20 at 2020

No. NOPE. No way it’s been twenty years, and besides, who’s counting 2020, anyway?!

But okay, it WAS August of 2000 when I first arrived at the North Carolina Community Foundation’s office in downtown Raleigh, clad in the mandatory dark banker’s suit (skirt, no slacks allowed). We were on the threshold of a promising new century, and there was energy in the air.

My job description at that time? “Pursue new business leads for the Foundation.”

With that brief charge, I was off on a journey across 25 counties in North Carolina to help seed, build and expand our local affiliate structure, develop new endowment funds, market and represent the work of the foundation to local civic clubs and any group willing to listen, oversee community grantmaking and perform other duties “as assigned.” 

Three other regional associates joined me in this work with our then-49 affiliates, and to this day I marvel at the miles we logged across the highways, byways, rural roads and gravel paths of North Carolina – all this, dear millennials, with no GPS and only rudimentary car phones.

The notion of community foundations and organized, endowed philanthropy was still relatively new in our region at the time, and we encountered many puzzled looks. Jokingly, our boss suggested we adopt the following internal mantra: “the persistent repetition of a foreign concept upon a reluctant mind.” There was nothing more gratifying than seeing the light bulb go off when the ideas finally resonated with someone. (And of course, over time we improved our pitch.)

Our own training materials included a book called The Agile Servant, a compilation of essays on the contributions of community foundations to myriad issues in American philanthropy. Its portrayal of community foundations as “vibrant instruments of service” in building and growing forward-looking philanthropy framed the vast potential of our work for me then as it does now. (More on this in a bit.)

But first, since comparing technology then and now is an irresistible aspect of any retrospective, let’s take a look back at how we conducted our work in 2000:

“They’ll buy you a laptop.” Admittedly, this sealed the deal. In 2000, a laptop was the gold standard of cool technology. Armed with a laptop and a cable, one could roam untethered to an actual office. Or at least that was the general idea. The only kink lay in finding the one facility in most rural counties (often a remote library) that actually offered internet access at that time. 

Meeting prep: Since relatively few people had email accounts, we conducted most of our correspondence by snail-mail. Meeting notices, agendas and financial reports were sent out two weeks in advance, courtesy of the U.S. Postal Service. Heaven forbid a meeting date should be changed, necessitating another avalanche of paper or a desperate round of phone calls.

Hit the road: Reference GPS status above. All I can say is, bless the kindness of strangers at country filling stations who provided directions to wandering road warriors. I am still grateful to the late Clyde Rhyne, chair of our Lee County affiliate, who carefully wrote out directions on a paper lunch napkin so I could make it back to Raleigh without a magical mystery tour.

Fund agreements and grant applications: We weren’t engraving on stone tablets, but the notion of Google Docs would have sounded like science fiction. Endowment agreements were customized with handwritten edits and still occasionally typed out individually on word processors. Grant applications were printed out in bulk and driven to local libraries and post offices across our affiliate counties, where nonprofits (alerted via press releases in local newspapers), could travel to pick them up, fill them out in longhand, and mail them back to our local post office boxes.

Today, our arsenal of tools and technology has evolved in ways that would have astonished us in 2000. But the fundamentals of our work and mission remain the same. The goodwill of North Carolinians still undergirds our work and purpose from the mountains to the sea. How we continue to tap and grow this immense reservoir of generosity is our yet-to-be-written story.

The Agile Servant’s depiction of our boundless potential for impact, service and contribution still motivates and inspires me. I still believe that community foundations are “the localized expression of what modern philanthropy has to offer.” And as its authors note, that the philanthropic relationships we are building today will create future capacity for ever more vibrant communities.

This is why 20 years, five laptops and four cars later, the minute our socially-distanced world reopens– I can’t wait to get out there again!