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.
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.”
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 [NCCF Regional Associate] John Francis and the North Carolina Community Foundation 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.”
“It’s a very simple process,” Huffman said.
“Once they get all the applications in and the grant period closes, they present all that to us, online and in paper form, we meet and make the decisions,” he said. “The next thing we’re doing is handing out checks.”
The strategic focus with which the leadership spearheads grantmaking in the region has developed with the fund itself.
“Our fund that started at $3.6 million in assets and is now over $5 million,” Huffman said.
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.”
This year, 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.
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.