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The Bright Side of Giving

King Street Ctr Photo resized

Image courtesy of The King Street Center. 

I am a relentless and dogged optimist. That is likely why I can’t help but respond to my friend Bill Schubart’s recent commentary on “Philanthropy: The Dark Side of Giving...Getting.” (Full Disclosure: Bill is a great friend and mentor.) At a time when clickbait framing tends to the dark and stormy, it is worth keeping the bright side in mind as we weigh Bill’s important message.

No doubt, the concerns outlined are real, but when we think locally and stay connected, philanthropy and the act of giving—including the act of giving through charitable vehicles like donor advised funds—bring us more closely together. When those funds are positioned to be relevant to the needs of our neighbors, skepticism about philanthropy at large shouldn’t offer a reason to do less, which is the real risk. When I think of the role of philanthropy, I see more brightness than darkness. I see a thirst for insight, curiosity, and a deep commitment to Vermont communities. As President of the Vermont Community Foundation, I am grateful for the distinction offered by community foundations generally, and for the fact that we have a strong and vibrant community foundation here in Vermont.

Community foundations are uniquely positioned to tie the role of philanthropy to the hopes, aspirations, and needs of the communities they serve—a framework that has been baked into the model since their inception. The Vermont Community Foundation was created in 1986 to be an enduring source of philanthropy that supports Vermont communities and the well-being of Vermonters. Over the course of 35 years, it has grown into a statewide constellation of roughly 900 funds, including donor advised funds, that are managed and deployed through grantmaking with a deep focus on that mission.

Community foundations are unique in the landscape of philanthropy because they define their impact by place—a geography within which a difference is made for the benefit of people who live there. That compels the Vermont Community Foundation and its peers to think holistically about how issues and conditions intersect in that place and who is working effectively.

Philanthropy is at work all around you. Whether in times of crisis like the onset of the pandemic, or supporting farmers after Tropical Storm Irene in September 2011, or the ongoing systems-level work of the McClure Foundation and Let’s Grow Kids and the Vermont Women’s Fund; whether it’s the Brownsville Forest, Whale Dance in Randolph, pocket parks in Brattleboro, business accelerators, after school programs, college courses in corrections facilities, or grants that support the behavioral and mental well-being of Vermont youth—philanthropy is embedded in the communities where we live, work, and play. And it offers a vital perspective: The act of giving is an act of faith in the belief that progress is still possible.

In March of 2020, the Vermont Community Foundation launched the VT COVID-19 Response Fund to address surging needs across Vermont. At the depth of the market decline, donor advised fundholders at the Vermont Community Foundation and at other institutions, along with businesses and individuals across the state, demonstrated incredible generosity. Many gave immediately, when investments were thirty percent off, so it cost $1.30 to donate a dollar. When the market came back by the end of the year, many gave again. The unique attributes of the donor advised fund made much of that generosity possible.

The impact of that generosity is being felt to this day. The responsive grantmaking focused on the urgent needs of the moment—care for isolated seniors and young people wrestling with staying connected to school and peers, housing, clothing, food, support for systemically marginalized Vermonters overlooked in the early days of the public health outreach—more than $5 million dollars went to organizations at work on those needs. The VT COVID-19 Response Fund’s strategy also looked to the long-term recovery. This included grants to seed rural connectivity and help launch the communications union districts, support for dislocated workers to navigate education and training for new jobs, support for emerging leaders, and to foster welcoming, equitable, and anti-racist communities, and much, much more.

We should be vigilant against the abuses that exist in the charitable sector broadly, as in any industry, but we should not allow that vigilance to obscure the work of the many nonprofits in the state who work tirelessly to make our communities stronger. And it should be a source of confidence that an organization holding an enduring vision for Vermont communities constantly seeks and shares insight about how best to make a difference within and across a multitude of issue areas. As we look out over the long term, our mission extends as community circumstances change. The work of making a difference is never done. 

The combination of insight and stakeholders who care about putting their resources to work making a difference in Vermont represents the special alchemy of a community foundation. And despite the policy concerns about the rise of commercial charitable gift funds at Schwab, Vanguard, Fidelity, and other commercial providers, at its core, the donor advised fund at a community foundation remains an incredibly valuable charitable tool.

It is easy to get cynical—progress seems hard to come by in America right now. In the abstract, some of philanthropy’s tools and practices might compound that perception. The rhetoric of any issue flows from place to place, and in so doing, those approaches get homogenized. Collectively, we wonder why progress on any single issue is hard, and yet we skip the step of considering where we are. We apply the same approaches while ignoring the context of place. That’s where a community foundation stands out: The combination of insight, the ability to coordinate resources from multiple funders, and the ability to contextualize for the communities we live in and navigate issues over time has been incredibly valuable for Vermonters and our communities.

This is true in times of crisis, and it is true in the in-between times too. At the Vermont Community Foundation, our work is also about sustaining progress. We began focusing on closing the opportunity gap in Vermont five years ago, as people’s frustrations at being left out and left behind began cresting into civic and social disengagement.

Five years later, we believe now is one of the best times to be a young Vermonter. The potential for a universal solution to our child care crisis is at our fingertips thanks to the work of Let’s Grow Kids. The McClure Foundation has made agenda-setting commitments to free community college, and the Curtis Fund is providing innovative scholarships for career-oriented credentials of value. And those are just a few examples. All of it made possible by philanthropy.

The act of giving, far more often than it results in darkness, is an act that connects neighbor to neighbor and people to each other. Giving is an activity that is and will remain vital to our progress on opportunity, equity, climate, and civic and cultural vitality for years to come. I hope Bill's commentary leaves readers with the knowledge that they have a trusted partner in philanthropy when it comes to the Vermont Community Foundation and the many nonprofits we work with.

Philanthropy is all around you, driving a myriad of activities as we emerge from the pandemic and consider what true resilience looks like for Vermont communities in the years ahead. That aspiration, along with a contagious belief that progress is still possible when we look out for each other and step up for each other, is deserving of a new headline. Let’s call it “The Bright Side of Giving.”

Dan Smith
President & CEO