SHEFFIELD, MA–For a organization that now manages $99 million in charitable assets and spends millions each year to help so many local people, the Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation has kept a remarkably low profile for the last quarter century.
It certainly is known to the families of the kids who have received free dental care at the Taconic Hills or Hudson schools, for instance, or for the recipients of 18,000 college scholarships, or the high school actors working with the Hudson Teen Theatre Project or Shakespeare and Company, or those who, during an economic emergency, got help with their mortgage payments from a program of the foundation.
The foundation is also known to recent immigrants who have received help through the Hudson Family Literacy program to learn English before their children start school. And whether or not those who attend the annual Hudson Children’s Book Festival or many other cultural or educational events are aware of the sources of financial support, the Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation (BTCF) has enhanced opportunities for all sorts of people in every part of Columbia County.
The Family Resource Center, Columbia Rocks, The Columbia Land Conservancy, Common Ground, and volunteer fire departments in Red Rock, Spencertown, and Stottville, Operation Unite, Camphill Village, The Philmont Farmers Market, and the Hudson Opera House have also received grants from the Berkshire Taconic Foundation.
“The foundation shares the values of the community, especially its generosity,” BTCF President Jennifer Dowley said in an interview last month. “We aim to be a catalyst for positive change in communities by providing the infrastructure for things to happen. We are community activists.”
BTCF operates in a three-state region that, in addition to Columbia County, includes northeast Dutchess County, Berkshire County, MA, and Northwest Litchfield County, CT. From its headquarters in Sheffield, MA, the foundation, a tax exempt charity, directs efforts designed to improve the quality of life and build more vibrant communities within the territory it has chosen to serve.
BTCF accomplishes its mission by connecting donors with causes and by providing donors with the costly and sometimes tedious management tasks of running a private foundation. It supports existing nonprofit organizations and strives to identify unmet needs.
The foundation was created in 1987 by four friends who raised $100,000 to help neighbors in difficult straits. It started out above a storefront in Lakeville, CT, with one paid employee. During the ensuing 25 years some 50,000 donors have joined its effort, either contributing to existing funds operating under the BTCF umbrella or starting new funds within the foundation. Many private family foundations have joined BTCF.
“People come to us to fulfill the dreams they have for their community,” said Ms. Dowley. One example she cited is the foundation’s “remarkable partnership” with internationally known artist and Spencertown resident Ellsworth Kelly. His foundation provided educational funds for each school district in Columbia County, an offer that required the districts to raise matching funds from the community to increase the endowment.
“The Ellsworth Kelly foundation could not have done it on its own. It doesn’t have the foundation staff. We are the doers,” Ms. Dowley said.
Lisa Dolan is literacy coach for the Hudson City School District and co-chair of the Hudson Children’s Book Festival, which received a BTF grant to bring author Jacqueline Woodson to the event. “BTF provides us with opportunities that we wouldn’t otherwise have in arts and humanities,” said Ms. Dolan. “In this tough time, when budget cuts are brutal, it gives us light. we are able to do things that are nice all across the school district,” said
“You have to create hope,” said Jeffrey Levitsky who oversees art and culture programs in all six of Columbia County’s public schools for the Ellsworth Kelly and Berkshire Taconic foundations. He originated the Taconic Hills evenings with local artists program that invites students from all over the county and beyond to talk with professionals working in the arts. He was also behind Columbia Rocks, a rock music mentoring program. Both projects “help students learn more about how to make their dream of being an artist into a reality,” he said.
Another group has started a fund for Columbia County libraries, community centers and historical societies. Hudson day care and Spencertown Academy have already received grants from this source.
The $99 million in charitable assets the foundation manages mean it can distribute close to $7 million annually in grants and scholarships. BTCF is ranked in the top 25% of American foundations in long-term investment performance, and of the 700 community foundations across the nation has been included in the list of the top 100. In 2011 it distributed 9% of its assets, an amount that designated it as one of the most active foundations in the country.
During the past 25 years BTF has given away $100 million in grants to nonprofits and individuals in the region; $3.55 million to educational enrichment programs for public school students, $2.3 million to higher education scholarships, $2 million to visual artists and $1.2 million to those suffering economic distress. One conduit for that giving last year was the Fund for Columbia County, which gave out $35,000 in grants of between $1,000 and $3,000 to local nonprofits and schools.
BTCF started the Foundation for Community Health, which funds school dental programs in Columbia County and other community health programs, with $24 million in assets realized when Sharon Hospital was sold. It also started the Center for Nonprofit Excellence to train nonprofit leaders.
The Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation was inspired by an innovative philanthropic model that philanthropist Robert Blum, one of the foundation’s four founders, learned about while serving on the board of the New York Community Trust. The trust connected donors with nonprofits, and provided financial management, legal, tax, and other services.
In 1992 the foundation consolidated its emergency relief work as a fund that is now called Neighbor-to-Neighbor to help people who although they do not qualify for help from government social service programs, find themselves in danger of losing their home, their vehicle, their electric service, and the fund has even helped with an emergency vet bill. The fund, administered in Columbia County by Tina Sharpe of Columbia Opportunities, provides short-term help to individuals and families.
Another initiative, HousingUs, is designed to increase affordable housing in rural areas. In Columbia County, the town of Hillsdale recently became the first to embrace the idea of accessory housing promoted by BTF.
“Housing is a big issue. It affects the economy and well being of towns,” said Ms. Dowley. “Accessory housing allows families to remain intact. It can help seniors remain in their homes or young couples to stay in the community. It has the potential of helping pay off a mortgage, it can help with heating bills, or provide money to winterize.”
Early childhood is another area in which the foundation sees unmet needs and is looking for a way to help. “We are on a path of inquiry with a focus on kids under the age of five….. We are looking for points of access to that age group that we can find in communities,” said Ms. Dowley.