By Todd Cohen
With the death on Aug. 29 of Lewis R. Holding, North Carolina lost not only a business leader who built his family’s bank into a solid business that puts today’s over-leveraged lenders to shame, but also a sure-eyed visionary who created a charitable foundation that has become a model for helping givers throughout the state grow charitable assets in their communities.
Known as “Snow,” a nickname he received in childhood because of his fair hair, Holding in 1988 created the North Carolina Community Foundation to help fill what he saw as a gap in local philanthropic resources, particularly in rural counties with less wealth than the state’s larger, more affluent metro areas.
Some philanthropic leaders in those larger metro areas initially saw the North Carolina Community Foundation, because of its statewide franchise, as a potential competitor for contributions from their own local donors. Some still hold that view.
But Holding, a political and business conservative who served for decades as chairman and CEO of Raleigh-based First Citizens Bank, believed competition was good for community philanthropy, and that offering givers more choices for investing their charitable dollars would make the charitable pie bigger.
“I don’t think competition has hurt anybody,” he told me in 1991 in a rare interview for The News & Observer in Raleigh. “It would be a breath of fresh air in this business.”
Today, through 59 local affiliates that serve 65 counties throughout the state, the Raleigh-based North Carolina Community Foundation manages over $100 million in charitable assets and makes annual grants totaling roughly $5 million.
Modeled on First Citizens, which the Holding family built in large part because it was willing to open branches in sparsely-populated counties, the North Carolina Community Foundation committed itself to develop those underserved markets.
“Snow was visionary,” Jim Black, a member of the foundation’s board of directors and senior vice president and director of client development for Wachovia, said in an interview.
“He wanted people in those communities to have an economical way to express their philanthropy in their communities, keep the money at home,” Black said, “and the community foundation’s vision was really to help promote that and make that possible.”
Unlike private foundations, which typically get most or all of their funds from a single donor like an individual, family or corporation, community foundations accept funds from anyone.
Community foundations, one of the fastest-growing sectors in the charitable marketplace, invest the funds and, with the advice of the donors, make grants to causes the donors care about.
Jennifer Tolle Whiteside, president of the North Carolina Community Foundation, said in an interview that Holding’s vision was to “ensure that philanthropy was extended to all walks of life across the state.”
His approach to growing philanthropy was “about being flexible,” she said, “It was about being inclusive with communities. It was about ensuring that rural North Carolina had a place at the table and that everyone could be a philanthropist.”
He also believed growing philanthropy required asking people to give.
“You have to ask people for money and you have to be clear about it and you have to not be ashamed of asking people for money,” Whiteside said. “He challenged our board, he challenged our affiliates, to make sure we were asking.”
With First Citizens often providing startup funds, the foundation recruited individuals in local counties to form local affiliates, contribute funds and set up local boards to help make grants to local charities.
Today, still modeling itself on the bank, the foundation provides centralized back-office services for its local affiliates.
It helps the affiliates market their philanthropic services, find new donors, invest their assets, make grants from funds the donors create, handle accounting, and file reports with the IRS.
And it tries to make philanthropy easy for donors, offering a charitable alternative to creating their own foundations by providing them with legal, tax, estate-planning and grantmaking services.
In the 1991 interview, Holding said his estate plan called for leaving at least part of his holdings, which at the time included First Citizens stock estimated then to be worth at least $48 million — to the foundation.
While Whiteside did not know any details about his estate plan, she said he had created several funds at the foundation to support his charitable interests and “was always extremely generous in his philanthropic work.”
Whether his estate leaves a gift to the North Carolina Community Foundation or not, the very existence of the foundation is a timeless gift that will continue making a difference for generations by asking North Carolinians in all walks of life in communities throughout the state to give.