Hard times fail to undermine Maine philanthropy
A year ago the Maine Community Foundation, one of the state's largest philanthropic enterprises, was preparing for hard times ahead.
With the stock market crashing and a global recession strengthening its grip, Henry Schmeltzer, who was then the executive director, watched the foundation's endowment tumble and predicted that giving could decline by $1 million.
But that gloomy forecast did not come true.
"There is good news," said Meredith Jones, who took over as chief executive officer on Jan. 2.
Not only are the foundation's grants ahead of last year, but its assets by the end of September were slightly ahead of where they were last year at that time. Some other philanthropic foundations are reporting similar stories as they emerge from one of the toughest economic crises in years.
The organizations say belt-tightening, a commitment to keep grants level-funded and other measures allowed them to keep up their giving levels.
The Maine Community Foundation distributed $10 million through Oct. 30 this year, up 2.5 percent from the same period last year, in part because donations to the foundation increased, from $11.2 million in 2008 to $14 million this year. Administrative belt-tightening also helped, said Jones.
"We are holding our own," she said.
Nationally, foundation giving will likely decline by more than 10 percent this year because of the recession, according to the Foundation Center, a New York organization that surveyed 600 foundations.
In Maine, the 302 private foundations registered in the state give out about $100 million a year. About 24 percent of the foundation money goes to health care, 23 percent to education and 18 percent to human services, with the rest divided up among environmental, arts, humanities and other causes, according to the Maine Philanthropy Center.
The Libra Foundation will distribute $10.7 million this year, or about the same as last year, said Owen Wells, foundation president. The Libra Foundation's endowment, valued at $200 million in 2007, plummeted to $166 million at the low point in March and has since recovered to about $188 million.
"We are plugging along," said Wells.
He said the foundation has been able to keep up its level of giving by holding down its overhead. It is also helped by some of its economic development projects, such as Pineland Farms natural beef and cheese operations, which are beginning to generate profits.
While the Maine Community Foundation has seen requests increase significantly – up 28 percent so far this year compared to last – some foundations report a decrease.
The Davis Family Foundation, a roughly $66 million endowment that funds arts and cultural endeavors, has received fewer grant requests, and they tend to be for smaller amounts, said Anne Vaillancourt, executive director.
"They are not asking for capacity-building grants," said Vaillancourt.
Grant applications are also down at the Libra Foundation.
Wells said he is not sure why, but he speculates that the bad economy has forced the closing or merging of some of the state's nonprofit groups, so there are simply fewer agencies to seek grants.
Others suggested that nonprofits may be retrenching, scaling backs on requests while they re-examine their goals and focus.
"People are really examining in a serious way their sustainability and furthering their mission goals in a different environment," said Scott Schnapp, executive director of the Maine Association of Nonprofits.
Staff Writer Beth Quimby can be contacted at 791-6363 or at: