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March 2007
Philanthropic Facilitator
By Ellison Clary

     Two issues John Crosland Jr. is passionate about are affordable housing and learning disabilities. The chairman of the diversified real estate company that bears his name wants to help people find adequate living quarters and to teach those with learning disorders, both now as well as long after he passes away.
     He found a way to do that at Foundation For The Carolinas.
     The Foundation helped Crosland form a board to administer funds he has donated for dealing with both problems. With some members appointed by Crosland and others named by the Foundation, the board works on training and education—and more. It is starting to make grants to worthy initiatives.
     “It’s a perfect example of why an individual of means chooses Foundation For The Carolinas rather than setting up his own private foundation,” says Michael Marsicano, president and chief executive of Foundation For The Carolinas. “We are the administrative unit that could bring all these experts to the table. If John were just on his own, he couldn’t have accomplished as much for his board.”
     Crosland agrees. “They have taken a lot of the burden off the individual who gives money,” he says. “They sort through issues and make recommendations. They are extremely helpful. They have the know-how to do it right.”
     From its offices on South Tryon Street, Foundation For The Carolinas is a non-profit corporation that helps individuals, families, nonprofits and corporations impact their communities through philanthropy. It operates in 13 counties in the Greater Charlotte region, in both North Carolina and South Carolina.
     As a public charity, the Foundation enjoys favorable tax treatment for gifts. With low administrative costs, it manages, invests and distributes the income from these donations, as directed by the givers. It does this through three centers for giving: The Center for Personal and Family Philanthropy, the Center for Nonprofits, and the Center for Corporate Philanthropy.
     Marsicano boils down the mission of the Foundation to one sentence: “Our job is to help donors accomplish the philanthropic interests that they have in the community,” he says simply. 
     Grants from the Foundation cover a wide range, including the arts, the environment, historic preservation, education, health and human services, religion, civic engagement, social capital, and services to youth and the elderly.
     For 2006, the Foundation enjoyed record results. It brought in $211 million in donations, pushing total assets to $601. Not bad for an entity that started in 1958 with $3,000 from the United Way. Known as the United Community Foundation then, it became Foundation For The Carolinas in 1984.
     Those 2006 results put the Foundation among the top performing foundations in the country, ahead of similar entities in places such as Atlanta, Phoenix, Boston, San Francisco and Chicago. A foundation based in Los Angeles brought in more than $400 million, but that included a single bequest for half that total.
     Just as important, the banner year helped Foundation For The Carolinas distribute $72 million in grants to worthy causes. That money came from the approximately 1,600 charitable funds the Foundation holds.

 Fast Growth Nothing New 
Fast growth isn’t new to Marsicano. He took the helm of Charlotte’s Arts & Science Council (ASC) when he moved here from Durham, where he was executive director of the Durham Arts Council and Royal Arts Center. When he started in 1989, the ASC’s most recent fund drive had collected about $2 million. When he left, the campaign brought in about $8 million and the budget was up to $13 million. Arts endowments on his watch grew from $30,000 to $52,000,000.
     He took the ASC position, Marsicano says, because he saw that greater Charlotte had the financial resources and the civic energy to place arts at the forefront of the community agenda. “I’d like to think that’s what we helped accomplish,” he adds in his soft but firm voice.
      After a decade at the ASC, Marsicano developed an itch to do something else. When the board of the Foundation sounded him out, he saw its leadership role as a welcome challenge that allowed him to keep his family in Charlotte.
      He signed on in 1999 and, right away, noticed similarities to his ASC work. But he saw some important differences, too. 
     “Many of the donors are the same,” Marsicano says, “with the exception that the Foundation’s spectrum of donor interest is much greater because it’s not just arts supporters. We tend to assist patrons who have significant financial resources for multiple philanthropic pursuits.” Unlike the ASC, which convinces people to contribute to its plan for supporting the arts, the Foundation works with donors to execute their plans. 
     Riley Fields, director of community relations for the Carolina Panthers, praises the Foundation’s willingness and ability to handle special requests. 
     “A good example is our Weekend Warrior Flag Football Tournament which raises funds that ultimately benefit the Levine Children’s Hospital,” Fields says. The tourney receives a multitude of individual team registration payments. “The Foundation’s ability to accommodate us making multiple deposits into our fund without even blinking an eye has been really appreciated,” he says.
    The Foundation can and does do that for a variety of donors, Marsicano says, adding that he likes the diversity.
     “We work with public education one day, we work with the arts one day, we work on greenways and environmental issues the next day,” Marsicano says. “My passion for one subject—the arts—has been replaced with a great interest in multiple subjects. I really enjoy the breadth of disciplines.”
     Another plus for Marsicano is getting to know interesting people. “For people to either inherit or to have made their wealth, they are fascinating people who have done fascinating things that led to the accumulation of wealth,” he says with a shake of his head.

 Bringing Business Acumen To Bear
     Much as he likes leading the Foundation, Marsicano realized early on that he needed advice on business management. When Laura Meyer came calling about writing a business plan for the Foundation, Marsicano asked her to think about becoming a full-time executive. Meyer never got to compose that plan but, a year later, in September 2002, the former Bank of America marketing manager signed on as executive vice president. Marsicano says he sees her as a co-leader.
     Though both are from New York and earned degrees at Duke University, Marsicano and Meyer are very different. Marsicano holds a bachelor’s, a master’s of education and a doctor of philosophy, all from Duke. Meyer got a bachelor’s of Russian-French at Duke, then earned a master’s of business administration in night classes at Fordham University while working for CitiGroup in New York City. She joined Bank of America in Charlotte in 1995. She was running her own consulting company when Marsicano approached her. 
     “What we paired is my non-profit experience, donor relations and fund-raising abilities with Laura’s business acumen, people management, understanding of marketing, and her understanding of investments,” Marsicano says. 
     The Foundation, he adds, could be called a bank of sorts, and Meyer picks up on that thread.
     “Our banking relationships are very important to us and we look to collaborative relationships with trust departments to shore up the philanthropic distribution side,” she says. 
     Foundation board member Sally Robinson, a long-time Charlotte civic leader, praises the Marsicano-Meyer team. “They’ve got to be the best one-two punch in the foundation world,” Robinson raves. 
     “I really think the Foundation is at the center of civic life in Charlotte,” she says. Grants from the Foundation, she adds, “are really reaching the core of community problems and helping to solve them.” 
     Robinson cites the Foundation’s work through an affiliate, which partnered with the Community Building Initiative to improve Charlotte’s social capital. This effort to bridge barriers of race, age, ethnicity, gender, economic status and religion is called “Front Porch Grants: People Building Bridges.” It awards money to grass roots groups such as neighborhood associations and social clubs.

 The Role Of Neutral Convener
     The Foundation also was the neutral convener of the Citizens’ Task Force on Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. Endorsed by business leaders and elected officials, that group released 21 recommendations for CMS management and governance to improve the school system’s ability to meet the challenges of today and the future.
      Robinson sees more initiatives of that type emanating from the Foundation, which more and more could act as a convener of proper parties to address major community issues. Marsicano and Meyer agree.
      Meyer and her team are developing what she calls “full customer relationship management” to allow donors to use the Foundation as they wish and, in turn, help the Foundation better understand the philanthropic needs of both donors and the community.
      Marsicano plans to increase the Foundation’s development director staff enough to provide a full-time development professional for geographical units of three counties each. He sees this and Meyer’s CRM efforts taking the Foundation toward the model Robinson envisions, and he believes that is part of a national trend.
      “Because there is such political gridlock, because there are such polarized opinions in society today,” Marsicano says, “community foundations seem to be growing in part because they enable a community to grapple with a subject area in a safe place where all opinions are valued. That sounds lofty, but I think it’s a large part of why we’re growing as quickly as we are.”
     He points out that the Foundation works diligently to strengthen its financial muscle so it is better able to take on big issues and make a difference. 
      “Making sure the size of our funds grow is a major part of what we do, with thoughtful investments,” Marsicano says. “But we are not only growing the funds by prudent management and investments, we are also encouraging people to continually capitalize the funds with greater amounts of giving.”
      Marsicano believes more people are gaining an awareness of what the Foundation can do and is capable of doing. “If you are a donor, you know the Foundation because we provide services for your account,” he explains. “If you are an agency that has endowments here, you know us because we manage, invest and distribute the income off the endowment. If you are a beneficiary of our grant making, you know us because we have helped your cause. If you are a professional advisor, you know us because you work with our team to help your client.”
      Remember, he smiles, the Foundation distributed $72 million in grants for 2006.
      To illustrate what the Foundation can become, Robinson uses an example from one of Crosland’s hot buttons, affordable housing. 
     “Everybody knows there’s not enough affordable housing,” she says. Acting as a convener, the Foundation “would bring together the groups in the city that need to talk about this issue and begin a dialogue to see where that would take us,” she says. 
     “We can bring leadership and connections,” Marsicano says. “You’re going to see a significant growth in that role of the Foundation in the next few years.”

Ellison Clary is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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