Every now and then the Berks County Community Foundation team takes a day to get out of the office and see our community in action. In July, we scheduled “Environment Day.”
We visited three organizations that highlighted different aspects of our environmental work: Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, Rodale Institute, and Cougle's Recycling.
It was a stunning day to visit Hawk Mountain Sanctuary and learn about their work. The Community Foundation has supported Hawk Mountain in various ways over the years, including providing funds to develop a plan to preserve their “view shed” (essentially, to preserve the views from Hawk Mountain by buying easements or land) that they and the Berks County Conservancy have worked together to implement.
We had a great visit with Dr. Keith Bildstein, who heads raptor research at Hawk Mountain and with Jeremy Scheivert, one of their educators. The visit allowed us to see both sides of Hawk Mountain’s mission: research and education. While the sanctuary sits at the very fringe of Berks County, we can all be proud to be home to one of the world’s leading raptor research facilities.
At the cutting edge of an entirely different aspect of our environmental grantmaking is Rodale Institute, one of the leading centers for organic agriculture research in the nation. Our tour there reminded us of what we learned from our 2005 study on the future of agriculture in the community: Organic farming represents one of the few viable alternatives for Berks County farmers seeking to maintain their farms.
Recently, the Community Foundation approved a grant from our Metropolitan Edison Company Sustainable Energy Fund to fund the installation of solar panels on Rodale Institute's new visitor rest rooms, which will take that building completely “off the grid.”
Our final stop (pictured) was Cougle’s Recycling in Hamburg. A local, family owned business, Cougle’s is a leader in the recycling movement in Berks County. Inside our building we’re fanatics about recycling. Bob Cougle showed us his (most impressive) operation and discussed how we could do even better. As a result, we’re switching the way we do recycling and will start working with Cougle’s more closely. We think we can make even bigger cuts in the amount of trash headed to landfills.
We learned a lot about recycling. While we’re doing better in Berks County, there’s a LOT of room for improvement. We’ll be talking more about that in the future.
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The Greater Reading Film Commission is a volunteer group associated with the Greater Reading Convention and Visitors Bureau. They’ve been working to attract film makers to our community as an economic development boost for the region.
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New grantees are often surprised by the questions that the Community Foundation team ask when we’re considering a grant to support their work. We typically look hard at the management and operations of the organization before we make an investment.
Tony Proscio, one of the most thoughtful voices in philanthropy, has often said that the fundamental question in grantmaking is “who is doing what to who and how much will it cost?” A light approach, perhaps, but not a bad summary.
We look a lot at the “who’s doing what” part of Tony’s question as part of our analysis. Very few of the ideas presented to us aren’t good ideas. In fact, I can only remember one grant proposal in the past seventeen years that I would call a truly, epically bad idea (no—I won’t tell you what it was).
It’s important to understand that we don’t view grants from the Community Foundation as gifts—we view them as investments. And like any investor, we’re trying to evaluate the degree of risk involved in an investment and what its potential return is. Unlike most investors, we’re not usually looking for money as a return on our investment—we’re looking for an improvement in the community.
We know from experience that the highest risk of failure comes from an inability of the organization itself to execute the grant. Now, organizations aren’t fond of hearing this. Most are eager to believe that they’re well managed and don’t bite off more than they can chew. And that’s probably right for most organizations. But that doesn’t mean we aren’t going to satisfy ourselves.
We look at the governance practices of the organization. We’ve seldom seen organizations with poor governance practices consistently deliver outstanding results. So one of the first things we look for is the governance of the organization. We have certain minimum standards (the presence of term limits for most organizations; some specific requirements regarding audits, etc.)
We often try to get to know the management of the organization and take a look at their financial picture. We’re trying to answer the question: “If we invest ‘X’ with this group, will they be able to do ‘Y’?” Issues like management and financial stability are really important as we make these decisions. Frequent management turnover raises concerns, while a track record of accomplishments can provide reassurance.
If you weren’t in our business, you might assume that the larger “name brand” organizations in the community are pretty consistently well run, with solid financials and a solid track record of results. Conversely, you might assume that the majority of problems we encounter are with smaller organizations.
The truth is that we find the ability to invest with confidence among all kinds of organizations, both large and small. In part, it corresponds to the size of the investment we’re considering. But in the nonprofit sector, we see small, really well run organizations with extraordinary track records. And some of the organizations we have the least confidence in are among those “name brand” organizations (no, I won’t tell you who they are either).
Sometimes, in doing these analyses organizations think we’re meddling in their business. We don’t think of it that way. We look at ourselves as investors trying to minimize the risk that our investment won’t yield results. We’re pretty careful not to tell organizations how they have to run themselves (we have no right to do that anyway).
Berks County Community Foundation is entrusted with makingwhat we see as important decisions about how and where to invest very limited community resources to make our region a better place. Like any investor, we want to do everything reasonably possible to make sure that our investment yields the best return that we can for the community.
That’s why we ask a lot about “who’s doing what…..” in addition to the rest of Tony’s question.
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From time to time, I try to post "good philanthropic ideas" that we have had, but haven't had the resources or the time to pursue. Or maybe they just need a local philanthropist to step forward to make happen.
Perhaps someone will ﬁnd this to be an interesting idea, we'd be happy to help somebody pursue it.
In June, Berks County Community Foundation, in partnership with the Reading Eagle Company once again presented the "Best of Berks" Scholarships. These awards recognize students who have excelled in our high schools off the playing ﬁelds. In areas as diverse as business and foreign languages, we give scholarships to recognize students who truly represent the best we have to offer for the future.
As the Reading Eagle noted in its editorial "It's encouraging when you are in a room with more than 100 young people who give the rest of us in this world so much hope.”
This year we were delighted to award the Taylor Seitzinger Best of Berks Award for Community Involvement. The story of Kellsey Turner reminds us that our next generation is an endless source of hope and inspiration. We're able to support this award because the family of Taylor Seitzinger generously endowed the fund in memory of their daughter, whose life was tragically cut short before she could realize her full potential.
I serve as a judge in the business category. I'm sure I can speak for my long time co-judges Bob Wert of Wells Fargo Securities and Ellen Horan of the Greater Reading Chamber of Commerce when I say our annual response to the students we interview is: "Wow!" We are always incredibly impressed with the dedication of these students, with the hours they put into their studies and the community and their commitment to having an impact in the world.
The "Best of Berks" program is currently dependent entirely on the ability of the Reading Eagle Company and Berks County Community Foundation to fund it. But what a wonderful thing if each of these awards were endowed in perpetuity.
This would allow us to know that we could always annually recognize our most outstanding students with scholarship funds that allow them to pursue further education.
We'd be happy to talk with anyone interested in creating permanent endowments for one or more categories (what a great way to recognize an outstanding teacher in your life!).
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When people meet the Community Foundation staff, the most often asked question I get is: Where are the rest of them? It’s hard for people to believe that eight or nine people are responsible for managing an organization that has so much impact in the community.
It was a rare moment at our scholarship luncheon that all the paid staff (we were missing Karen Miller, our volunteer Senior Fellow) was in one spot, and we were able to capture a photo.
So how is it that this small group accomplishes so much while our peers in the community often have much larger teams?
Well, there’s a lot of longevity on the team. The newest member of our team, Sarah MacAusland will be welcoming her third class of Youth Advisory Committee members this fall. And Leta Doganes has been with us since 1997. On average, the members of the team you see have been with the Community Foundation for 10 years.
That’s a lot of experience. These folks know what they’re doing and that makes them much more effective at their jobs.
They’re also incredibly dedicated. For the members of this team, the Community Foundation’s mission of promoting philanthropy and improving the quality of life for the residents of Berks County represents a way of life. I’ve seen our team working on weekends or late at night “just because it needs to get done.”
When an event like the Gilmore Henne Fund Rally for Recreation occurs everyone who’s available (ironically, I was out of town) is there pitching in, regardless of their job description. That helps make it appear that there’s a much larger group behind all of this work.
Our team’s accomplishments haven’t gone unrecognized. Almost daily we get requests from other community foundations around the country for advice or assistance. Our team is well known in national circles and many of the members have played key roles in the national community foundation network.
I’m proud of the team at Berks County Community Foundation and their dedication to the work we do. But more importantly, we should all be proud of them.
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In a few weeks, I’ll be participating in another organization’s strategic planning retreat. I’ve never kept track of how many of these I’ve participated in, but it would be in the hundreds.
Someone once criticized that as being “vague.” My response “darn right.” At Berks County Community Foundation, we want to make sure our mission is a touchstone, not a weight around our neck.
The question that too few organizations wrestle is Peter Drucker’s immortal question “what business are you in?”
It’s a far more important question and the answers aren’t always obvious.
Bob Metzgar, the former director of the Reading Public Museum once said to me “we (the Reading Public Museum) are in the family entertainment business. We have to compete with Disney.” Made a lot of sense, but I had certainly never thought about it that way.
So is a symphony orchestra in the classical music business or is it in the education business. Or, like the museum, is it in the entertainment business?
Is a Boys and Girls Club in the fitness business? The education business?
What business (or businesses) is a research university in?
The clearest example of the distinction between mission and business is the Girl Scouts. When my wife worked there, she certainly wouldn’t say that the mission of the Girls Scouts was to “sell cookies.” Obviously. The mission of the Girl Scouts reads: “Girl Scouting builds girls of courage, confidence, and character, who make the world a better place.”
But they’re clearly in the business of selling cookies. That’s the business that allows them to pursue their mission. And it’s where they get about 70% of their income.
At Berks County Community Foundation we know we’re in the charitable trust business. We know who our competitors are, we know what’s happening in the industry and we’re able to make reasonable business decisions. And being in that business allows us to both promote philanthropy and improve the quality of life for the residents of Berks County.
And that’s the test for what businesses nonprofit organizations get into.
We think the right question to ask in the public benefit sector is “what business (or businesses) should we be in to advance our mission?”
The first test obviously is that the business shouldn’t undermine the mission. It would make little sense for an environmental organization—for instance—to get into the business of selling bottled water. I’d hate to see a hospital selling cigarettes at their gift shop.
It makes sense to ask: Are competent in that business? After all, if the organization can’t do it, it doesn’t advance our mission. About every six months, for example, someone suggests that the Community Foundation get into the business of providing back office services for other public benefit organizations. We don’t think we’d be really good at that business. We do a good job of running the back office for our trust business (outsourcing as much as possible, by the way) but don’t know much about how to run day care centers, arts organizations or land trusts.
Finally, how aligned is this business to our mission? Sometimes there is brilliant, crystalline alignment. I’m always impressed at how Goodwill Industries, Threshold Rehabilitation Services and Prospectus Berco are able to build businesses that, by employing their clients, are directly able to support their efforts to encourage independence among people with disabilities.
Since the beginning of the recession, we’ve been asked to help a number of organizations think about how they’ll survive (literally survive) in the new economic conditions that they face. We’ve urged them to really think about Peter Drucker’s question and what it means.
I fear that some important organizations are spending too much time on worrying about their missions, and not enough about their businesses. When the mission becomes an anchor that keeps an organization from innovating and testing new directions, organizational death is not far away.
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We’ve been in our building about 18 months now. Many of you will remember that the Community Foundation’s headquarters is the first green building in Reading and achieved the highest level of certification available to green buildings—the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED Platinum rating.
We promised to share information with the community on how the building is performing compared to a standard construction building. This is our first report.
So, how’s it doing?
At this point, we have positive signs, but haven’t reached optimal building performance. This is not a huge surprise; however, we’re working on ways to improve our numbers.
The two key building targets we can objectively measure are energy usage and water usage.
Our stated goal in water usage was to draw 85% less from the city water system than a standard office building. To do this, we capture the storm water from the roof to flush toilets, which is the largest use of water in an office building. Using storm water to supplement our usage is working well. Our monthly water usage bill runs under $4.00. Low flow filters on sinks help and the cistern has generally worked well for us.
When I say “generally” I mean that we once accidentally drained it. Pushed the wrong button and pumped all the water out. No harm—in this spring’s weather it refilled in about two days. But human error has to be factored into building performance as well.
Energy usage is a different matter.
When a building like ours is designed, the engineers create an “energy model.” This complex process estimates how much energy the building will use based on how many people it houses, what they do, building size, windows placement ….there are hundreds of variables. Put together, the variables provide an estimate for energy use.
Now that we’re settled into the building and have most of the kinks worked out, we’ve started to look at energy use against the model. An acceptable range of performance is between 70% and 150% of the model. The reason for the range is that the model represents a series of “best guesses” and you don’t really know how the building will be used until you start to use it. Right now, though, our usage is at 170% of the model’s projections..
The primary culprit for the overage is electricity. We’re looking into it, and have some data from Met Ed that shows unusual spikes in usage.
First, our engineers are working with Met Ed to confirm the usage numbers. We want to make sure there isn’t an energy “leak” somewhere, because the numbers look a little off to the design team. We have internal monitors and our numbers for usage don’t match MetEd’s—which makes us a little suspicious that we’re missing something.
We’re also replacing the coils in our cooling units. These units never worked correctly and we think that they may be running more than they need to. Our theory is that getting the proper size coils in place will lower the overall usage from these units (which are the biggest energy consumers we have).
We’re also looking at lighting. We have occupancy sensors that automatically turn the lights on when someone enters a space and automatically turns them off if there is no motion for 20 minutes. To avoid excessive cycling, we had to teach ourselves NOT to turn the lights out when we left the room.
Because of the sometimes frenetic pace at the Community Foundation – where we pop into a space for a brief period and then leave - the lights are on more than they need to be. We’re evaluating the option of switching to “vacancy” sensors. This would require users to actively turn on a light when entering a room, but would still turn the lights off when there was no motion in the room for some period of time.
We’re also looking at whether we need all of the active lighting that we have in some areas. In at least one staircase, we think we could take out some of the lights and still have more than adequate lighting.
Finally, we want to look at our computers. Like any business, we use a lot of computers. Even at idle, a standard desktop computer uses between 55 and 120 kwh. With all of our computers and servers, that adds up over time. As part of an upcoming technology review, we’ll look at whether we can limit the number of hours the computers are running (right now, we leave them on 24/7 to gain remote access) and whether there are other things that we can do to save energy.
There are a couple of lessons we’ve learned from all of this.
First, even high performance buildings don’t perform at their peak right out of the box. It takes tweaking to get them to their maximum performance.
Second, buildings require active management just like the people inside them. By monitoring our success, we can make changes that improve performance.
We’ll continue to report on what works (and what doesn’t) as we monitor and manage the performance of the building. It’s important to us that the community learn from its first green building, so that we can all make Berks County a more economically and environmentally vibrant community.
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Like any business, Berks County Community Foundation has to plan—and plan for a new environment. The community that we serve is changing, the economic situation that we confront has changed in significant ways, and the business that we work in is in flux. In short, we’re just like any business.
About every three years, we’ve developed a new strategic plan to guide the organization’s growth and development. With the help of Al Weber of Tweed Weber we held a board retreat last November to kick the process off. In January we held a staff retreat to fill in the blanks and throughout the process consulted with various community foundation committees.
At their June board meeting the board approved the plan and the community foundation staff is beginning the work of implementing it.
The plan is built on three key assumptions about the environment that we’re working in.
The first is that the Commonwealth’s budget situation will not improve in the short term—that is to say noticeably improve during the period covered by this plan. This has implications at several levels. Like many public benefit organizations, we received funding from various state sources. That money often helped offset the costs of leadership initiatives like the Community Health Needs Assessment . We also know that this will affect our partners in the community and limit the funds that have been available in the past for community development. In short, we just can’t count on those funds being there like they were.
The second environmental assumption that we make is that the long term return on our endowment will not match the historical returns we’ve achieved. In other words, if we maintain our current endowment management practices, market conditions will not allow us to achieve the nine percent average yield we’ve counted on in the past. This is a big issue and there’s much work to be done in quantifying our projections, which is something every public benefit organization with an endowment should be doing. This is the result of a secular, not a cyclical shift, that we believe has occurred in the economy and we will have to confront a variety of choices about how to deal with it.
Finally, we make the assumption that there will be a continued demand for leadership from the Community Foundation. Like many communities, we’re undergoing a big transition in the field of community leadership. For any community to work, there needs to be a civic counterweight to the influence of government. Whereas in the last century, that generally came from large business interests, in this century, community philanthropy is emerging as that force. In short, our plan assumes that—for the foreseeable future—we’ll be called on when there’s a threat to community libraries , when the community needs new sources of information, or to help the community understand the truth about government finances.
With those assumptions in mind, the board approved three key strategies.
First, "Provide Leadership.” This may sound like a blinding glimpse of the obvious, but it was perhaps best stated by Al Weber who said “You need to come out of the closet. You’re acting like a grantmaking organization but you want to be a leadership organization because that’s what the community needs. Admit it, own it, and work on it.” Al does not mince words.
As a practical matter, we need to (and already have) identify ways to fund leadership initiatives.Again, we can’t count on the state.We also need to identify consistent staffing and support for future initiatives like the Libraries Task Force without knowing yet what those will be. And we need to identify community partners for these efforts so we’re not working alone.
The second key strategy is to grow the Community Foundation’s capacity to provide leadership. One of the most significant resources that we have to initiate community change is our flexible grantmaking budget.That’s the money that helped initiate an historic farmland preservation effort, a Community Health Needs Assessment, or help our schools begin to teach Mandarin Chinese.
In the past, the Community Foundation has always been agnostic about restrictions, preferring instead to let donors dictate their restrictions as long as we could fulfill them. And really, we’ll still do that. What we think we need to do is to help donors understand the impact they can have with gifts that aren’t tightly restricted.We also need to develop products to facilitate that giving more easily. Most donors are looking to have the biggest impact with their gift, we need to help them understand that the less restrictive a gift is, the higher it’s prospects for creating positive change. And still, we need to respect that donors sometimes come with fully formed ideas that can also benefit the community.
Our final strategy is to focus deeply on operational efficiency and effectiveness.
Later this year, we’ll be rolling out a new way of communicating our grantmaking priorities in a way that should help our partners in the community, and the community itself see more clearly the impact that is achieved with the funds we manage.
We’re also focusing on our internal operations to make sure that we’re operating in a most cost effective manner and one that keeps us competitive in the market place. The data that we’ve been able to generate from our peers suggests that Berks County Community Foundation operates pretty efficiently (looking at administrative costs relative to the funds we manage). Still, we hope that with new technology and an even greater focus on impact, we can stretch a little more out of those donor dollars.
Because we work in a community that is constantly changing, and a business environment that his constantly changing, planning isn’t an event at Berks County Community Foundation, it’s a process. Still, our recently developed strategic plan represents the latest in a series of periodic “resets” where all assumptions are questioned, and exciting new directions forged.
Look for more!
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The most fundamental thing we do at the Community Foundation is to serve as a “guarantor of donor intent.” Donor intent is an obsession within the world of community foundations, and we’re no exception.
Understanding a community foundation’s view of donor intent is one important way to understand what drives our activity.
The fundamental proposition we make to donors is this: If you trust us with your charitable assets, we will use them as you intended, to make the impact that you intended. If that compact didn’t exist, there would be little reason for any donor to work with a community foundation. Donors, particularly those donors making endowed charitable contributions are doing so because they trust us to carry out their wishes when they no longer can (the documents we use are even called “trusts,” rather than “contracts”). The only way to assure future donors that we will maintain our faithfulness to their wishes is to meticulously do so for prior donors. To make sure that future board and staff members of Berks County Community Foundation have a clear understanding of a donor’s intent, most funds are governed by a fund agreement that includes a brief, but meticulously worded, expression of donor intent.
When Donor Intent Fails To Guide
Sometimes donor intent is expressed in clear, simple terms (such as “provide an annual grant from my fund to South Mountain YMCA”), in other cases, it requires interpretation (such as “provide grants to improve the quality of life in Boyertown”). Sometimes, particularly when a donor doesn’t work with us ahead of time, the donor intent is expressed in ways that are difficult or impossible to understand.
For a private foundation or trust (think of the Barnes Foundation) the only option is for the trustees (or the Attorney General) to declare that the restrictions unfulfillable and ask the court to repurpose the funds.
Most of the time in a community foundation, the responsibility for restating donor intent falls to the Community Foundation’s Board of Directors. Deciding when donor intent has failed and how to repurpose the funds to most closely honor is among the Board of Directors’s most seriousresponsibilities.
The classic case of the need to restate donor intent refers to community foundations that manage charitable funds restricted to the treatment or prevention of polio. In this case, science made the funds’ purpose obsolete, so it fell to the foundation board members to redirect the funds to the next closest purpose in light of the contemporary environment.
Why Donor Intent Makes Understanding Community Foundations Difficult
How is it that in the same year Berks County Community Foundation can fund both Mary’s Shelter and Planned Parenthood----both the Boy Scouts and Parents of Lesbian and Gays? The answer is simple: donor intent. Either explicitly or by interpretation, one donor created a fund that caused us to support one side of a controversial issue, while another donor caused us to support another side. This is confusing to people.
Contrast this with private foundations. The Gill Foundation, of Denver, for instance, funds only lesbian and gay causes because that was its sole donor’s intent. Therefore, the if you’re not aligned with their mission, there’s no need not apply. It’s easy to understand.
While deciphering donor intent around designated funds is usually easy, a Community Foundation’s board must also interpret the intent of donors whose restrictions are virtually non existent—donors to undesignated funds. These donors have, in effect, asked the board to use the funds in a way that expresses the contemporary viewpoint of the community. Thus, if you want to understand what the Community Foundation sees as important issues and opportunities facing the community, you need only look at how we use undesignated funds.
Donor Intent: We live it.
In general, we believe that donors write down what they mean. In selecting grants we sometimes painstakingly parse and analyze the wording of the fund agreement or other establishing documents.
We sometimes go to great pains to respect donor intent. Community Foundation staff members (and some volunteers) have literally spent dozens of hours debating the intent expressed in the words “disfigured” or “treatment” in one particularly old trust document. We’ve even had debates over which dictionary to use. To the outsider, these arguments might seem arcane, or even bizarre. For us, they’re part of making sure that we fulfill the most basic function of a community foundation: “guarantor of donor intent.”
Fulfilling donor intent is the most important function we perform, and the most important promise we make.
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The late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once famously said “Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but they are not entitled to their own facts.”
The current debate (really debates) raging over public school budgets are driven by two revenue changes: First, many districts have undoubtedly experienced some decline in property tax revenues during the recession because property owners have successfully appealed their assessments and are now paying lower taxes.
The other revenue hit that school budgets have taken is the expiration of funds from the federal stimulus package. When the recession hit and Congress appropriated money to stimulate the economy, some of that money was handed to the states to distribute to local school districts. Even though the Commonwealth lowered its general fund allocation for school districts, the net effect was to actually create a spike in the amount of money given to districts in the 2009-2010 and 2010-2011 school years.
What is not driving the school budget conversation is a reduction in what the state spends on its basic education subsidy (though we hear that a lot from folks). The budget that Governor Tom Corbett proposed actually restores the Commonwealth’s spending level to “pre-recession levels.” It’s the elimination of the federal stimulus that results in the perception that the Commonwealth is spending less.
The chart below is self explanatory, and shows that under Governor Corbett are proposed spending plan, the general fund will allocate $5.226 billion to public schools for the 2011-2012 school year, the exact amount that was budgeted for the 2008-2009 school year.
Some people are of the opinion that it’s not enough of a commitment, others think it’s too much. And that’s a useful and healthy debate.
But the hard fact is that if the Governor’s proposal is adopted, the Commonwealth will be spending more to support basic education than it has for the past two years, even if the districts receive less. That’s a fact—and we’re not entitled to our own facts.
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Berks County Community Foundation spends a fair amount of time thinking about the future of young people in the community. We’ve funded projects like BerksWorks to help connect our young people with jobs. We fund youth development programs like those provided by Olivet Boys and Girls Club . Frankly, the list goes on.
But three programs in particular have had wonderful and unpredictable results for Berks County Community Foundation this month.
Earlier this month, for the first time ever, one of our scholarship recipients joined our board of directors. Latisha Bernard Schuenemann, an associate with our good friends at the law firm of Leisawitz Heller. On her path to becoming one of Berks County’s outstanding estate planning attorneys, Latisha received a Howard Fox Memorial Law Scholarship in 2000. Latisha is in the first wave of a next generation of community leaders, formed around the Greater Reading Young Professionals and we’re all incredibly excited that she has joined our board—and thrilled that our scholarship investment paid off for the community and for us!
Another way we invest in the future of young people is through our internship program. Most summers, we have one or more college interns in our office (this year, we’ll have two) typically working on communications projects. It gives young people actual work experience, creates ties to our community and helps us accomplish some of those “hard to get to” projects. Working with these young people is always fun, and I’ve enjoyed following their careers through the years.
But this month marked a new high for us when Erin Rowley, one of our former interns was actually hired as a program associate at the Centre County Community Foundation! Erin, a Governor Mifflin High School graduate interned for us one her summer break in 2009 while attending Penn State’s University Park Campus. Her main project was developing a history of the Community Foundation, which is posted on our website. That assignment helped her stand out among other candidates in their search--and a good word from Heidi Williamson, our Vice President for Communications didn’t hurt!
It’s always exciting to see one of our interns succeed, but to become colleagues at another community foundation? That’s tough to beat!
Finally, this month will mark the end of the year for our Youth Advisory Committee. This award-winning group of local high school students is the “pride and joy” of Berks County Community Foundation. Each year this group of students undertakes their own grantmaking process, learning about philanthropy and community involvement while developing deep ties to Berks County. This year, their assistant advisor has been Maggie Place. Maggie is both a former YAC member AND a former Community Foundation intern. She’s currently working at the Caron Foundation as a counselor and it’s so exciting to see her both employed in the local community and serving as a valuable volunteer with our Youth Advisory Committee.
Latisha, Erin and Maggie are all living proof that the investments we make in our young people pay off. We’re all so proud of each of their accomplishments; we just had to share this with everyone!
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In March, National Public Radio’s “Planet Money” aired a story about the financial crisis facing the City of Reading. You can access the story (and listen to the full podcast) here.
While not a flattering portrait of the financial management of the city, it’s a fair characterization of what we’ve seen in over a decade of working to help the community understand the nature of Reading’s financial crisis.
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At Berks County Community Foundation, we see more great ideas than we can fund or pursue. So every now and again, I use this blog as a spot to share some of those “extra ideas” in case there’s someone out there who’d like to take one and run with it—or help us find the resources to do that.
This one struck me while sitting at a funeral a couple of years ago. As I sat in the church, both the beauty of the architecture and the small size of the congregation struck me.
This isn’t a post about the decline of traditional churches and the rise of “mega-churches.” That’s somebody else’s department. It’s about architecture.
Many of our area’s older churches were built during an era of grand public spaces. Some of them are simply breathtaking in their beauty. And many of these churches are in danger of going away. Dwindling congregations and shifting demographics conspire to threaten the existence of many of these sanctuaries.
We think there’s a cool project in putting together a team of photographers to capture the architectural heritage of these churches in a coffee table book while there’s still time. It’s a unique opportunity to preserve a part of our community’s heritage.
We’ve never priced this out, but we could if somebody was interested.
Just an idea…………
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Any of our community partners who have received grants from Berks County Community Foundation can probably tell you that we’re big believers in the idea of term limits for boards of nonprofits. The need for new ideas, and the difficulty of removing volunteers in a public benefit organization make this proven policy a valuable part of assuring good governance. In fact, a few years ago—along with the United Way of Berks County and the Reading Musical Foundation we became among the first community foundations in the country to require most of our grantees to have term limits—an idea that has not always made us popular!
Jerry Johnson first became involved with the Community Foundation around the time of his retirement as CFO of VF Corporation, one of our most important corporate donors. Jerry has been active in so many ways, it’s hard to recount them all. For a time, he lead the Berks County Conservancy, positioning it to be an important partner in our efforts to preserve the environmental assets of our community.
Not only has Jerry served on our board, he co-chaired the region’s first comprehensive economic development planning effort, the Initiative for a Competitive Greater Reading, sponsored by the Community Foundation. Jerry has served as chair of both our investment committee and our audit committee and has generously consulted with our team on business planning.
It would be hard to find anybody more active in Berks County than Mike Ehlerman. So many organizations from Alvernia University to the Reading Public Museum have benefited from his leadership. Separate from his role as a director of the Community Foundation, we worked closely with Mike when we ran and administered the capital campaign to restore and renovate the Sovereign Performing Arts Center.
Mike was involved at one time or another in virtually every major project the Community Foundation has undertaken. He played a special role in the organization, serving as a kind of informal connection to dozens of other organizations, helping us create partnerships to benefit the community.
An era ended when Sam McCullough left our board. Sam was an original director of the Community Foundation. While Sam joined the board in 1994, he left for about a year while serving as the Commonwealth’s Secretary of Community and Economic Development during the Ridge administration. Sam, who is currently supporting economic development through his role at Griffin Financial Advisors will be most remembered for building one of the region’s greatest financial institutions, Meridian Bancorp.
Sam not only served as an original director, he served as chairman of the board during his second tenure on the board. No one has served more time as a director of the Community Foundation than Sam. His advice and counsel can only be described as “invaluable” and his support “unwavering.”
On a personal note, Sam, Jerry and Mike have been friends, mentors and trusted advisors to our team. I was once asked why I studied for a Master’s in Community Leadership rather than an MBA. I told the reporter interviewing me that “if you’ve worked for Sam McCullough, Jerry Johnson and Mike Ehlerman….an MBA is redundant.”
Term limits are a good idea. And they’re eminently survivable. If you can lose Sam McCullough, Jerry Johnson and Mike Ehlerman and still survive.....you can lose any director and still survive. Their service to the community and the Community Foundation has been invaluable.
We will miss them AND value their continued involvement.
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All of us at the Community Foundation were saddened to learn of the death of Col. Harry D. Yoder this week. Col. Yoder was a great friend of the Community Foundation and a great American hero.
All of us join with his widow, Ardath and her family in mourning the loss of a great friend and leader. Here is a link to the obituary: http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/pottsmerc/obituary.aspx?n=harry-david-yoder&pid=150923205
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Last month, I had a chance to visit what might be America’s most devastated city, Detroit, Michigan. Scarred by industrial abandonment, devastated by population loss, the situation looks grim for people living in Detroit.
At first glance, Detroit and Reading would look to have little in common. The past decade saw Detroit’s population drop by 25% while Reading’s grew by 10%. Detroit’s sheer size (about 140 square miles) makes Reading’s 10 square miles look like small potatoes.
Still, the challenges both face are instructive. Reading, at least according to the folks at bizjournals, now ranks as America’s least wealth city. And its population growth may disguise the fact that it is becoming increasingly poorer.
At the core of the problem, both Detroit and Reading where built for purposes that no longer exist. Their design, like those of many American cities was create to house a large number of people in close proximity to extremely labor-intensive manufacturing plants. The challenge that both Detroit and Reading face today is that manufacturing simply doesn’t require anywhere near the number of employees they used to and, with greater mobility (thanks to the folks in Detroit), those employees don’t need to live nearby.
While Reading has grown recently, it’s important to note that the city’s population in the 1930s hovered around 120,000.
So both Reading and Detroit are faced with a similar set of circumstances—they’re much larger than they need to be to support the current level of commercial and residential activity that exists, or is likely to exist.
And while Detroit’s excess housing capacity grows, Reading’s unique position geographically means that our population grows with poor people seeking cheap housing.
The solution for both cities (and for cities that have already headed down this road like Youngstown, Ohio) is to find ways to shrink themselves back to a size that’s more commensurate with real market demand.
In Reading’s case, this requires a couple of steps (beyond accepting the reality of the situation). The city should develop a careful comprehensive plan to determine which housing areas can be turned back into natural preserve, essentially backing off the river, and coming back down from Neversink Mountain and Mt. Penn. In some cases, reusing land through innovative urban agriculture strategies will make sense. In still other cases (most obviously in the “Buttonwood Gateway” area) the city should demolish and bank land for future industrial use.
The flip side of this strategy is identifying where redevelopment to strengthen existing neighborhoods will make sense. But the current pattern of scattered site redevelopment doesn’t make much sense—something they’ve already realized in Detroit.
Reading’s future need not be one of endless despair, but it will take leadership to accept the realities that the city faces—realities that have hit Detroit in ways that are too hard to ignore.
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Last month, the Funders’ Network for Smart Growth and Livable Communities ( a mouthful, but a great organization of funders who work on community issues) had its annual conference in Detroit, which I was able to attend.
The first reaction of most readers is likely to be “Detroit in March…..lots of glamor there.” But for funders working on the issues of America’s failing cities –like Reading- there is no better classroom than Detroit. No American city has gone into such massive decline. The scale of the place creates unimaginable challenges—and opportunities.
The city’s population has plummeted from a peak of around 2,000,000 people in the 1950s to about 713,000 today. In fact, while we were there, our colleagues from Detroit were stunned by the release of U.S. Census data showing that the population had dropped by 25% just in the past decade.
The city’s physical size is enormous. There are almost 140 square miles in Detroit’s landmass. The shrinking population and enormous land mass results in a startling sense of abandonment. Everywhere we looked buildings, homes, whole neighborhoods were abandoned. The city estimates that there are 46 square miles of abandoned property within the City limits.
Even for a group of die-hard believers in the resilience of cities, the effect was shocking. It is hard to imagine that any industry or group of industries would ever need the amount of empty floor space we saw in the downtown area. Whole blocks of abandoned housing, punctuated occasionally by a single occupied house were more the norm than the exception as we drove around—it’s simply unfathomable that a city would repopulate these areas—and the conditions of the buildings made many of them past the point of no return.
We saw some amazing assets. The Detroit Institute of Arts houses a world-class art collection. Stunningly beautiful architecture throughout the community serves as a reminder of Detroit’s aspirations to mimic Paris in grandeur. Some small arts colonies have popped up. Pretty clearly, the folks at Wayne State University have taken their community role seriously and helped stabilize the neighborhood surrounding them.
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My wife and I, along with what my friend Senator David Argall called "half of Berks County" attended the swearing-in ceremony today of Senator Judy Schwank. What actually looked like a couple of hundred of Judy's friends and family attended the ceremony in the majestic senate chamber, one of the most visually stunning legislative chambers in the world.
Today, like all swearing-in days was one of good feeling, good humor and bipartisanship. And now the real work begins.
The Community Foundation has always counted Judy as a friend. We worked closely with her during her term as County Commissioner on important issues like farmland preservation and efforts to regionalize service delivery to make it more rational. And our team has spent thousands of hours with Judy looking for solutions to the economic collapse in the City of Reading.
During her time as President of 10,000 Friends of Pennsylvania, we worked together to seek statewide solutions to the challenges facing all of Pennsylvania's communities. Along with our colleagues at the William Penn Foundation and the Heinz Endowments, we worked with Judy to encourage a coordinated philanthropic response to Pennsylvania's growing crisis of economic failure.
So, Judy's an old friend and it was great to be with her today to celebrate a great day for her and her family. And now, as with the other members of our legislative delegation, we need to work together to find ways to encourage state policy that works better to position Pennsylvania, and Berks County for the future.
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On May 6, Berks County Intermediate Unit will once again sponsor a conference for educators on developing and implementing Asian studies programs in local schools. A copy of the registration brochure can be obtained here.
This conference is one of the key components of the Asian Studies collaborative funded by Berks County Community Foundation. Our grant, along with a $1 million federal grant and generous support from the University of Pittsburgh Confucius Institute has allowed a majority of Berks County school districts to offer Chinese language and Asian studies to their students at very little cost to the taxpayer.
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The feeder goes back today.
I’m amazed at how many people have asked me about the Cooper’s Hawk and the birds. More people read this blog than I imagined.
The continued carnage outside our windows was upsetting to some of the team at the Community Foundation. I reminded folks that we were still “feeding birds,” just going a little higher up the food chain. To be fair, looking out your window at blood and dead bird parts isn’t quite the same as enjoying the activity at the feeder.
Fortunately, we have access to experts. The Community Foundation has a long relationship with Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, located right here in Berks County. Hawk Mountain is the world’s premiere raptor sanctuary and everyone who works there is an expert on…well…hawks.
They suggested that we could take the bird feeder off the roof for about a week. Apparently, that’s enough time for the hawk to decide that this is no longer a fertile hunting ground and move on.
So we did.
Today, the birdfeeder goes back on the roof and another great story about our building enters the books (hopefully).
We’ll let you know how it goes.
In the meantime, we learned that the urban hawk story is happening other places. Here’s a Philly.com story about hawks moving into Philadelphia!!
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IN THE NEWS
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