Business News for the Mississippi Delta

Community Foundation of Northwest MS launches Public Policy Campaign

Strategy is to increase awareness

By Susan Montgomery

Sometime in August, the Community Foundation of Northwest Mississippi will run a series of print and television ads, a public awareness campaign.

The fifteen-year-old foundation has distributed about $20 million in donations to charities and non-profits in eleven counties from Desoto to Leflore, but its leaders believe it can extend its services to the two groups it helps: people with available resources and those with hardly any.

“Our mission is connecting people who care with causes that matter,” says Tom Pittman, executive director. “We serve both the donors and we serve the nonprofits. We are in the business of helping both. And, “we are trying to get that word out.”

Pittman was speaking by telephone from New York City, where the foundation had just been lauded by EVERFL, Inc., at the NASDAQ Marketplace with one of twenty Education Innovation Awards, and there was a smile in his voice. “We were the little kids on the block,” he explained. But there is more to it than that.

Pittman is particularly pleased the award recognized one of the foundation’s signature programs, which has added digital or computer-based personal finance instruction to high schools and middle schools throughout the foundation’s service area. The training covers savings, of course, but more. For example, it teaches students how to fill out the federal aid (FASA) applications required for getting college grants and loans.

The value includes explaining the process during their secondary education. Pittman says he talked to one student who was overjoyed to learn he might be able to afford to go to college. The boy told him that two of his friends had opted for military service simply because they didn’t understand how they might otherwise be able to swing college tuition and fees.

Pittman remembered feeling deep satisfaction when he first visited the Mentoring Center in Greenwood. The center helps disadvantaged children with basic skills, including reading,  and operates after school and during the summer. The center was using Reading Bear, a phonics-based software program developed through the foundation. Anyone can find Reading Bear online and upload it, and the center staff was using the program on computers there.

Kim Brown of Greenwood, a foundation board member, is one of the center’s longtime volunteer teachers, so she’s seen Reading Bear work many times. The foundation’s current focus on early childhood education and childhood obesity hit the right buttons, she says.

And, Brown likes how the Community Foundation works. It requires commitments of time and money from its board members. One of the things board members do is investigate grant applicants from their home counties to make sure grants to those charities or nonprofits would serve an effective purpose. Grants, where a large amount of money would go to administrative services, raise red flags, she says. Those for new or expanded services have a better chance. The average grant is about $5,000, which means some grants are smaller and others are larger. Pittman says the foundation has a staff of six, spends about $350,000 a year on its operations and distributes about $2 million a year. Operational money mostly comes from the Crystal Ball an annual gala.

Here’s how the foundation’s website, describes the types of funding opportunities it offers:

Community Foundation Charitable Funds:

Any of these funds can be established in someone’s name, or in the name of a family or organization. An agreement to start a fund takes just minutes to prepare and a minimum of $5,000 tax-deductible donation.

Donor Advised Funds: Donors can have ongoing involvement in the use of a gift and if desired, work with the foundation’s grant-making staff, identifying ways to use dollars from the Donor Advised Fund to address the issues and needs they care about most. Donor recommendations are submitted to the foundation’s local board for confirmation; then grant dollars are distributed.

Designated Purpose: Donors can direct their gift to a specific charity or purpose. Help provide ongoing funding for a senior center, museum, the donor’s church, or virtually any non-profit charitable organization. Donors identify the recipient or recipients they wish to benefit through their gift; the foundation’s staff manages the annual distribution of funds.

Field of Interest: Donors can target their gift to address needs in an important area of community life. The arts. Aging. At-risk youth. Donors identify their personal interest area when making their gift; the foundation’s board awards grants to community agencies and programs that are making a difference in the area a donor selects.

Scholarship: Donors can invest their gift in a community’s future and show students they care, all with the guidance and personal services of the foundation. Donors determine the criteria students must meet to receive the scholarship established by the donor.

Unrestricted Funds: Donor gifts can address ever-changing community needs—including future needs that often cannot be anticipated at the time the gift is made. The flexibility of your unrestricted gifts enables the community foundation to respond to the community’s most pressing needs, today and tomorrow.

Pittman says donor-advised funds are one of the foundation’s sweet spots. The donor determining how and where their money is distributed and the foundation handles the rest. It’s like creating a private foundation under the Community Foundation’s umbrella.

Some individuals or organizations find endowments attractive. Tom Gresham, a board member from Indianola, along with his brother, Walton, and cousin, Bill McPherson, set up a $400,000 Endowment for the B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center in Indianola. The endowment generates revenue to cover part of the museum’s yearly costs.

It also serves as a base for fund-raising for the museum, and Gresham says he hopes the endowment will increase. The foundation’s services make this easier.

“It takes a tremendous responsibility off people,” he says. “The staff at the foundation does the work. They keep up with the accounting.” He likes donor-advised funds for the same reasons, and also because the donor retains control of where the money is distributed. The foundation manages more than 200 donor-advised funds;

Gresham noted the museum has a strong educational emphasis. Children who participate in its programs not only learn about music, but also healthy habits, such as how to eat nutritionally. “It’s been a great asset to the Delta, not just Indianola,” he says.

The foundation was established in 2002 in Desoto County with a $10 million grant from the Maddox Foundation, but the work genesis started two years earlier. Danny Williams, who grew up in Lambert, was part of an early group that wanted to provide more for northwest Mississippi. Williams, now a board member, says the group figured northwest Mississippi needed the same kind of help that similar foundations were providing in Memphis and northeast Mississippi.

“If the communities do better, then everyone is better off. We just wanted to make North  Mississippi a better place to live.”

Now more than 420 charitable organizations are supported.

The handful of counties first covered were expanded southward, and they now include Bolivar, Coahoma, DeSoto, Leflore, Marshall, Panola, Quitman, Sunflower, Tallahatchie, Tate and Tunica counties.

Scott Coopwood, who lives in Bolivar County and is this year’s chairman of Community Foundation, says Pittman was the first volunteer chairman in 2000. “We have a staff of six people now and so we have the capacity to watchdog over people’s contributions,”  says Coopwood.

Now, it’s time to move forward, Coopwood explained. “We are in the business of serving both the donors and the non-profits. We are in the business of helping both we have a mechanism to handle more than what we are doing. And, there is a need for more than what we are doing. So, we are trying to be in that mode.”