The Impact of Giving Together

The Whitefish Community Foundation has been in operation since 2000 supporting the valley’s nonprofits

By Molly Priddy
Lynnette Donaldson, Linda Engh-Grady and Daria Perez stand outside of the Whitefish Community Foundation office on Nov. 21, 2018. Justin Franz | Flathead Beacon

In late October, the Whitefish Community Foundation announced that its Great Fish Community Challenge program had raised more than $2.4 million for nonprofits in the Flathead Valley.

About $1.9 million came from 50 nonprofits fundraising for the challenge, and the foundation awarded more than $460,000 in matching grants.

It’s a massive giving campaign that takes place over the summer, which in 2018 had a record 1,653 donations. The Great Fish challenge has become a marquee program for the Whitefish Community Foundation, but it is only one of the various ways the foundation has been helping local nonprofits since 2000.

“Eighteen years ago, five individuals got together and they felt that we needed a community foundation,” Linda Engh-Grady, president of the foundation, said. “They sat around a table, found where the needs were, and paid money out of their own pockets.”

Many of those founders — Connie Heckathorne, Mike Jenson, John Kramer, Dave Stewart, and Roxane Rogers — are still active in the foundation, Engh-Grady said.

After its incorporation in 2000 as a 501(c)(3), the foundation distributed its first Community Grant Awards, totaling $7,000 the first year. Just two years later, the foundation awarded over $350,000 in community grants and donor-advised funds to area nonprofits.

In 2017, the Whitefish Community Foundation had $28.6 million in combined assets, with $14.7 million in donor-advised funds and $10.1 million in endowed assets. The considerable growth allowed the foundation to dole out more than $5.8 million in grants last year alone.

“We’ve increased year over year,” Daria Perez, vice president of finance and operations at the foundation, said. “And we appreciate gifts of all sizes.”

Community foundations have been helping charities for at least a century. They are grant-making public charities that combine the passion and funds and interests of individuals, families, and businesses to support the nonprofits in their communities.

There are more than 750 community foundations operating in the United States, and last year, community foundation assets reached $91 billion.

The Whitefish foundation has multiple ways of supporting local nonprofits. In addition to the Great Fish challenge, which the foundation started in 2015, the foundation has awarded $1.6 million in community grants since 2000, with $87,165 doled out in 2017.

There are also major community project grants, which are grants of $10,000 or more to capital improvement projects in the valley. Sixteen of these have been awarded since 2010, including $38,500 to buy a decontamination station for the Whitefish Lake Institute’s fight against invasive species and $25,000 for the Whitefish School District’s Center for Sustainability and Entrepreneurship.

Whitefish Community Foundation also has a special category of awards to recognize the outstanding work of nonprofits each year; the awards are named in honor of friends of the foundation who have passed away, including Doris Schumm, Russ and Mary Street, and Jean Howard.

The foundation’s endowment program is important, Engh-Grady said, because it allows for more sustainability for nonprofits. The foundation helps nonprofits build endowment funds, and so far has 24 permanent funds working toward nonprofit sustainability. The program started in 2004, and has since awarded $1.1 million from the endowment funds, with $255,678 given last year.

Donor-advised funds (DAF) have become more popular, Engh-Grady said, because they allow the donors to recommend where to put the money and produce only one tax receipt. The foundation administers the funds, and any administrative fees earned on the accounts go toward the nonprofits as well.

These funds are also nimble, she said, giving an example of two DAF owners who heard about the Montana Veterans Home needing a new bus. In five days, they received enough donors on board and a grant from the foundation to pay for the whole shebang: $113,000.

Along with these programs, the foundation offers consultations and workshops to nonprofits for free.

Engh-Grady and Perez said the foundation has grown carefully and organically, now allowing 50 charities to participate in the Great Fish challenge and hoping to eventually add more.

They watch national trends closely to see what to prepare for, and lately it’s been the idea of building up funds in case there is a natural disaster like the wildfires ravaging California.

“We’re working on our strategic plan,” Engh-Grady said. “Community foundations need to be ready for what’s happening in California.”

Engh-Grady and Perez are the only two full-time employees at the foundation, and there are two part-time staff members as well. Otherwise, all the enthusiasm and hard work comes from volunteers, particularly the 17-person board. The foundation continues to grow because it still centers on the idea that a community can work together to help everyone.

“The board is very active,” Engh-Grady said. “Everyone gives, they engage, they show up, and they’re a big reason we’re so successful.”

For more information on the Whitefish Community Foundation, visit www.whitefishcommunityfoundation.org.

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