05/2014 7:00 AM

08/06/2014 9:22 AM

Two years ago, the Wichita Community Foundation put a lid on one of its buckets of money that had doled out $250,000 to $300,000 a year to multiple good causes in Wichita.

It has been letting that fund grow – to $600,000 so far. Sometime this year, no later than August, it plans to aim the money at some big project, probably from the topic area of education.

Board members have not chosen the project yet. But what they decided was that giving out $74 million to a lot of philanthropic causes since 1986 wasn’t good enough anymore.

They wanted more focus.

But this means change. And that means some people they helped before won’t necessarily get that help now.

Leave no one behind

Deann Smith directs United Methodist Open Door, a charitable nonprofit that has benefited from the Community Foundation in the past, but not recently.

She admires what they’ve done.

But what makes her proud to go to work, she said, is that her nonprofit unabashedly takes care of some of Wichita’s more vulnerable and sometimes least popular people. Open Door gives food, clothing and shelter to the homeless, to struggling families, to seemingly lost souls, including some who suffer from mental illnesses and addictions.

Nonprofits struggle to get money these days, though she says the United Way does a good job. She likes how the Community Foundation is trying to evolve. She knows it is still donating a lot of money from funds other than the unrestricted funds bucket.

So she doesn’t have a criticism, but rather a desire to make a larger point:

Change should not leave anyone behind.

‘Where might we go?’

Two years ago, Brian Black said, Community Foundation board members like him asked some of their original founders: Are we doing all right?

“We got a resounding no,” said Black, a manager at Spirit AeroSystems. “It surprised us.”

The Community Foundation was founded in 1986 by Dick DeVore and others. Since then, $74 million has been handed out to hundreds of philanthropic efforts.

It still grew its founding principal from $735,000 in 1986 to $52 million two years ago.

“In dollars given, we could list a big number,” said Sharol Rasberry, another board member. “But … where have we been? Where might we go?”

One of those long-time Community Foundation people was Mary Lynn Oliver, daughter of the Beech Aircraft founders. Oliver did much to grow the group’s funds and impact.

“We had all these projects we funded with $5,000 here and $10,000 there, and I hope there will always be a place for that kind of giving,” Oliver said. “But it was a question of whether we were having enough of an impact.”

Oliver said she raised the question of whether they could find one thing to focus on.

So two years ago, they made two decisions.

A ‘transformational leader’

The first, Black said, was to hire a new president, Shelly Prichard, who used to work for the Girl Scouts and for Koch Industries.

Prichard doesn’t mind saying that certain Koch libertarian principles rubbed off, including how free market dynamics work, and how turning business practices on their heads can lead to better ideas.

Black took the lead in recruiting her because he had heard enough to decide she was, as he put it, “a transformational leader.” They told her to grow their pot of money from $52 million to $100 million by 2020.

In two years since then, board members said, she grew it by $9 million, to $61 million.

The other decision was to put that lid on their bucket of unrestricted funds, and grow it.

“People would apply for operational grants from us and use them to pay for part of their payroll, or to buy computers,” Prichard said. “And that’s not our model anymore.”

That unrestricted funds bucket has accumulated $600,000 in two years. Now, instead of sprinkling it onto a number of smaller efforts, they plan to aim it at one thing.

But the risk, they acknowledge, is that by making this change, some of Wichita’s vulnerable nonprofits might lose lifelines, when every lifeline helps.

There will still be a lot of giving to smaller projects, Prichard said. The unrestricted funds bucket is one of only three the Community Foundation draws from to provide philanthropy.

The scholarship bucket will continue to hand out 20 scholarships a year and make other donations.

And the donor bucket, filled by 300 regular Community Foundation donors, will keep handing out $3.7 million a year to the projects dear to each donor.

But board members acknowledge some Wichita projects won’t get money as in the past. And they are searching for the big new thing.

“Figuring this out is a little scary,” Oliver said. “What if we don’t do this right?”

Emergency fund

Foundation members know that some vulnerable people who were helped before will lose that help. And they will lose it at a time when it’s much harder for nonprofit agencies to win support.

“It’s a lot harder to raise money,” said Smith, the Open Door director. Before 2001, she said, nonprofits like hers could raise money “by going to businesses and telling the story about the good we do.”

“Now we have to tell the story of our business plan.”

Prichard and board members acknowledge that some groups that received money from the Community Foundation’s extensive portfolio of giving won’t get it for the foreseeable future – at least not from the unrestricted fund.

But there is a fund now for community emergencies.

Wendy Glick, development director for Catholic Charities, said the Community Foundation showed up soon after the St. Anthony Family Shelter lost all its milk, meat and perishable food months ago when parts of the city suffered a power outage in a storm. It restored the shelter’s food supply with a $1,500 check.

Prichard agreed that giving has changed. Donors used to write checks and seem satisfied to leave it at that.

Now, donors even of small amounts, seem to want instant results.

“They will give me a check for $2,500 and then tell me that they want ‘systemic change,’ ” she said. “I sometimes want to tell them, ‘Give me three more zeroes on this check, and I’ll give you systemic change.’ ”

No ‘magic bullet’

The Community Foundation hasn’t picked a project approach yet. The board will identify it probably by August, Prichard said.

She wants it to have what she calls “a multiplier,” an engine inside the idea that leverages more good than mere money would produce.

There’s a model for that in Wichita already, she said: What philanthropist Barry Downing did when he created three early-education schools targeting mostly poor children 12 years ago.

On the surface, Prichard said, the Opportunity Project helps poor kids. But she has talked with Downing and knows that the multiplier he deliberately created was that downstream from the schools, we would eventually have fewer crimes and fewer dollars spent on prisons. That’s a model she hopes to imitate.

The target idea will probably focus on some form of education, board members said, which might involve workforce training.

“It seems strange to me that Wichita has always had this wonderful record of quality workmanship – and that we’ve lost some of that,” Oliver said.

“We know we can’t create a magic bullet. But if we could find jobs for people – everything good comes from that. Jobs. Security. And the thought that tomorrow might be better than today.”

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