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Charitable foundations improve communities

| Wednesday, May 9, 2012, 10:48 a.m.

"Anyone," says Bobbi Watt Geer, "can be a philanthropist."

And in Westmoreland County, several organizations can make that happen.

Geer is president of the Community Foundation of Westmoreland County, which manages about 160 component funds that benefit various causes from one end of the county to the other.

It also administers The Greensburg Foundation Fund, which supports projects within the 15601 ZIP code, and has instituted the Westmoreland Now and Forever Fund, a discretionary grant-making account to bolster a wide range of organizations.

In eastern Westmoreland, Jack Thorne sits on the board of governors of The Ligonier Valley Endowment, which has been supporting causes that improve the quality of life in that area of the county since 1975.

There are other foundations, too -- family organizations such as the Katherine Mabis McKenna, McFeeley-Rogers, Robertshaw and Richard King Mellon -- that make significant contributions to worthy projects in the county.

In all, the foundations support local causes to the tune of millions of dollars annually.

The Ligonier Valley Endowment, for example, distributed more than $85,000 in 2003 to support projects from the arts to recreation, from education to tools for firefighters. Since its inception, the endowment has provided more than $1.5 million to assist about 70 nonprofit organizations.

Foundation administrators suggest that many residents are probably unaware of how the organizations function.

"In fact, we would like more people to know about us," said Thorne, "and we are taking steps to explain how we work and how what we do improves life here in general. Right now, we have a very generous $500,000 matching grant challenge from the Richard King Mellon Foundation, which would bring about $1 million into the endowment.

"It's an extraordinary opportunity, and we need to reach into the community to explain that.

"We believe we have about one-third committed, and we've already had our first public meeting. We believe that once people realize what we do, the support will be there."

"One thing we don't do," Thorne said, is "provide all of the funding for a project. We bring a nice start to a project, and when others see that the Ligonier Endowment is involved, it becomes a de facto blessing for that organization.

"It suggests that there is oversight, and that lends credibility."

Trustees meet quarterly and comprehensively investigate grant requests and proposals. The endowment creators envisioned a fund that would help the Ligonier Valley in general, so there are few specific named funds, though one can be created if minimum funding is established.

"We want an improved community," Thorne says. "We believe the endowment can help fill in the gaps and support those organizations who have great causes."

The organization is under the umbrella of The Pittsburgh Foundation, but its money is distributed only in the Ligonier Valley and only local members of the board decide which of those projects are funded.

The expertise of trustees is critical to a successful foundation, Geer said.

"We have 20 board members from throughout the county," she explained, "and they each bring diverse areas of expertise and a broad knowledge of the community at large. We have an understanding of local needs, and that's what local funds should address."

That means financial support for nonprofits that benefit everything from animal welfare to the arts, education to the environment.

The Community Foundation of Westmoreland County recently tapped its Now and Forever Fund to distribute $120,128 to support 16 projects. It had investigated more than 30 grant proposals and applications from nonprofit concerns.

While some funds are donor-directed to specific uses -- scholarships, for example -- the Now and Forever fund is designed as a broad discretionary account to benefit a wide range of causes in a variety of county locales.

"It's about improving the quality of life, and our board understands that completely," Geer said. "We don't sit still. We're not interested in just making the grants; we are always looking for ways to help nonprofits function more efficiently and grow.

"We can make a grant, but we also can help nonprofits with some tools and strategies. We don't just mail a check, we deliver it. It reminds us of the positive impact we can make.

"The ultimate goal," Geer said, "is to make this a better place to live for all of us."

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