An Insider's Look at the Community Foundation of the Lowcountry's Grantmaking

We recently introduced you to a South Carolina community funder that places a high priority on youth issues, which committed to five nonprofit groups in the region this summer. If you recall, this is a locally focused funder that’s been around since 1994, has over 300 charitable funds, $63 million in assets, and grants and scholarships reaching $58 million.

Related: Youth Issues Emerge as a Top Priority for this Lowcountry Funder 

But overall, the Community Foundation of the Lowcountry has a pretty broad grantmaking focus, which is why we wanted to touch base with the foundation staff to get a better understanding of its local priorities. There are so many community foundations in the southeast, and one by one, we’re trying to wrap our heads around this regional movement.

So I connected with the foundation’s president and CEO, Denise K. Spencer, to ask a few questions. To start, I was interested in what the biggest issues facing the Lowcountry are right now and what the greatest funding needs here are. Spencer says that at least in CFL’s service area (Beaufort, Jasper, Hampton, Colleton Counties), the biggest issues are affordable housing and public transportation in the Hilton Head Island area.

She elaborated to say:

Hospitality, teachers, law enforcement, etc. cannot afford to live on the Island and therefore long commutes and heavy traffic result. Another issue in which the Community Foundation is playing a significant role is the lack of availability of sewer in all parts of the Island, and for low-income residents this means failing septic systems that overflow and create public health, environmental, economic and civil justice issues among our residents. It is important to note that the majority of our competitive grantmaking dollars are restricted for organizations or projects which serve the people who “live and or work” in Daufuskie Island, Hilton Head Island, and greater Bluffton, SC.

Keep in mind that this is a funder that supports many different causes: arts and culture, environment, health, human services, education, community development and more. “In areas of health and human services, we look for efforts that are more than bandages,” Spencer said to expand on one of those causes. “We are looking for projects that are investments in people, and where all assets (ours and theirs) are on the table.”

Spencer told us that the Community Foundation of the Lowcountry considers itself to be the “research and development” arm of philanthropy in its area. And it prefers to fund new and expansion efforts over ongoing operations. This is a funder that looks to engage grantees in their own development as much as possible.

Fortunately for local grantseekers, this funder is looking for new grantees. However, it isn’t interested in supporting multiple nonprofits that are doing the same work and in competition with each other. So take a look around you to see who your competition is and who’s funding them before applying for a community foundation grant here. But of collaborations are always on the table, and there’s’ been a big push for diversity in nonprofit work lately.

Spencer says that most of the foundation’s grantees have a small staff, insufficient resources, and a lack of understanding of effective nonprofit business models that could help them stabilize themselves.

She shared:

For many, the concept of measurable outcomes seems foreign. We have, at least in the Hilton Head/Bluffton/Beaufort areas, a number of retirees who are willing to serve on nonprofit boards, but who may not fully understand the role of nonprofit board members. Since this part of the world does not have a strong corporate sector, fundraising is often focused on events.

To steer you in the right direction, here’s some advice that Spencer offers to prospective grantees about the community foundation:

Fair treatment of all applicants requires that we hold all to the same yardstick. Therefore, pay attention to expectations, deadlines and criteria. Don’t expect special treatment. If you are invited to apply, answer the questions asked. Do not try to get your message across to us by “spinning” a wonderful yarn instead of answering the questions put to you. We see avoidance and fiction all the time. Communicate, communicate, communicate. We’d rather have you ask a question than to have you disappointed or angry when you guess wrong. And know that we can only do our work if we have good projects to fund, so we’re hopeful for amazing partnerships!

In addition to its competitive grantmaking process, this community foundation offers organizational development grants of up to $5,000 for boards to hire consultants to assist with planning, developing, fundraising, marketing, and other operations. It also allows nonprofits to post volunteer opportunities on its website, offers training for nonprofit boards, and provide back-office and investment support for establishing endowments and campaign funds.

The foundation also recently announced new board of director officers for its 2017 fiscal year, and three new directors that joined the foundation board too. You can learn more about Denise Spencer’s perspective on grantmaking by following the foundation’s blog, which she writes for regularly.