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Lunch with Mimi: Centre Foundation director shows fund-raising agility

by on April 28, 2017 1:20 PM

On May 9-10, Centre Foundation will hold its annual 36-hour online giving event Centre Gives, which raises funds and awareness for local organizations. For the past six years, Centre Gives has benefitted more than 150 local charities across Centre County, enhancing services across many interest areas — the arts, animals, education, environment, and health and social services — and investing more than $4 million in donations, prizes, and stretch pool funds into the community.

Molly Kunkel joined Centre Foundation in 2008 as the deputy director and was promoted to executive director in 2013. She brought more than 20 years of leadership experience in local nonprofits to Centre Foundation through her previous work as director at Big Brothers Big Sisters of Juniata Valley.

Born in Doylestown and raised in Bethesda, Maryland, she earned a bachelor’s degree in child and family services from the University of Delaware. She and her husband, Hal, have lived in the area for 25 years and raised two children here. She is an active member of University Mennonite Church and the State College Rotary Club. 

 Town&Gown founder Mimi Barash Coppersmith sat down with Kunkel to discuss the successful growth of Centre Gives as well as how anyone can contribute or start a fund through Centre Foundation.

Mimi: Well Molly, you’re here because we’re in the month that celebrates the sixth year of Centre Gives. How much has Centre Gives grown in those six years?

Molly: We have grown exponentially, really. Last year we distributed back out over a million dollars. The actual gifts that came in were just under a million dollars. So we hope this year we actually bring in over a million. The first year, I think we raised about half that, and we were thrilled with that at the time. We were super excited when we started it off how well the community reacted.

Mimi: What do you think caused that?

Molly: I think it was a time when people were just ready to have a new way of giving. It makes it fun, and your gift is being added on to and enhanced.

Mimi: How does an organization qualify to be a part of Centre Gives?

Molly: You have to be a 501c3. It has to be charitable organization that serves Centre County. Not all of the organizations are based in Centre County because there are some organizations that have a very active presence here but they just aren’t housed here. Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts are both examples. They either have to have an office or a presence in town where they are actively serving Centre County residents, and they also have to sign, as part of the agreement to participate, they have to commit to all the money that they raise coming back and serving only Centre County.

Mimi: How do you police it?

Molly: We work with the organizations and follow up with them. We ask them to provide budget information.

Mimi: For example, Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts are regional.

Molly: Right. We ask them how many scouts are there and what programs they serve. It’s very clear that they are serving children, Boys and Girl Scouts in our area.

Mimi: Who is the largest recipient?

Molly: You know, I’m not sure. There are a couple of the larger organizations that always do well. Schlow Library, Centre County PAWS, and ClearWater Conservancy always do very well. Two years ago, we separated out large and small organizations for some of the prizes along the way, and the prizes are based on the number of donors — we realized that we have some small nonprofit organizations that have a $100,000 or $50,000 budget every year, even if they have lots of donors, they are never going to be able to compete with someone like Schlow that has thousands of donors and much larger budgets. So there are two tracks, basically we have large organizations, they compete against each other, and small organizations compete against each other. That’s well-defined. That has been very popular with the organizations and with donors. One of the things that I like is we are able to be responsive to people.

Mimi: And make it a game.

Molly: Right. And that it’s a game and kind of a competition, and people like to compete. People in this area in particular respond well to competitions, we’ve noticed.

Mimi: Often, one organization’s success can, perhaps, negatively impact on another organization’s, in the same category, fund-raising.

Molly: Actually, with this, I don’t really think that it does so much. For winning a prize, obviously one organization can win that, one large and one small for any independent prize. One of the things that I also like about it is the whole fund-raising event, the whole 36 hours. The more organizations promote themselves, the more they are also promoting other organizations because they are promoting the event as a whole. I hear from people all the time that they went to the site because they were getting e-mails or they went to donate to one organization and they started reading about other organizations.  So they actually amplify each other rather than detract for that period of time.

Mimi: I personally have observed, because of my keen interest in fund-raising for lots of organizations and the whole well-being of our incredible community, and you can’t help but observe if you are interested in this area like I am that while United Way has been struggling for multiple years to reach its goal, Centre Foundation has been being starring — each year, raising more than the previous year. United Ways across the country are experiencing a decline in participation. How do we avoid the demise of United Way and its philosophy? Is there any way that these two groups can work together?

Molly: The Centre Foundation and United Way work together actually all the time. It’s something that is a little unusual among community foundations. I interact a lot with community foundations across the country and I’m engaged nationally with a lot of other community foundations, and many of them do not have great partnerships with their United Ways or do not work together. Again, in both cases, the executive director of United Way is on our board, and I serve on the United Way board. It’s been that way for a while. So we serve on each other’s boards, we communicate together all the time. Fund-raising is changing. I think it is important for any organization, whether it is a foundation or a United Way or a food bank, you need to be nimble and be able to react to still serve your community, but also really be open to that community — to what the needs are and how people want to support those needs.

Mimi: We are an amazingly philanthropic community. There are huge things that a lot of organizations do. Some of them, some 40 organizations I think, are in the United Way. How many different organizations gave to Centre Gives last year?

Molly: Last year, it was just under 125. This year it is just under 150. Again, that’s just the difference in the model. We serve any nonprofit. The foundation, by its mission and by design, serves any nonprofit in the community. So as a community foundation, it is our mission to work not just through Centre Gives but actually through all our endowment building and everything else that we do — the other grants and programs we have. Certainly we work with our health and human development organizations, but we also work with environmental, animal, and education organizations. We work with the school districts and provide an enormous number of scholarships. We can also work with governmental organizations and churches. When Judge [Paul] Campbell started the foundation 36 years ago, it was a very different community foundation. The model was you worked with the wealthiest people in town to set up big endowments. All you did was open an endowment and you wrote an annual check to the organization. Over time, community foundations, like everybody else, have had to evolve. Because of their ability to serve across sectors in a broad way, it has evolved within the community to take advantage of the fact that we work with businesses, donors, and organizations.

Mimi: I often speak of the Centre Foundation when in conversation with people as an example of what five strong women can do to run an organization. Tell us a little bit about the philosophy you used in building that organizations as you’ve done.

Molly: We do have an amazing staff. In all the people I hire, I really do look for a sense of passion, which everyone in my staff has. I think they need to have a passion for the community because that is really what we’re all about, and a passion for excellence. We’re a hard-working group, and we expect that from our staff. It is very important that everyone works well together and we help each other. I always want to be the place where people that want to engage in philanthropy feel always welcome, always inspired.

Mimi: I was sort of shocked at the list of the top five funds in the foundation. As an aside to our readers, I’ve been busy for 20 years trying to write a book, and I had an occasion to call and ask about a few more details about the foundation because I had the pleasure of being Paul Campbell’s vice chair when he started this thing. I was shocked at the unfamiliar names of the top five funds in the foundation — names I thought I’d recognize, and I didn’t recognize a single one.

Molly: And they were all people who had been in the community for many, many years.

Mimi: Perhaps one of your greatest assets is you have appealed not just to the wealthiest people in the community but there’s something for anybody if they wish to leave their legacy.

Molly: Right, absolutely. To me there’s a real joy in meeting people in the community and seeing how much passion they have and at any level. To me, it’s exciting. Being able to leave a legacy is amazing.

Mimi: Well, we usually think of then and now, but this is kind of a now and then. When you sit back and think about that, it has a lot of bells and whistles, unless you don’t give a darn. But if you can leave traces of your history by doing something that will be helpful to someone or something forever, that’s impact.

Molly: And to just think about that and the people that have been gone, many of the biggest funds were started from estates of people that I never met. I’ve been with the foundation for nine years.

Mimi: I can’t believe it’s been nine years. What’s your advice to people? How do they make it easy to make a gift to Centre Foundation? A lot of people are reluctant to even think about it. They buy life insurance, but they don’t think about dying.

Molly: Starting small. I think that’s one of the things about Centre Gives that’s been nice. People realize it’s kind of fun. You can start small, and you can make a small gift there and realize that it feels good to help an organization or a cause that you feel good about in the community. The other thing is really with legacy giving. I encourage people with their estates; it’s the easiest gift to give because you won’t miss it. You can’t take it with you. You can buy a life insurance policy that costs you very little right now and making the foundation the beneficiary. We had a board member once that said, “You know when I had just graduated, I bought a life insurance policy when I was in my twenties and made a charity the beneficiary, and it didn’t cost me anything because I was young enough and it was all paid off.” That’s another way.

Mimi: I believe the Foundation has gotten some donations from being the beneficiary. They were modest people, like school teachers.

Molly: Right. Exactly. That’s where I think a lot of people who don’t know what they’re going to need. Like you said, they live modest lives, but you can still leave that legacy.

Mimi: I believe part of your success is chargeable to the kind of giving community that we have. The foundation is the final piece and may be also the final piece that gives you unusual peace of mind.

Molly: I think one of the things that is inspiring about this community is how much people that are here really love the place. There’s a lot of love for this place.

Mimi: So how many different funds do you have?

Molly: We have right around 400 now. I just want to thank the community again for everything they do, and I’m thrilled to be able to be here. Have everybody check out Centre Gives,, on May 9 and 10 this year. You can watch the fun and participate with us.

Mimi: Thank you so much for sharing so much time.

Molly: Absolutely, my pleasure.


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