Launching a legacy to benefit North Carolina

Robert Powell Holding, Sr., founder and CEO of First Citizens Bank, was aware of the concept of community foundations, but there weren’t many in the southeast in the 1950s. He was intrigued enough to ask his middle son Lewis to travel to South Carolina to learn about the Spartanburg County Foundation, which had been built by Walter S. Montgomery, a businessman who made his wealth in commodities.

Robert was extremely civic-minded and a “generous but unassuming philanthropist” according to a biography included in the North Carolina Collection at the UNC Library. Perhaps he was feeling his mortality and thinking in terms of a legacy that he could create for our state. Sadly, Holding never got a chance to act on the information his son brought back about community foundations, as he passed away in 1957.

In fact it was three decades before anyone could act on the knowledge that Lewis Holding gathered. When their father died, he and his brothers – all under age 32 – took over management of First Citizens and built the company into a banking giant, often lauded as one of the safest financial institutions in the United States.

By the mid-1980s, First Citizens was firmly established and on a trajectory that was taking it far beyond its eastern North Carolina roots. The concept of creating a community foundation had never left Holding’s mind, and he decided that the time had arrived to develop the organization that he knew would benefit the people and communities of our state – and that he’d been thinking about for 30 years.

The North Carolina Community Foundation was launched in 1988 when leading philanthropists from throughout the state came together to create a pool of endowment funds that Holding said would “provide for the safety and growth of North Carolina’s charitable nonprofit institutions and organizations in perpetuity.”

A Harvard alumnus, Holding both admired and was also fascinated by the power of that institution’s endowment. This inspired him to establish an operating endowment for NCCF through donations from some of our state’s most prominent banking, corporate and philanthropic leaders. The endowment continues to grow through the board and other generous donors and allows NCCF to support its large network of affiliates.

R.P. Holding’s vision of a place-based community foundation had also evolved into a statewide organization comprised of a network of affiliate foundations established to hold local endowments to meet local needs. The network of affiliate foundations was somewhat unique for its time, and NCCF became one of the first in the country to introduce that structure, which was (and is) supported by a central office of professionals. As NCCF grew, a cadre of regional officers were added to help guide the affiliates. Our affiliate network is among the largest in the US.

Our focus on serving the philanthropic needs of rural North Carolina also differentiated us from some of our more urban counterparts in the state. Holding wanted to create affiliates in counties not being served by other community foundations, and NCCF’s growth strategy followed this plan.

NCCF’s first executive director was Elizabeth Fentress, and she often recalls the early days of “working on a card table with a yellow legal pad.” 

“Lewis Holding started the momentum that took us from zero dollars in assets to more than $100 million in just 20 years,” she said. “To say he was inspiring is an understatement,” Fentress said. She also noted that First Citizens’ emphasis on sound financial management, fiscal conservatism and a focus on the long-term would also become hallmarks of the NCCF. “That philosophy has gotten the Foundation through some challenging economic times,” she said.

Jennifer Tolle Whiteside, NCCF’s current president and CEO, frequently marvels at Holding’s genius. “So many of the concepts, strategies and practices that Mr. Holding put into place are still followed or closely followed to this day,” she said. “There aren’t many visions that survive the decades intact.”