Suffolk Foundation growing up

Published 10:24 pm Friday, June 14, 2013

The Suffolk Foundation is turning 7 this year. In nonprofit years, that’s like being a teenager.

And that means, like most teenagers, the foundation is dealing with issues it has never encountered before. That’s a good thing, board members say.

“We’re a very new organization in a world of very old ones, and I think we have accomplished a lot in a short period of time,” said Scott Carr, a board member and past president. “We’re simply thinking more like a teenager rather than a newborn.”

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The foundation was started in 2006 and has now acquired about $4.5 million in assets. It annually awards grants that support community needs such as health care for lower-income residents, college scholarships, the arts, animal welfare, the environment, literacy and more. It also administers bequests from a number of families for specific needs, mostly scholarships.

Carr said the foundation’s growing presence in the community is enabling it to “grow up,” in a sense.

“We’re not a square-one startup,” he said. “We have established ourselves. We’ve gotten over that hump where a lot of similar organizations would fail, and now sustainability is a given.”

The foundation’s challenge now is to grow responsibly, Carr said. To that end, the board recently heard a presentation from Bobby Thalhimer, senior vice president for philanthropic services and donor engagement of The Community Foundation, which serves Richmond and central Virginia.

“He’s pretty well-respected within the foundation world, especially the community foundation world,” said Billy Hill, executive director of the Suffolk Foundation.

The Community Foundation is the 17th largest in the country, Hill said.

“We thought his insight might be able to fire the board up and give them a few different ideas,” Hill said.

The board enjoyed Thalhimer’s talk so much that he has been invited back for the annual community forum, set for November.

In some ways, the foundation’s growth has had a domino effect. The more it grows, the more grants it can give out, and the more grants it gives out, the more people become aware of it and give money.

“It’s our goal each year that our pot of funds will be larger,” Carr said. But, he added, “Giving away money doesn’t get easier when you get larger.” That’s because there will be a larger amount of follow-up work on the grants that have been given.”

“It’s growing pains,” he said. “Not pains in the sense that there’s any problem. We’re dealing with wonderful problems.”

Other board members concurred.

“We’re beginning to make progress with the foundation,” George Birdsong said. “I personally think it’s a great thing for the community to have, and over time it will be more and more used as people learn how it can benefit them.”

Vice President Jay Butler also said he believes the foundation will be a “huge help to the citizens.”

“I think it’s going to continue to grow, but it’s going to take time,” he said.

Hill said the foundation is always looking for new donors, but he advised people looking to give large sums to talk with their financial advisers.

“We take gifts from everyone — from a dollar donation to thousands, and in one case, a million.”

For more information on the Suffolk Foundation, visit www.suffolkfoundation.org.