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Season of Giving: Community Foundations and Kitchen Tables

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Why give money to a celebrity's fund when you can create one of your own?

The United States has more than 650 community foundations that allow anyone with extra cash to set up designated funds, anonymous or in their own names, and create their own charitable programs.

Donors expect their money to be used efficiently. And Americans, ranked as the most generous and most individualistic people in the world, appreciate the control and choices. The combination of these traits is why community foundations flourish.

The foundations manage the funds, earning interest and providing lasting resources that benefit community causes, including the arts, the environment, education, religion and health. Donors can design their own program — say, for awarding scholarships, supporting book purchases at a library, purchasing plants or trees for community gardens, providing teacher supplies for special projects, the list is endless. The donors work with community foundation staff members to draft a contract with the community foundation that manages the funding and the program.

"Community foundations provide a simple, powerful and highly personal approach to giving," reports the collaboration of the Council on Foundations and Community Foundations of America.  The community foundations work with individuals to provide personalized service, access to local expertise, and support of community leadership.

Nonprofit community foundations allow individuals to take a hands-on approach in tackling problems they witness in their communities. It's not impossible for a major non-government organization or non-profit initiative to start at a kitchen table.

Likewise, universities allow alumni to start such designated funds and scholarships, and students can benefit from donors who had the foresight to reserve and designate funds long ago.

The descendants of Joseph Eliot  were such donors. The Rev. Eliot lived from 1637 to 1694, serving as a minister in Guilford, Connecticut. But he also had an interest in botany, medicine, and other sciences. After his death, his oldest son endowed a scholarship that still supports tuition 300 years later, encouraging students who share his interests.

Community foundations and universities offer efficiency and management expertise, with management or administrative fees as low as one percent. Individuals and families do not have to be billionaires to establish endowed funds, and the minimum for some funds is as low as $5000.

Trends in individual donations matter, because since 2000 most giving (about 80%) comes from living individuals, and not from estates, corporations or private foundations, according to Pursant and  Giving USA. Collectively, the nation's community foundations hold more than $30 billion in assets, managed by professional financial advisers to earn interest, which then goes toward local grants.

Community foundations are in every state, and donors can find the nearest one by going to the Council of Foundations and Community Foundations. "All community foundations are overseen by a volunteer board of leading citizens and run by professionals with expertise in identifying their communities’ needs," reports the Council. Community foundations ensure that donations support an individual's goals, and the contract combined with solid management ensures that those goals will be met.

 Starting such a fund can ensure that the story of you and your community, and the reasons you care, live on. 

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