They say change is healthy, and inevitable! So many transitions are taking place this month, I’m trying to keep my head above water to keep up with them all.
April is full of annual grant-making and scholarship activity here at the North Carolina Community Foundation. The boards that I serve are busy with their grants seasons, and my phone is continually ringing with nonprofits asking about grant opportunities. I enjoy working with the board members to evaluate the grant applications and make decisions on funding. And it’s exciting to see the projects the nonprofits are undertaking that need the boards’ assistance.
Some of these boards are celebrating anniversaries this year, and planning gatherings to honor their many years of grant giving and serving their communities. I applaud their accomplishments and love hearing their stories of past board members, grant recipients and the relationships they’ve built.
And as for scholarships, this month is such an intense season, with scholarship applications due and scholarship awards committee gathering to select the lucky recipients. I love reading the essays in the applications and imagining the lives ahead for these applicants. Am I reading the work of the next governor? The next state attorney general or U.S. Senator?
The changes going on in my private life can make the grants and scholarship rush seem snail-like by comparison. Maybe it’s because we recently had to put our elderly family cat to sleep and the house has become way too quiet, so my husband and I are talking about adopting another cat soon to fill that emotional emptiness. That change will be huge, I know, but I look forward to picking out a new pet to love. But the transition of mourning one pet while looking forward to a new one feels odd.
Or maybe it’s because I have a college senior at my house, who’s set to graduate next month (the commencement speaker is a former first lady – how’s that for mixing progress and nostalgia?) and who called me recently to tell me in a rush of excitement that he had just picked up his cap and gown. After hanging up I had to sit still for a minute and remember that heady feeling that four years of work was about to end with a name announced and short walk across a stage. I want to tell him, “Stop! Slow down! You’ll want to remember these last few weeks before everything changes for you!” But, like most sons, he ignores those claw marks on his ankles made by his sentimental mother.
Another change is that my brothers and I have been working on weekends to get our 40-year-old family beach house ready for sale. We’ve been doing a lot of repair jobs and cleaning out so that the house looks the best it can once it goes on the market. Recently the three of us met for a hard weekend of work, with no spouses or children, just the three siblings with tool boxes and old t-shirts. I tried hard not to slip into my bossy big-sister voice while we worked in various parts of the house. We were doing well with getting our work done, until we came to the linen closet. That’s the place where my father put various household odds and ends and my mother stored the linens, but also where she had stashed small bags of shells the grandchildren had collected on their many walks on the beach with her. I carefully stored those plastic bags to take back home and show my boys – a part of their history. The linen closet is also where she kept the old board games that we all used to play after supper. My brothers and I looked at each other as we pulled out Clue, Monopoly, Scrabble and the other classics we were raised on. None of us could bear to throw them out, so we divided them up as we would have the family silver – and we’ll treat them as such.
I have plenty of time to think about these milestones as I work outside in my gardens, happy that Easter has come and gone, that pollen season is finally waning, that my perennials are returning and that the changes in my yard are reflecting the changes taking place at work and at home.
Last week when the National Archives released the 1940 census, I couldn’t wait to search for a record of my great-grandparents. Although I have only vague memories of them from my childhood, I grew up hearing inspiring stories about their lives.
Many of the facts on the census only confirmed what I already knew. In 1940, census records indicate that Herman and Mabel Matthews lived on a working farm (as did half of North Carolina’s total population in those days), which was located just outside of Carthage in Moore County. At the time of the census, he was thirty-one and she was twenty-eight. They had four children ranging from age one to twelve. Herman farmed tobacco and helped his father run Matthews Market, the local general store.
|Sandi at three with Great-Grandma
Mabel in the dark blue dress.
Herman and Mabel met at a community barn raising as teenagers and married shortly thereafter. In 1927 or so, Herman built their house with his own two hands, proudly chiseling the letter “M” for Matthews on the chimney. They lived there the rest of their lives. As a young couple, Herman and Mabel were just starting their family during the Great Depression, a time in which farmers across North Carolina were in dire straits. The price of tobacco and cotton plummeted, and farmers were only making a few cents on the dollar of each pound produced and sold at auction. In those days, these were the area’s cash crops on which most families’ livelihoods depended. Years of land cultivation for tobacco and cotton meant the nutrients in the soil were significantly depleted, making vegetable gardening a challenge. Families struggled just to put food on the table, and many suffered from malnutrition and illness.
The common theme of all the stories I heard growing up was how the Matthews were able to overcome all sorts of trials and tribulations, not just through steadfast faith, resolve, hard work, and frugality, but also and especially through their ties in the community. Modern sociologists have a fancy term for this: “social capital.” I think my great-grandparents simply thought of it as being good neighbors.
The word “philanthropist” wasn’t in my great-grandparents’ vocabulary, but they cared about making their community a better place and were very generous with their time and money. Herman helped build Farm Life School so that young people in the community didn't have to walk or ride more than a couple miles to school. He also helped build Yates Thagard Church and later served as a deacon. Mabel was the epitome of a traditional Southern lady -- a tireless mother, an excellent cook and a Sunday school teacher at church. She was a lady who showed up at your house with a casserole when you were sick with the flu.
Herman was, by all accounts, the pillar of the community, helping his aging father run the general store, attending to the farm, and raising his three sons and daughter. According to the stories I heard growing up, Matthews Market was the neighborhood watering hole, a place where you could purchase a cup of coffee, a pound of sugar, or even a new pair of shoe laces with nothing more than a handshake and a promise to pay after harvest. Some patrons failed to make good on their promise to pay, but the Matthews’ policy was to “pay what you can, when you can.”
As I contemplated the extraordinary lives of my great-grandparents, I began thinking about how the community has changed since their time. While North Carolina’s urban areas are growing at unprecedented rates, rural communities have been left in the dust. Many are struggling. Rapid changes in business and industry, coupled with the loss of manufacturing and farm jobs, means that North Carolina’s rural citizens face higher unemployment rates than the rest of the state. They also face higher rates of poverty and limited access to healthcare.
As younger generations are moving to high-growth urban areas in pursuit of higher education, jobs, and opportunity, they are leaving behind a population that is low income, aging and in need of basic services. In fact, I don’t think my great-grandparents would even recognize their community if they were alive today. The culture of the place has changed.
I was reminded of a book I read a couple years ago, Harvard professor Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. In Bowling Alone, Putnam charts the decline of social capital with a decline in community and civic engagement. Putnam claims that our shifting, ever-changing population (one in five people will move in any given year), as well as technological advances such as internet and television (the average American watches 10 hours a week), creates communities in which people are solitary and isolated, less empathetic toward their fellow citizens, and are thus less engaged in civic life and community building efforts.
The good news is Putnam offers a solution to revitalizing communities and connectivity with numerous case studies and strategies to improving social capital. Putnam earned his PhD from Yale and has devoted his career to studying social capital, but I think his solutions would have been thought of as just plain common sense to my great-grandparents!
It starts with improving connectivity and getting people engaged in community and civic life. This is an important part of our mission at the NCCF. Community foundations offer a vast wealth of resources that can be part of the solution. With its 1,000+ volunteers across the state and its affiliate leadership, NCCF’s affiliates are bringing together individuals, people in the businesses community, educators, and local leaders to tackle community issues such as social activism, poverty, access to healthcare, and education. But this is just a drop in the bucket of what can be done.
Each and every one of us should and must have a role in strengthening communities. And helping doesn’t necessarily mean joining a nonprofit board or giving thousands of dollars. Bake a casserole to take to a neighbor. Volunteer to build a playground. Attend a town hall meeting. Vote. Fight to keep essential local services in the downtown area --post office, police station, school, etc. Support local businesses. Organize a neighborhood potluck.
In essence, be a good neighbor.
When I moved off the farm and came to Raleigh to attend college, I was cautioned not to forget where I came from. I suppose I didn’t give it much thought at the time, but now I realize that this was very important advice I should take to heart. We can each play a role in making North Carolina a better place for all of its citizens, rural and urban. Let’s not forget the legacy of our ancestors, the rural tradition of generosity, of neighbors helping neighbors to get through hard times. Together we can make a difference.
Last Thursday we had our statewide NCCF Board of Directors meeting. Preparing for these board and accompanying committee meetings always takes time and can be a bit anxiety-producing -- but the results are always so worth it. Meeting with our board members always energizes us, and last week was no exception.
I was rushing my daughter off to school that morning, and think I was a teeny bit stressed as I said: “Hurry up! I have a board meeting today!” Lindsay then launched a series of questions about “what do you even do at a board meeting?” and if it was a “bored” meeting? I floundered a bit, searching for the right words to express the importance and value of board meetings. After all, our board is critical to our work. I assured her that our meetings are never boring, due to our directors’ full participation, lots of questions and lively discussion.
So what makes it such a strong group? Our board takes their job very seriously and members are certainly familiar with all the areas of responsibility that go along with being on a nonprofit board. But I think it is what each one of them brings to the board personally that really makes the difference.
Recently I saw a list from BoardSource that outlines the responsibilities of nonprofit board members. But what I liked about their list is that they included some personal characteristics that are important:
Ability to listen, analyze, think clearly and creatively, work well with people individually and in a group.
The list also noted that it’s important to possess honesty, sensitivity to and tolerance of differing views; to be responsive; of course have personal integrity -- and a sense of humor never hurts anybody in nearly any situation!
One portion of our board meeting is set aside each quarter to allow different board member to share how they became involved with NCCF and why they stay involved. It is always such a great way to gain a window into what motivates and drives people. One of our board members shared the story of his involvement, and told us that although his father never talked directly to his children about his philanthropic efforts while growing up, “I learned the value of giving through watching him, his actions showed me how I could be philanthropic. He inspired me.”
What a lovely way to share this lesson. I often talk about family members who inspired me to give back, and sometimes how these may be ones that you’d least expect, so this resonated so much with me.
Who inspired you to become philanthropic? Where did you learn the value of giving back? I would love to hear from you, so please post a comment here on my blog, or send me an email.