Reaching $1 Billion

January 5, 2015

Vancouver Foundation is reaching milestones – and setting new ones

$1 billion. That’s the staggering amount of money Vancouver Foundation has granted to worthy projects since its inception in 1943. It’s an impressive milestone, but the Foundation doesn’t take all of the credit and it certainly doesn’t see it as the finish line – far from it.

Achieving this milestone has been a team effort including the Foundation, the community, philanthropists, partner charities and a lot of volunteers. It is also thanks, in part, to a solid, long-range financial plan. Vancouver Foundation president and CEO Kevin McCort explains, “through a combination of donations, prudent management and long-term investing, we’ve been able to generate this substantial amount of granting.”

However, offering individual donors, charities and community foundations a flexible, centralized hub through which they can distribute their charitable donations has also been a significant driver in generating $1 billion in grants. “Our giving is really universal. We can support any charity in the province and our fund holders can grant to any Canada Revenue Agency–registered charity in Canada,” says McCort.

This provides individuals and family foundations who want to create an endowment or make a large donation with a simplified and reliable way to designate specific charities or causes that they’d like to support. Donors may prefer to allow Vancouver Foundation to determine where the funds are most needed. The Foundation regularly checks the pulse of the community through initiatives like the Vital Signs survey to identify areas of need in the community and directs grants accordingly. McCort reports that there are about 500 charities benefiting from these adjudicated grants annually and approximately 1,200 charitable organizations that receive funding because they have been specifically named by donors.

These grants are made possible through Vancouver Foundation’s endowment. It all started in 1943 when Alice MacKay had saved $1,000 from her secretarial job and wanted to help impoverished women in Vancouver by establishing an endowment. Ten prominent Vancouverites were moved by the gesture and added $10,000 each to the endowment, bringing the total to $101,000.

Over the years, the endowment has grown to a significant enough sum to enable Vancouver Foundation to earn preferable interest rates. “Our five-year rates of return on the endowment are in excess of 10 per cent,” says McCort. In addition to its role as a community grant maker to charitable agencies, the Foundation offers services to smaller charities and other community foundations to help them maximize their own endowments and donations. He explains, “Most charities, if they’ve got even $1 million on the side that they don’t need for their operations, the only thing they are going to do is invest that in GICs and treasury bills, and they might earn one or two per cent.” The increased earning power gained by consolidating with Vancouver Foundation’s fund makes a significant impact on the level of work a charity can do in the community. McCort adds, “It’s something that charities simply cannot do on their own.”

This consolidated investing service not only helps organizations earn more from their existing endowments, but it also helps them attract new donors (either directly or through Vancouver Foundation) since donors can see that their gift is going to grow at a rate that can really make a difference. “We want to make sure that any charity in the province, really, has the capacity to capture or accept an endowed gift,” says McCort.

Vancouver Foundation offers this same service to community foundations around the province. In fact, many of these foundations got their start with a little help from an initiative that Vancouver Foundation ran from 1999 to 2007. “We recognized that there would be many donors across the province who may want to endow a gift in their own community as opposed to endowing a gift to Vancouver Foundation,” says McCort.

The startup support program was twofold. Vancouver Foundation provided funds to match donations raised by local community foundations. It also provided some funding to allow the new foundations to make immediate grants. This created the initial momentum to attract more donations to the endowment.

“We felt that those startup community foundations would be caught in a chicken-and-egg dynamic,” explains McCort. “They have an endowment but it’s too small to generate income, and if it’s not generating income then no one is going to see the granting and the results of that.”

The support efforts worked. There are now 51 community foundations in B.C. (out of a total 191 in Canada) and Vancouver Foundation manages the endowment capital for 34 of them. By working with these foundations, and by following its own mandate to serve the entire province, Vancouver Foundation supports a wide variety of charitable organizations, geographically speaking. Seventy per cent of its discretionary granting goes to organizations in the Lower Mainland while the remaining 30 per cent is spread out around the province, including projects from Haida Gwaii to Smithers to Nelson.

It’s not just distance that showcases the breadth of giving from the Foundation. There is also a vast variety in the size of grants given. Vancouver Foundation supports projects that require as much as $80,000 a year over a three-year period or a one-time grant of as little as $100 to set up a lending library or put on a neighbourhood workshop. Each granted project comes from a need identified by the community. McCort says, “We have the systems that enable us to do what we call ‘grassroots granting’ or ‘micro-granting’ that are very cost-effective because they rely on volunteers and they rely on advisory committees. That helps us do small-scale granting.”

Continued commitments to assessing community needs, prudent fiscal management, and working with new and existing donors are what will lead to the next milestone in Vancouver Foundation’s future. McCort would like to see the community foundation startup support reinstated: “I think that was a  good idea that we started and we think that there is a great opportunity going forward to really work with community foundations across the province.”

McCort is also excited by the fresh, progressive programs and projects that Vancouver Foundation is seeing. “It’s an exciting time to be in philanthropy in B.C. There are a lot of fantastic charities doing really interesting work,” he says.

McCort shares that Alice MacKay’s original endowment is still at work to support women living in poverty. “We would like to be able to say we can no longer fulfil the wishes of this donor because the problem has been solved. That’s something that we wish would happen more often.” That’s why, despite the celebrations, Vancouver Foundation doesn’t see the “$1 billion granted” milestone as “mission complete.”

“There is no question that if we’ve given only $1 billion, we’re going to be giving away another. We don’t know how long it’s going to take but it’ll happen,” he says. “And a community foundation is a great vehicle to make sure that money lands in meaningful areas and is managed by competent and effective organizations.”

Story By: Valerie McTavish Illustration by: Sara Tyson

Read more stories from the Fall 2014 Vancouver Foundation magazine, Building an Empowered & Vibrant Future.

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