Adventures in giving: The Kennedy Endowment Fund

In his youth, Payson Kennedy came to believe—through the example of family members—that it is important to share what you have with those who have less. He took seriously a saying attributed to Gandhi: “The world has enough for everyone’s needs but not for everyone’s greed.”

Payson carried this commitment to philanthropy with him wherever his varied and adventure-filled career took him. And his success as co-founder of the Nantahala Outdoor Center in western North Carolina allowed his generosity to be felt around the world.

Pursuing an adventure

Payson’s career began far from the mountains and rivers where he would spend much of his life. He was a librarian by education and training, and by his late 30s was an associate professor and librarian at Georgia Institute of Technology. But he and his wife Aurelia had long been passionate about the outdoors, so when a friend suggested in 1971 that they start an outdoor recreation center, the couple moved their four children to the mountains of North Carolina.

“It was kind of scary to give up a job with tenure and go up to the mountains,” Payson said. “But we loved it so much we wanted to do it.”

Payson and Aurelia Kennedy

 Setting priorities

There wasn’t a lot of money in those early years; they lived mostly on Aurelia’s income as a teacher. It wasn’t until the fourth year that their recreation business showed a profit.

Even though money was tight, Payson and Aurelia set money aside to give to others. As part of that effort, they created two endowment funds at the North Carolina Community Foundation: one through the business (the Nantahala Outdoor Center Environmental & Humanitarian Endowment) and one for their personal priorities (the Kennedy Endowment Fund). Payson is deeply involved in the latter fund to this day.

“It always made a lot of sense to me to invest money to set up an endowment fund so the contributions could continue after my death,” Payson said. “I also wanted to get my children and grandchildren interested. So, I’ve made my children advisors to the fund. I’m hoping that they’ll be interested in continuing it.”

Finding success

As NOC grew to become one of the nation’s largest outdoor recreation companies, Payson sold company stock to further fund his philanthropy.

He believed that personal involvement with the nonprofits he supported was critical “I like to have some first-hand knowledge of how they operate,” he said. And the two nonprofits that receive the most support from the Kennedy Endowment Fund have plenty of personal connections.

Building families

Early in Payson’s academic career he read a book by the founder of SOS Children’s Villages, an organization begun after World War II to provide stable, family-like settings to orphaned children. Today, SOS Children’s Villages works in more than 130 countries and territories around the world.

Payson has visited some of the villages and recalled a Christmas that he spent in Katmandu watching children with disabilities play a ball game together. Regardless of their infirmities, the children helped each other catch the ball and throw it.

“They would all work together,” he said. “It was quite a Christmas to spend the day and watch them.”

Helping communities

His support for another nonprofit came about through his international travels. Payson was leading a tour group out of the mountains of Nepal when they became separated from their support bus and were temporarily stranded in a small village. As they considered their situation, a young boy from the village began chatting with them. He was hoping to improve his English.

That boy went on to college and then returned to his village to address the area’s basic health care needs. He stayed in touch with Payson, who began to support his effort financially.

That young man went on to found Clinic Nepal, a nonprofit organization that works in the Meghauli and Daldale communities and provides access to education, health care, and clean water and sanitary facilities.

Making an impact

Grantmaking through the Kennedy Endowment Fund has exceeded $190,000, supporting SOS, Clinic Nepal and other nonprofits closer to home in western North Carolina. Despite the impact of the Kennedys’ philanthropy, those efforts didn’t require a vast fortune.

“I’ve had a life of great adventure and great fun,” said Payson. “I’m able to make these gifts, but I’ve never made much money as salary. The most I was paid at the NOC was $42,000 a year. But I started early on, putting the money away to be invested. It’s just amazing how the miracle of compound interest works.”