The Community Foundation of Tompkins County, a philanthropic organization based in Ithaca, is celebrating 20 years of service to the county this year. As those involved with and influenced by the organization describe, it’s been a long journey that has helped to create positive change throughout the county.
Community Foundations exist throughout the country, with the first one starting in 1914 in Cleveland, Ohio. As Community Foundation of Tompkins County CEO George Ferrari described, it wasn’t until the late 1990s that a group of county residents got together to create a Community Foundation here. And on May 4, 2000, the Community Foundation of Tompkins County was born.
“It was really local people making a decision about creating a resource for local people to support the work in the mission-driven sector,” Ferrari said. “It was a bunch of community leaders who got together and said, ‘This is part of what we need to complete the philanthropic infrastructure in Tompkins County.’”
The Foundation has grown and changed considerably since its inception, Ferrari said. Unlike other Community Foundations, the Community Foundation of Tompkins County never had an originating gift, so it’s had to work harder to raise its visibility and grow its resources to fulfill its goal in the community.
“Our mission is to improve the quality of life in Tompkins County by inspiring and supporting enduring philanthropy, and those words are chosen quite carefully,” Ferrari said.
Those words reflect the Foundation's commitment to four basic functions of acquisition, stewardship, analyzation and distribution, or as Ferrari puts it, “we take in, we take good care of and learn from and we circulate or we share three different kinds of resources.”
Those resources include financial resources, informational research and relational research, also known as social capital. Essentially, the Community Foundation helps to fund philanthropic efforts in the county while also helping connect nonprofits to the knowledge they need to fulfill their missions in the community.
Spreading those resources helps to address the big needs of the community, Ferrari said.
“The basic idea was to create a tool kit, a local way of weaving together relationships and resources that people can use to address things like opioid addiction issues, housing, differential income and educational attainment,” Ferrari said.
In 2019, the Community Foundation of Tompkins County hit several records, including over $22 million in assets, $4.3 million in gifts to the foundation, over $2 million in grants from the Foundation and 98 Legacy Society members who have expressed intentions of leaving gifts through wills and other means. Ferrari said that shows just how much the Foundation has grown and what sort of impact it’s having on community members. But he’s not the only one who can attest to the Foundation’s importance.
Foundation Board of Directors Chair Susan Murphy said she’s seen the Community Foundation grow since the beginning, and she believes in the work she and others at the organization do.
“It’s served as a catalyst for a lot of conversations about the needs in Tompkins County and the many ways that not-for-profit community can address those needs, and especially of late, trying to encourage what we call collective impact, organizations working together,” Murphy said. “In building the endowments that it has created over the last 20 years, it’s creating a permanent source of funding that will stay local.”
Jennifer Gabriel, director of development and community relations at Hospicare & Palliative Care Services, has been a Community Foundation donor for several years. She said she’s seen the difference the Foundation has on the county and wanted to support the Foundation’s enduring mission.
“The Community Foundation is a special organization,” Gabriel said. “My gifts to the Community Foundation reflect my desire to invest in the people and projects that make this a great place to call home.”
Margo Hittleman, coordinator for the Natural Leaders Initiative (NLI) and resource educator for Cornell Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County, said the NLI has received a number of grants from the Community Foundation’s Women’s Fund over the past seven years. She said those funds have been invaluable in helping her organization to continue to do great work in the community.
“Those grants have supported NLI’s work to catalyze, support and develop diverse community leadership, particularly for people from groups typically under-represented in civic and organizational leadership,” she said.
But it’s not just the financial support Hittleman appreciates; it’s also those other resources of relationships and information that have helped her and NLI.
“They have consistently encouraged us, shared resources, made useful introductions and cheered us on through the highs and lows of community change work,” she said. “It’s that two-way partnership in our community-building work that makes the Community Foundation so special.”
Diane Pamel, director of the Southworth Library in Dryden, said in a fall 2019 interview with Ithaca College student Maddie Veneziano that the Community Foundation’s funds have helped the library to start a storytime program, which has helped draw in visitors. Pamel said what she’s appreciated most of all is the relationship Ferrari and others at the Community Foundation have formed with library members.
“They’ve been just wonderful to work with,” Pamel said. “They’ve really supported what we’re doing and have answered our questions with technology issues and the language of the grants. They’ve really worked with the library to make it more user friendly. And I also appreciate that they speak their language and they work on a real people level.”
CFCU’s Rick Page is a member of the Community Foundation of Tompkins County board of directors, and he said he joined the Foundation because of that commitment to making the community a better place for everyone and the approach the organization has taken.
“Their content is not superficial,” Page said. “There’s real value being built by this organization. Community Foundation’s approach is truly unique. Donations or gifts can be tailored to not only the receiver but to the donor’s needs. …This is a truly unique perspective in philanthropy.”
Ferrari said that the Community Foundation enjoys working with so many different organizations because that communication helps gauge the needs of the community. Tompkins County has a vast variety of cultures, and that diversity meshes well with the goal of the Community Foundation, he said.
“People in this community are particularly, I think, focused on not settling for the status quo,” he said. “It’s very exciting to serve a community that says, ‘We’re not going to settle for that’ or ‘We have a different way of solving the problem,’ and that kind of energy in a community can often benefit from resources, like informational, financial and relational resources that we acquire and then circulate and share.”
In order to better understand the needs of the county, the Community Foundation works with groups and organizations like the Tompkins County Chamber of Commerce, United Way and Rotary. In addition, over 150 volunteers help to reach new areas and demographics of the county each year.
“It’s really a service approach, and we don’t believe that we have all the right ideas or all the right answers, but we believe if we foster those relationships in mutually reinforcing kind of ways, in ways that build trust, in ways that we have conversations across differences, that we can be stronger for it,” he said.
And that involvement in the community is what has helped the Foundation to grow and what will help it last long into the future, Ferrari said.
“This is not a homogeneous place,” Ferrari said. “There are people that have differing views, that experience life in different kinds of ways, and we want to be a big tent underneath which all those folks can come together. … As we stay true to that goal, we’ll continue to grow because it’s such an amazing community to serve.”
Ferrari said the Community Foundation is in the “forever business,” which means that it strives to grow the assets of all donors over time and to continue to provide resources for the community for years to come.
“We continue to provide trustworthy services and continue to honor the interests and desires of local donors and folks who are doing the work in the community and folks who are benefiting from the work being done in the community,” Ferrari said. “We are, in essence, building something that we then hand off to the next generation so they can use it in ways they see fit that we can’t even imagine.”
Though the Foundation continues to face some challenges with fundraising and community awareness of its work, Ferrari said that once people understand what Community Foundation does, they want to get and stay involved, and that’s a good sign for the future.
“We don’t think we’re the ultimate answer to any question, but we also think that we can contribute to almost every challenge we have in the community in some meaningful way, and I hope that more people can see the value of the Community Foundation and support that value,” Ferrari said. “We’ll always have a need for Community Foundation.”
In its 20th year, the Community Foundation is holding a number of events to get the community involved in the organization, including a Chamber After Hours in April, a party for the Just Because Center in July, and an installation in the History Center of Tompkins County September through December of this year about the history of philanthropy. Visit the Foundation’s website at www.cftompkins.org for more information.
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