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WilmingtonBiz Magazine

Money Talks: A Closer Look At The $1B+ Endowment's First Years

By Cece Nunn, posted Jun 20, 2024
Jimmy Lofton, Pine Forest Cemetery superintendent, is shown at the cemetery with one of the trees planted by The Alliance for Cape Fear Trees, another nonprofit that received an endowment grant. (Photo by Malcom Little)
Pine Forest Cemetery off North 16th Street languished under weeds about 20 years ago.

“You couldn’t identify anything,” said Wayne Lofton, a member of the Wilmington landmark’s board of directors.

He said the 15-acre resting place, established in the 1870s for members of Wilmington’s Black community and other minorities, contains the graves of prominent Black residents and victims of Wilmington’s 1898 massacre.

His father, Jimmy Lofton, is Pine Forest’s longtime superintendent. “What he was able to do out there has been nothing short of miraculous, and we fight very hard to continue to do it,” Wayne Lofton said.

That fight and the educational programming the cemetery provides require money. In 2022, the cemetery got a $10,000 boost through a grant from the New Hanover Community Endowment. That year, the cemetery board was one of 110 organizations and institutions to be awarded grants in the endowment’s first round of grant funding, and the cemetery board was grateful for the funds, Wayne Lofton said.

Like Lofton’s praise, the endowment’s first two years have come with gratitude. But they have also come with some criticism.

Founded in 2021 from the sale of New Hanover Regional Medical Center to Novant Health, officials with the $1 billion-plus endowment have deployed or pledged to deploy nearly $90 million (as of May 29). Because NHRMC was a county-owned hospital, the endowment requires that grant funding be used in New Hanover County.

The endowment’s first grant round doled out a little over $9 million.

The inaugural cycle emphasized responsive grants, said Shannon Winslow, vice chair of the endowment’s board of directors. The money went to existing programs to help them accomplish a variety of goals, from buying equipment to funding positions.

But some nonprofit officials whose organizations received grants in the first cycle were dismayed to be left out of the second round, announced in December and made up of $53 million worth of multi-year “strategic” grants.

“I don’t think people expected to have no money or hardly any money come through for the smaller organizations that were looking for capacity building and to be able to do more locally that they wanted to do,” said Connie Parker, founder of The Alliance for Cape Fear Trees, which received a $16,000 endowment grant in 2022.
  

AFFORDABLE HOUSING FOCUS

A sampling of other nonprofits that received grants two years ago responded to WilmingtonBiz Magazine’s questions about their experience with the endowment.

Dawn Ferrer, executive director of A Safe Place, said the $148,000 grant her organization received in 2022 helped fund her position for a year and pay the mortgage for The Farm, a long-term residential program for victims of commercial sexual exploitation and sex trafficking.

“We applied for housing assistance in 2023 to help fund the construction of another cottage on the property to increase capacity, but it was denied,” Ferrer said.

Ferrer, a member of the endowment’s Community Advisory Council, said the endowment board didn’t tell the council that affordable housing requests would not be funded in the December 2023 announcement. She said she thinks the endowment board “needs more transparency to build up community confidence. This should include meeting with local nonprofits to see firsthand where the money would be most effective for the goal of ‘transformational change.’”

Addressing concerns about affordable housing grants, endowment officials unveiled a more-than-$19 million affordable housing investment strategy in May.

“This investment approach aims to mitigate the ongoing affordable housing crisis in the area by supporting existing housing and preventing displacement, facilitating the production of new affordable housing units and exploring the creation of a capital impact program for future housing projects,” endowment officials stated in a May 29 news release.

While no specific nonprofit groups were mentioned in the announcement, the release said endowment leaders “are in communication with nonprofit housing providers identified in the 2023 grant cycle.”

It’s important for the community to know, Winslow said, that the 2023 cycle received $336 million in grant requests, including housing proposals. But affordable housing is a complex issue, she said, with some organizations duplicating services and endowment officials needing more time to “wrap their heads around and better understand” what would make the most sense strategically to address the problem.

Affordable housing groups responded favorably to the May announcement.

“This is a great first step,” said Pastor Rob Campbell, of New Beginning Christian Church, who also serves as CEO of New H.O.P.E. CDC, in a statement May 30. “Their announcement goes a long way toward creating an atmosphere where we can all work together to help solve one of the biggest issues of our time.”
  

LARGER INSTITUTIONS

The grants announced in December mainly went to large groups and institutions, with $22 million split between those involved to boost the health care workforce. At the same time, Novant announced it would separately invest in $10 million toward training health care workers in the region.

The endowment recipients, part of the Health Care Talent Collaboration, were the University of North Carolina Wilmington, Cape Fear Community College, New Hanover County Schools and the Wilmington Chamber of Commerce Foundation.

“I think the greatest danger for the endowment is that so many organizations are looking to cash in on the large pot of money available,” said nonprofit leader Robert Ferber. “I’m especially concerned about local government and other related institutions, such as schools, treating the endowment like their own rainy-day fund, with the attendant concerns about political considerations and connections overshadowing everything else. I do think that more transparency is needed.”

Ferber is president of the board of directors of a nonprofit focused on safe and supportive affordable housing for people with autism and other neurodiverse conditions. His group, IndependentWorks, received $1,000 in the first grant cycle but was denied a requested $2,500 grant the following year.

Kids Making It received an “extremely helpful” $132,500 grant from the endowment in 2022, allowing the nonprofit to buy a high-quality commercial dust collector for its woodshop, said Kevin Blackburn, executive director. Kids Making It teaches woodworking to children and teens and aims to build their vocational and life skills.Wilmington Fire Department firefighters Arden Williams (from left), Lt. Sam Adams and Christopher Robinson show off the department's new high-water training vehicle, which was purchased with a grant from the New Hanover Community Endowment. (Photo by Daria Amato)

Features of the grant-funded system “have also improved our clean-up process, and the funding allowed us to do a deep clean of all our HVAC systems – something not done for years and much needed, given the amount of sawdust our shop generates,” Blackburn said. “We hired an additional after-school instructor with this funding, improving the experience of our students, improving the quality of our instruction, mentorship and ratio of teens to instructors.

“Collectively, all of these improvements have had a wonderful and significant impact on the safety of our shop for the kids we serve.”

The organization also received a more than $103,000 grant in 2023.

But Blackburn would like to see increased transparency from the endowment and “strategic grant funding awarded to more nonprofits that don’t have the professional fundraising teams large institutions have at their disposal.”
  

MORE CHANCES

Moving forward, Winslow said the endowment will have a rolling grant cycle.

“It allows us more flexibility to meet people where they are when projects are ready,” she said.

An example, she said, is the endowment’s investment of nearly $6.8 million over three years in the Northside Food Cooperative. The planned grocery store would help alleviate one of the county’s food deserts. That funding announcement came after the unveiling of the December grant news.

Kids Making It officials plan to apply for additional endowment grants.

“We have grown exponentially in the past couple of years, and the endowment’s funding has been instrumental in this, particularly the 2023 grant funding we were fortunate to receive. We have big plans still unrealized, and we are excited about submitting a strategic grant in collaboration with another nonprofit (or nonprofits) in the future.”

Local nonprofits will likely get used to the endowment’s possibilities, said Hannah Gage, who was co-chair of the endowment’s board when it formed in 2020 in preparation for the funding transfer from the hospital sale.

Harper Peterson, founder of Heal Our People's Endowment, secures a signature from New Hanover County resident Johnny Walker at Long Leaf Park. (Photo by Daria Amato)“Before the New Hanover Community Endowment was established, the nonprofits here had to claw and scratch for every penny and apply for federal grants and apply for state grants, and they were competing with thousands of others,” Gage said. “And the grant-making process for them was do or die – if they didn’t get a grant, it would determine whether they could turn the lights on or whether they could continue with certain programs. … You look at each grant cycle as a win or loss.”

Gage, who was not reappointed to the board last year, said she believes the county’s nonprofit community over time “will begin to see that there’s always going to be another chance.”
  

CRITICAL RESPONSES

In April, an organization called Heal Our People’s Endowment sent a letter to Attorney General Josh Stein calling for Stein to review the New Hanover Community Endowment’s performance and abrupt leadership changes.

In its letter, the group stated that the $22 million going to the health care workforce initiative “will directly benefit Novant through nurse/health worker training programs. Such a massive allocation to one sector contravenes the mission to foster transformative change across all the community. There’s no guarantee those trained will even remain in (New Hanover) County.”

Harper Peterson, a former state senator, former Wilmington mayor and founder of Heal Our People’s Endowment, said, “It struck people that here we have a corporate health care entity, based out of Winston-Salem, reaching into the endowment to help with their nursing pipeline and recruitment and retainment.”

Winslow said the health care workforce funding will directly benefit New Hanover County residents in various ways.

“You’re helping patients, but you’re also helping that individual realize a higher-paying job as well,” she said. “So it’s a win-win from so many different angles.”

Also in April, the endowment’s Community Advisory Council, an 18-member group with no voting power, sent a letter with concerns about what they saw as a lack of engagement from the endowment board. The attorney general required the endowment to have a CAC before signing off on the sale of New Hanover Regional Medical Center to Novant Health.

Endowment board chair Bill Cameron and Winslow met with some members of the CAC to address concerns.

While Ferrer could not attend those meetings, she said, “I think things will change.”

Winslow said the “advisory council is integral to what we do. Moving forward, we’ll continue to find new and additional ways that we can incorporate their expertise and their feedback.”

Gage said the endowment, which has held community listening sessions since forming, needs to listen seriously to constructive criticism “and figure out a way to better communicate.”

She said the endowment didn’t have the staff to oversee everything coming in from nonprofits for the first round of grants.



“We had to hire contract people to help us. That’s not the case now, and hopefully, moving forward, the process will get more refined, the communication to the nonprofits will be improved, and everyone will have a larger understanding of what each grant cycle represents,” Gage said.

A nearly $2 billion endowment covering 18 counties in western North Carolina, Dogwood Health Trust, held community listening sessions with its grantees during the first quarter of 2024 “to learn from their experiences and understand their constraints,” said Susan Mims, CEO of the Asheville-based trust, which became a separate entity in 2019 after the sale of nonprofit Mission Health to private company HCA Healthcare.

“We heard about the need for convening and collaboration and a desire to grow and strengthen our collective responses to the challenges within our region,” Mims said. “This feedback has helped to inform the development of a five-year strategic framework for Dogwood that we look forward to sharing this fall.”
  

TURNOVER TALK

Along with concerns about communication, some members of the Wilmington community were caught off guard when endowment officials announced the resignation of New Hanover Community Endowment CEO William Buster in February.

Before leading the New Hanover endowment, Buster served as senior vice president of impact for Dogwood Health Trust.

Ferber said Buster’s departure is another reason he thinks more transparency is needed from the endowment. He said Buster “seemed an excellent choice for leading the endowment, and then he was gone without any explanation at all. Then, we have board members recommended for continuation who were in part chosen for bringing diversity to the board, also replaced, this time with former political office holders. This is all very worrisome.”

Ferber referred to when the Republican majority on the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners won the vote to appoint former commissioners Woody White and Pat Kusek, both Republicans, to the endowment board instead of reappointing Gage and Virginia Adams, who are Democrats.

Gage said that’s how the world works.

“But I think that you have a choice in an organization like this. There are a lot of endowments that people serve in perpetuity. The other option is an appointed board that turns over. I’ve been on both,” said Gage, who has been chair of the UNC Board of Governors and the University of North Carolina Wilmington Board of Trustees. “And though infinite turnover can be disruptive and a little destabilizing, I think I would prefer a board that turns over to a board that stays in place for 20, 30, 40 years, and it doesn’t have new blood and new ideas and new people coming on.”

Other recent endowment changes have included the resignation of Kusek, who left in March but gave no reason and didn’t respond to a recent request for her thoughts on the endowment, and the departure of Novant Health Coastal Region Board appointee Michele Holbrook, who cited personal commitments as prompting her to resign.

The Novant coastal board chose former New Hanover Regional Medical Center President Jack Barto to replace Holbrook. Heal Our People’s Endowment has raised concerns about the endowment board's diversity, political ties and resident input.

Winslow said the 13-member endowment board is laser-focused on two things: its CEO search and continuing to award grants. She said she encourages nonprofits to be patient.

“We’re being very strategic, very methodical about how we go forward,” Winslow said. “We’re still new. We’re still learning, and we’re still working on making sure that we have clear, concise communication. We’re listening to the community, but just being patient, I think, is key.”

-Reporter Emma Dill contributed to this article.
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