Vermont Community Foundation effects positive change throughout the Green Mountain State through its comprehensive and thoughtful philanthropic leadership and advising services
STORY BY BENJAMIN LERNER
Ever since Vermont Community Foundation (VCF) was first established in 1986, it has served as an invaluable source of support for Vermont’s residents and communities. By providing a wide range of custom-tailored philanthropic advising services and investment options to Vermonters and all people who love Vermont, VCF helps to efficiently facilitate the charitable efforts of Vermont’s generous citizens, businesses, and foundations. As VCF celebrates its 35th anniversary, its board and staff remain firmly grounded in the original mission of community betterment. Every new fund that becomes part of the VCF broadens the collective impact of the VCF family of funds.
VCF is an endowed foundation that is comprised of hundreds of charitable funds, which have awarded over $30 million in grants throughout 2021 alone! Some funds are created by individuals and families. Others are established by businesses, private foundations, and community groups. Funds range in size from $25,000 to tens of millions. The majority of VCF funds are donor advised funds, but VCF offers many kinds of funds and services, including handling complex assets. Each person or entity that creates a fund under the VCF umbrella gains access to valuable philanthropic advising, administrative, asset management resources, and VCF’s Vermont-based mission investing.
“While some fundholders already know where they would like to make grants, others are eager to learn about programs and initiatives that align with their values and interests,” says Elisabeth Marx, Senior Philanthropic Advisor at VCF. “VCF is able to provide our fundholders with personalized ideas for grants because VCF’s staff tracks trends, needs, and innovative new programs and initiatives across the state. Some fundholders use our online platform to make grants independently. Others like to work with a philanthropic advisor to brainstorm issues, discuss how to involve their children in grantmaking, develop an impact strategy on an important issue, or learn about other aspects of using their fund that align with their values.”
After the foundational plans are drawn up, fundholders choose between investment pool options for their fund. VCF offers long-term investment pools, as well as long-term socially responsible investment pools. “We have a world-class team of investors at VCF, as is evidenced in our strong investment returns,” says Marx.
Marx adds that once the fundholders are welcomed into the VCF fold, they are offered the opportunity to participate in VCF’s “Giving Together” program. “Through ‘Giving Together’, fundholders can augment grants to organizations that have applied for funding from the VCF, expanding the number of proposals that are funded. There is no obligation for our fundholders to participate, but it’s a wonderful way for the VCF community to come together and harness our collective philanthropic power.”
In addition to the “Giving Together” program, VCF plays a leadership role in Vermont’s ongoing efforts to close the opportunity gap through funding and mission investing, as well as community engagement initiatives in early care and learning, youth and family support, college and career training, and economic vitality. These initiatives are funded through the generous support of community members who have donated to VCF’s Opportunity Fund and Leadership Fund as part of their annual giving or as legacy gifts. Their Philanthropic Leadership Fund supports activities that strengthen the philanthropic field in Vermont, including peer learning sessions for grant makers, statewide philanthropic projects, and further research into the most pressing issues affecting Vermonters.
VCF’s roster of funds includes issue-specific and regional funds, as well as “supporting organizations,” such as the J. Warren and Lois McClure Foundation, Vermont Women’s Fund, The Samara Fund, Let’s Grow Kids, and the Southern Vermont-based Crosby-Gannett Fund and Opportunity Fund for Southshire Youth. “Supporting organizations operate within VCF’s financial and organizational structure,” says Marx. “We manage their funds and back office so that they can focus on achieving their goals, such as broadening access to affordable post-secondary education and training or expanding early childcare.”
VCF’s philanthropic efforts are further bolstered by their online “Insight Hub”, which features webinars and briefs that supply fundholders with additional information about important issues in the Green Mountain State. Prior to the pandemic, VCF hosted Community Conversations on issues of interest, from Substance Use to Faith, Spirituality, and Philanthropy. During the pandemic, VCF reimagined the series to find an accessible way to get regular briefings to the community. There have been sixteen Insight Hub briefings since January 2020, from the role of philanthropy in disasters and crisis, to how to support rural entrepreneurship. The Insight Hub doesn’t just help VCF’s fundholders learn more about causes that they are already interested in – it also allows them to gain a deeper understanding of innovative work taking place across the state that they might not have been aware of, and the organizations that are working to address those issues. “It’s been wonderful to see them utilize the Insight Hub to inform their grantmaking decisions,” says Marx.
When the pandemic hit and Vermont’s Governor, Phil Scott, declared a state of emergency on March 13, 2020, VCF set up the VT COVID-19 Response Fund within a week of the initial lockdown. Since then, the fund has raised about $11 million and has awarded over $10 million in grants. “We started making significant slates of grants in March 2020, and we’ve been making sets of grants nearly every month ever since,” says Marx. “The fund has supported mental health services, senior meals, housing, youth programs, libraries, arts organizations, and much more. While continuing with relief efforts, the VT COVID-19 Fund has also supported recovery efforts in the areas of rural entrepreneurship; food system resilience; rural connectivity; learning in transition; and welcoming, equitable, anti-racist communities.”
Given the vast reach of VCF’s philanthropic services, many nonprofit organizations and local community initiatives come to VCF in search of funding. They can apply online for competitive grants, or VCF’s team of philanthropic advisors may then reach out to fundholders who might be interested in supporting them. “One day a volunteer with the community food pantry in Manchester called to say they needed a new door and storage unit. I reached out to a fundholder who had supported the food cupboard in the past. That family offered a $6,000 challenge grant. The community and other fundholders rallied and met the match. The beauty of our donor-advised funds and philanthropic advising program is that it’s easy for us to connect people with meaningful causes. I sometimes refer to myself as a ‘matchmaker’ of sorts. It makes me very happy to be able to serve as a liaison in that capacity. It’s an equally beneficial exchange, because the fundholders end up feeling really good about the difference that they’ve made in their community, and the nonprofits get the money that they need to fulfill their mission.”
Over time, VCF has developed deep relationships with many of Vermont’s nonprofits, and about two hundred nonprofits have established reserve or endowment funds at VCF. VCF offers these nonprofits access to VCF’s outstanding investment opportunities and advising services. Marx says that both small and large nonprofits regularly call VCF to explore whether they have a nonprofit fund that fits their needs. She elaborates: “A nonprofit can establish a reserve fund whose assets are available to them at any time or create a permanently restricted endowment. We can advise them on how to grow their reserve or endowment through planned giving and legacy gifts.”
Marx says that she finds immense fulfillment in helping VCF’s fundholders experience the joy and excitement of charitable giving. “Every time I can create a new channel through which philanthropists can connect with community organizations, it brings me immeasurable happiness. Just the other week, I was able to introduce a fundholder to an Abenaki organization in Southern Vermont, called ‘Atowi.’ After learning about Atowi’s important role in affirming Native relationships to the land, community-building within the Abenaki community, and educating others about the history of Indigenous peoples in this area, the fundholder decided to award them a grant. The fundholder wasn’t just grateful to have been able to help support their organization – they were also grateful to have been able to learn about the Native American community in Southern Vermont in the process. That fundholder’s grant combined with grants from the VCF’s work to support welcoming, equitable, anti-racist communities ended up playing a crucial part in helping Atowi expand their staff and grow their operation. It was beautiful to see that level of appreciation on both sides of the giving process. Our fundholders get to experience those feelings of connection on a frequent basis, and we’re proud to support them to make a positive difference in their communities, across the State of Vermont, and beyond.”
For more information