Liz Fentress: Personal focus at N.C. Community Foundation

By Todd Cohen; This 2011 interview is excerpted with permission of the Philanthropy Journal

Elizabeth Fentress recalls a lot of “crack-of-dawn breakfast meetings, many lunches, many miles traveled.

In the late 1980s, working with only a “yellow legal pad and a map,” Fentress crisscrossed the state’s rural counties as founding executive director of the North Carolina Community Foundation, meeting with prospective donors who might be interested in creating endowments to benefit their communities.

The seeds Fentress sowed in the early days of the foundation, which was founded in 1988, have flourished and taken root.

Fentress, who retired from the foundation in December 2006, talked with the Philanthropy Journal in 2011 about the foundation’s early days and impact. [To see the Philanthropy Journal’s 2011 video interview with Elizabeth Fentress, click here.]

Holding’s vision

The foundation was the brainchild of the late Lewis R. “Snow” Holding, who was chairman of First Citizens Bank in Raleigh.

Holding, a native of Smithfield who graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Harvard Business School, had been impressed by the size of the endowment at Harvard compared to the endowments at many North Carolina institutions. He “realized we had very few endowments in our state to sustain any activities that people might think to be the great fabric of our state, and he was very troubled by that and he wanted to do something about it,” Fentress says.

The strategy

Holding’s idea, modeled on the network of bank branches First Citizens had created throughout the state, was to help donors create individual endowments in their counties, with the Raleigh-based foundation providing support and back-office services for the local endowments.

Fentress and Holding developed a list of prospects, mainly people with whom they had strong relationships who “might have some appreciation for this kind of idea.” They also concluded the best approach to those individuals would be to travel to their home counties to see them.

“I think that breaking bread with people over something as important as their charitable desires is very important,” Fentress says. “It’s not a casual conversation. It’s really not something that can be done on the phone. You have to really sit down with somebody and outline what is possible.” And in a few counties, Holding agreed to match local funds “to build enthusiasm” for creating local endowments.

The ‘money money’

In the foundation’s early days, Fentress says, she realized that people did “not know what an endowment is.” So Holding developed a simple explanation that consisted of pulling paper money and change out of his pocket and telling prospects that loose cash was the money people used to buy gas and pay for groceries and household expenses. And then he would tell them that that money represented the income generated by other funds they had invested.

“So if you started an endowment, it would grow and it would grow slowly but it would always be there and it would provide the ‘money money’ that you could then give away,” Fentress says. “And everybody understood that.”

Operating support

Because it was asking donors to entrust their funds to its stewardship, the North Carolina Community Foundation never used donors’ money to support its operations, Fentress says.

From the start, the foundation had its own endowment that supported its work, and it raised the funds for that endowment from people and board members who understood those dollars would sustain the organization’s operation.

Holding’s philanthropy

Holding’s approach to his personal philanthropy was “to provide a hand up instead of a hand out,” Fentress says. “He was more willing to support persons or institutions or causes that were willing to work hard to match money.” And he liked matching money, she says. “He liked to inspire people to reach,” she says. “He liked for people to be better than they thought they could be.”

The focus of much of Holding’s philanthropy was education, particularly private education, Fentress says. He believed state institutions “would always be able to receive state funds, but he cared very much about small efforts, individual efforts, the product of peoples’ ingenuity, and he was very concerned about people that did not have the wherewithal but had the power to achieve.”

Community foundations

Community foundations “provide the backdrop of a successful community” and serve as a “safe place to come and discuss community needs,” Fentress says. “It’s a community catalyst and a rallying point.” Getting people to give, she says, requires explaining to them that “many people working together can make a huge difference.” 

Donors also want to know their funds will be managed properly, she says.“The donor who is sitting down to make a decision about giving their money away really wants to know, is it a value, are they getting value for their gift,” Fentress says. “You can’t expect people to give you their after-tax dollars if you don’t deserve them,” she says. “Be deserving.”


A key challenge for community foundations is to “continue to serve the donors in a very personal way in a rather impersonal world,” Fentress says. “Many people do not sit around and think about how to give their money away,” she says. “Responsibly giving money away is very challenging and somewhat scary for people that do not deal with this on a daily basis.” The North Carolina Community Foundation is “never going to be a place for mass education,” she says. “It is really a more personal communication.”

Another big challenge for community foundations, she says, is to work with younger generations to encourage “the notion of family philanthropy as carried out through a community foundation, so that you begin to pass this notion of giving from generation to generation.”

If boards of community foundations in local counties the North Carolina Community Foundation serves “do not seek to reach down to the next generation and educate them and bring them along,” Fentress says, “that would be a problem.”

View the Philanthropy Journal’s video interview with Elizabeth Fentress