William Buster, New Hanover Community Endowment’s first president and CEO, has some good news for the county’s 225,000 residents: the first grants from the independent charitable foundation will be announced by the end of this year.
Until recently, it appeared that the nonprofit’s first grants might not be made until 2023 as its 13 directors awaited Buster’s arrival from Dogwood Health Trust in Asheville, where he was senior vice president of impact, and as they faced the task of selecting a community advisory committee to work with them.
Formation of the 15-member advisory group was one of several conditions negotiated by N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein with New Hanover County in return for his not blocking the acquisition of county-owned New Hanover Regional Medical Center by Novant Health. The merger, which closed on Feb. 1, 2021, helped launch the endowment with $1.25 billion of sales proceeds.
Buster, a former regional director at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and a program officer for the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation before joining Dogwood, began work as NHCE’s CEO in March after being chosen in a nationwide search.
Prior to Buster’s arrival, the hospital purchase agreement enshrined four areas of focus for the endowment: public primary, secondary and post-secondary education; health and social equity; community development; and community safety.
His first order of business was to meet, and exchange ideas with, a wide spectrum of individuals in the county.
“I’ve done them in one-on-ones, two-on-ones … as much as 75 people at any one time,” Buster said.
He also has worked with the directors in reviewing applications for seats on the community advisory committee. Applications closed on May 13 with 82 individuals expressing interest.
Among the applicant pool, “We probably have the most in the public health/social equity arena. Then, second to that, would be community economic development, and then third, education … and then the least amount of applications we have are folks with backgrounds or interest in public safety,” he said.
Buster said the 15 CAC members were expected to be announced by July 1.
Each adviser will act as a sounding board for the directors and a community convener in their area of expertise, but advisers will not be allowed to advocate for specific organizations, Buster explained.
“So, they won’t be seeing (grant) applications, nor will we be talking about organizations,” he said.
To get them acclimated and to shorten decision-making on the endowment’s first grants, the advisory committee most likely will not participate in the 2022 grant process.
“We’ll probably have one or two meetings with them before the fall, but we won’t try to push them and rush them into being a part of the fall grant cycle conversation because even that is just beginning with our board,” Buster said.
Here are some examples of ways the grant money possibly could be used, as described when the New Hanover County Endowment was established in late 2020. Though the four focus areas are set, the specific uses in them will be decided through the upcoming grant process and not necessairly these below.
Grant criteria are expected to be announced in August, applications will go live in September and be accepted for several weeks, and the board will vote on grants in November or early December.
“We want to make the announcements before the end of the year,” Buster said.
No more than 4% of the endowment’s average net fair market value can be drawn down for grants annually. Those assets are now invested very conservatively, and at Nov. 5, 2021, stood at $1.29 billion.
“We haven’t determined how much we’re going to do this fall, but we know it’s going to be far below that (4%) amount,” Buster cautioned.
With the endowment’s bylaws stating that the organization will support community projects “in New Hanover County,” Buster said any grant recipient that serves clients in more than one county will have to engage in programmatic reporting and segregate its funds.
“Right now, we have to stay focused on our county,” he said.
In Buster’s conversations across the community, several themes continue to bubble to the surface.
“I’m hearing lots as it relates to children and what we are doing on behalf of children,” Buster said. “That can be job training for young people. That can be improving the educational system. That can be improving the early childhood educational system. But nothing in the area of youth or children has bubbled up to the top as far as the specificity of what people want to have.
“I did meet with the chief of police, but we talked about, very interestingly, youth development, which is actually what I think more people are thinking about as it relates to public safety,” Buster told the Business Journal one day before the mass killing at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas.
On the hot-button topic of teacher staffing, Buster emphasized that the foundation has no interest in “bending to political pressure” and must not supplant governmental funding.
“I will say this, there are strategies where I could imagine supporting teacher development,” he noted. “There’s never enough resources to help teachers become better at what they do.
“That’s the way I would ask people to think about the resources that we have, is how is it going to solve the problem, not necessarily maintain the status quo.”
Velva Jenkins, CEO of the YWCA Lower Cape Fear, is one of many in the area following the endowment’s early deliberations closely.
One problem that she wants solved is the financial gap that exists between the more modest cost of day care needed by single working parents and the higher pay that’s needed for day care staff.
Raising day care workers’ pay forces the operators of child care centers to also raise the fees paid by working parents, Jenkins explained, which in turn can price lower-income parents out of the market.
Jenkins suggests that endowments like NHCE underwrite child care credentialing programs.
“They (graduates) come work in the industry, we pay them higher salaries because there’s funding to offset that and … keep the rates at a lower cost for these parents that cannot afford a higher rate for child care while they work,” she said.
The impact could be “immediate,” Jenkins believes.
On another thorny issue, county commissioners recently committed $15 million in existing revenues over five years for additional spending on affordable housing.
During two endowment listening sessions last fall, advocates hammered home the urgency of creating a greater stock of workforce housing.
“If we don’t take action now, I’m concerned about our future ability to hire and retain teachers, police officers, restaurant and hotel workers, etc., after they’ve all been displaced and no longer call our community home,” Tom Gale, vice chair of the joint city/county workforce housing advisory committee, said at the time.
Addressing affordable housing, Buster said he is interested in “making sure that we can bring the best thoughts, the best opportunities, some innovations that maybe governmental entities may not be able to be a part of.”
As New Hanover Community Endowment grows its relationships, its staff and its invested funds over the next five years, Buster sees a need to have the foundation work with nonprofits so they can increase their capacity to administer larger-scale projects and plan more strategically.
“Let’s say we are at $1.5 billion at that point. We’ll be around that 4% to 5% deployment of resources, which is $40 to $50 million,” he said. “We have to have an infrastructure by that point that’s accepting those resources and not hurting the resources because too much money can hurt a community when you’re not prepared to deploy those resources correctly.”