The Earle of Montgomery

L-R: Jean and Earle ConnellyEarle Connelly established a goal to speak to someone every single day about the Montgomery County Fund (MCF) when the affiliate was established in 1991. Nearly a quarter of a century later, he may still maintain that pledge.

As the founding president of the MCF, this was advice he shared with the affiliate’s brand new board of advisors. Montgomery was among the first affiliates launched in 1991 by NCCF, which incorporated in 1988. Connelly said there was little understanding in those days about what a community foundation was or could do for rural North Carolina.

While the term “buzz” was not in the lexicon of the early 90s, that is exactly what Connelly set out to create for the Montgomery County Fund. “We did a lot to tell the story and raise awareness and understanding,” he said. Also in his early PR arsenal were affiliate events, letters, full-page newspaper ads and many, many speaking engagements to local clubs, civic groups and churches.

Connelly is still on the board of advisors, and having served the affiliate in nearly every capacity possible, remains one of the key go-to people to get things done in Montgomery County. Elizabeth Fentress, NCCF’s founding executive director, described him as someone “who understood how to put together a group,” as the board was effective from early on and remains so today.

Connelly understood that one of the keys to an effective board was to get involvement from throughout the county. “It’s important to represent all areas if you’re going to go for universal support,” he said. He also looked for people with varied business and professional backgrounds.

But those who served on the advisory board had a few things in common: they were all effective leaders who remained highly engaged in helping the Montgomery County Fund to succeed. Connelly had heard a statewide leader good-naturedly admonish another governing board to “give, get or get off,” and he borrowed the phrase to succinctly communicate his expectations of advisory board service. “Everyone can contribute in some capacity,” he said. “If they can’t give much, they can tell the story and find those who can.” He credits a willing and dedicated board as the key to Montgomery County’s success. “We were also very well supported by the staff in Raleigh in the early days and now,” he said. “When we started, Elizabeth Fentress, Cherry Ballard and Ann Cathcart provided great leadership and assistance to us.”

Connelly said it wasn’t hard to “sell” the idea of an endowment in those days. “Everyone could see that a small county like Montgomery, working with a number of small, under-funded charities could benefit from an endowment,” he said.

Throughout the 90s, Montgomery County’s local economy was robust, fueled by textile, furniture and lumber mills and a healthy mix of local businesses. The affiliate’s community endowment grew with help from the county’s strong factory and manufacturing presence. Individual support was also strong, benefitting from the generosity of local business executives.

Montgomery’s local grantmaking fund became and remains one of the largest among our affiliates. Today the MCF holds 44 funds and grants close to $200,000 annually from its various funds. Since its inception, the MCF has awarded more than $2.5 million – impressive numbers for a county of only 27,000.

The Montgomery County Fund’s effectiveness did not go unnoticed by NCCF’s statewide board, which awarded Connelly the Lewis R. Holding Philanthropic Leadership Award in 2005, the second year the honor was bestowed. (Rod Martin of Onslow and a member of our statewide board was also honored that year.)

Of course Montgomery was not immune to the manufacturing slowdown and factory closings that transformed our state’s economy. As businesses closed and factories were shuttered, the value of the affiliate’s endowment to help fund local nonprofits became dramatically apparent. “We were giving grants to nonprofits that made a significant difference to human needs and our quality of life,” Connelly said.

It’s the local impact that the Montgomery County Fund has made that gives Connelly the most satisfaction. He calls his 20-year plus involvement with NCCF and the local affiliate one of the most important things he has done. He and his wife Jean also get a lot of joy from making grants from their own personal endowments. “It’s fun to give money away,” he said. “It really is.”

Editor's note: Mr. Connelly died Oct. 20, 2015. He is sorely missed in his beloved Montgomery County and among his many family members, friends and admirers.