Unifour Foundation creates lasting community impact across the region

For many years the businesses of the Unifour area of North Carolina were served by the Hickory Merchants Association. The Association operated as a credit reporting agency, assisting local business leaders in a time before national credit agencies were the standard.

Overseen by dynamic Executive Director Betty Allen for more than 50 years, the Association eventually received a groundbreaking offer to sell to a national credit agency. Upon the sale, rather than liquidating the Association’s assets, they decided to preserve the money locally forever.

The Unifour Foundation was born from the sale of the local institution.

Taken in 1998, this snapshot shows the Unifour Foundation board presenting NCCF with the check. The photo was sent to press in the original release announcing the Unifour Foundation joining NCCF.

Spearheaded by Allen, former Association Board President Hal “Chip” Huffman and a dynamic group of local leaders serving on the board, the private foundation immediately began granting to the local community, with Huffman serving as chair.

Almost immediately, Huffman and the Foundation leaders began facing challenges.

“We had no idea what we were getting into,” Huffman said. “Once that notification went out that we were accepting grants, my phone started ringing off the hook.”

Huffman was trying to run a business and suddenly the Unifour Foundation became all consuming. “All I was doing was answering the phone,” he said.

Something had to change. “After going through that process, I said we need help,” Huffman said. “That’s when we called the North Carolina Community Foundation.”

Gathering in historic Hickory for a 2015 grants reception, former NCCF staff member John Francis (left) speaks with former Unifour Foundation Board President Chip Huffman (middle) and grantees.

Huffman and the local leaders of the Unifour Foundation worked with NCCF staff to house the endowment with the NCCF family of local funds.

The endowment was established to carry out the original mission of the Foundation: to serve the Unifour area (Alexander, Burke, Caldwell and Catawba counties) with educational, moral, civic, religious, cultural, benevolent and charitable support.

Having the NCCF assume the legal, accounting and administrative responsibilities of the Foundation empowered Huffman and other local leaders to focus their efforts on strategic community grantmaking.

“That’s where the North Carolina Community Foundation and regional staff come in – they handle all the leg work and the paperwork to make our job very easy,” Huffman said. “It took the pressure off of us.”

The strategic focus with which the leadership spearheads grantmaking in the region has developed with the fund itself. The fund started at $3.6 million and has grown to over $5 million.

Francis (middle) and Huffman (right) present a grant award to a representative (left) of a nonprofit serving the Unifour area community.

That incredible endowment will leave an impact on the local community forever.

“There’s been as much as $250,000 gifted to the community in one year, and that is always going to be there,” Huffman said. “Long after I’m dead and gone, along with anybody else who had anything to do with the formation of it, the fund will still be there; that’s the thing that’s most impressive about this.”

In 2015, the Unifour endowment achieved the milestone of granting $3 million to the Catawba Valley community since its inception. The impact of the fund is undeniable, according to Francis, who has seen firsthand the effect the endowment has had on the community. “The Unifour Foundation has had an unparalleled impact on our region.” he said. “This fund is uniquely positioned to touch the lives of community members on an incredible scale while also making long-term investments in the local community and region.”

That impact can be seen every year through grants awarded and by the sheer number of applicants seeking charitable funding in the region.

In 2015 alone the Unifour Foundation awarded more than $200,000 in grants to dozens of nonprofit organizations serving the region.

“We average more than 50 applications a year,” Huffman said.

Staff and leaders from the Catawba Valley Community College join Francis and Huffman for a photo following the awarding of 2015 grants.

The extensive grantmaking is also an opportunity for local leaders to learn more about their community, understand local needs and empower the organizations meeting those needs.

“Prior to getting involved with the grantmaking process, we had no idea all these organizations that were out there fulfilling these needs in the community,” Huffman said. “It has been quite an eye-opening experience.”

For Huffman and so many of the other local leaders committed to making their community better through the Unifour Foundation, their years of service boil down to one simple thing: helping people. “Everything that is done, every check that is handed out, is helping an organization that helps people,” he said.