When Beverly White-Seals was named The Columbia Foundation’s new president and CEO in April of this year, it represented an opportunity for her to funnel her vast experience in the local nonprofit world within an organization that she feels is coming to a crossroads.
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., she attended the local public schools before earning her undergraduate degree, with honors, from Ohio Wesleyan University.
She then attended Columbia University School of Law as a Charles Evans Hughes Fellow, where she received her juris doctor. White-Seals began her legal career as a litigator with the U.S. Department of Labor, which was followed by her introduction to Howard County in 1979, when she began her 20-year career at The Rouse Company.
She left Rouse in 1999 and went into private practice as of counsel with the law firm of Hodes, Ulman, Pessin & Katz, and later served as in-house counsel with General Growth Properties (GGP) until September 2009; at that point, she joined The Johns Hopkins Hospital & Health System as director, office of workforce diversity.
White-Seals and her family live in Columbia, and she has served on the boards of trustees of more than 14 nonprofit organizations, including serving as board chair of Howard County General Hospital. She also served for seven years on the board of trustees of Johns Hopkins Medicine and continues to serve on the board of the Heifetz International Music Institute.
She has received numerous awards and honors for her commitment to diversity and community outreach. In addition, the $20,000 Beverly White-Seals Scholarship Fund was established in her honor by the Howard County General Hospital Medical Executive Committee to benefit single parents entering the health care profession.
What are the initiatives of the foundation? Do you have plans to implement more directives during your first year?
We encourage philanthropy in the arts, environment, human services and education, and award grants to local nonprofit organizations in our effort to support unmet needs within the community. One initiative I’m undertaking now is improving the infrastructure of the foundation. We want to be sure that we are incorporating best practices in our policies and procedures. And, as with any organization today, we have a need to update our IT [information technology] setup.
We only have four employees, but we have a large board of trustees. It’s a working board that brings in members of the community to review grants and scholarships that are often awarded in memory of families and friends.
Where does the foundation’s money come from?
Money for our grant programs comes primarily from income generated by the foundation’s endowment, which is supported by more than 290 funds established by Howard County businesses, families and individuals.
The foundation was established by Jim Rouse in 1969, right at the time that it became advantageous from a tax standpoint for philanthropists to put their money into a fund at a community foundation rather than an individual family foundation, such as The Carnegie Foundation or The Rockefeller Foundation.
Those organizations have done some wonderful things, but community foundations dig deeper into the activities within a smaller geographic area, which in our case is all of Howard County.
How are your affiliated charitable funds managed?
We have an investment advisory committee that is currently chaired by Mark Biegel of Biegel & Waller. The committee recommends to the board what firm should manage our 290 funds that total more than $14 million, and it is Morgan Stanley Smith Barney. Several other members of the community also give their input to the committee as well.
What is the financial status of the foundation?
Our finances are challenging now for a number of reasons. I think all philanthropies are in somewhat of a tight spot because the people who would normally give money to the foundation are cutting back due to the economy.
For instance, we used to receive money from a large corporate bank in Columbia that, after 40 years of providing operating funds to help us fulfill our mission, changed its strategy for community donations. That had a major impact on how we operate.
Is there a target for growing the endowment? And how much can be given in grants each year?
The five-year strategic plan developed by the board in 2009 set a target of $50 million by our 50th anniversary, which will be in 2019. As for how much can be given in grants each year, our board reviews the formula for community grants annually.
For the past few years, it has been around 4% of the unrestricted endowment fund; however, a lot depends on our annual investment income, the number of new funds established and the amount of unrestricted contributions the foundation receives in a given year.
In addition to community grants, we also award grants from individual donor-advised funds and scholarship funds based on the recommendations of the donors, so there are a lot of factors affecting the amount that can be awarded in grants each year.
Are you setting up a new strategic plan?
The current plan is scheduled to end in 2014, so that needs to be addressed during the upcoming year. There have been so many changes in our community during the past four or five years from a business standpoint, like the GGP/Howard Hughes Corp. situation, in addition to the changing demographics of the area, that we need to take all that into consideration going forward.
How will the foundation help mobilize resources to address the unmet needs of the community?
Connections among community resources provide opportunities for leverage that produce bigger results than any one resource can accomplish alone. As a convener of public, private and nonprofit collaboration, we can move important efforts forward, advocating on critical issues, and — when the time is right — incubating and hosting great new ideas for Howard County.
Do you feel that your organization has an identity problem?
Yes. Other community foundations in the state of Maryland are named after the county they serve, so our name is somewhat an anomaly. We have always operated as Howard County’s community foundation even though our name suggests to many the geographic boundaries of Columbia. Changing the name has been discussed for years, and those conversations are ongoing since we want to make it clear that our mission extends beyond the villages of Columbia.
It’s also noteworthy that people often confuse us, not only with The Horizon Foundation, but even with the Columbia Association (CA). I was congratulated several times for being the new president and CEO of CA when I got this job. We even get some of the CA’s mail.
Is Howard County generous as a whole?
A study released recently by The Chronicle of Philanthropy charted giving patterns in every state, city and zip code in America. Maryland ranked 11th in the country, [with residents] giving 5.7% of their discretionary income. Howard County ranked 1,959 out of 3,115 counties, giving an average of 5.1%.
In many respects, we are very generous with time, but we don’t have a legacy of old monied families in the county that give a lot of money to charity, in comparison to some other counties. The Community Foundation of Frederick County, for example, received some very large philanthropic awards, sometimes of millions of dollars each (it has assets of $70 million).
The population of Howard County is relatively young in terms of the peak age for philanthropy, and many people may have high incomes, but they also have large mortgages and tuition payments. Still, I believe that when I can’t find a parking space at The Mall in Columbia on a Saturday, that’s more than enough proof that people here have plenty of discretionary income. We just need to make philanthropy more of a priority.
What do you see as the foundation’s greatest challenge?
People often give only to causes with which they are familiar; for instance, if they have a family member with cancer, they donate to the American Cancer Society. But one of the benefits of a community foundation is our ability to educate the community, including our current and prospective donors, about needs with which they are not familiar because, at some point, we may all need some of the services that are offered by the nonprofit community.
What Gilchrist did is one example. Hospice Services of Howard County was started in the 1980s by a few Columbia residents, operating under the name “Omega,” with seed money from The Columbia Foundation. It has evolved into Gilchrist Hospice Care with a 10-bed inpatient unit. We need to use such examples to educate the community about the value of a community foundation.
Also, we want to collaborate with some of the other local nonprofit organizations, as well as county government, to create partnerships and greater awareness.