Taking the guesswork out of giving

For 35 years, the Columbia Foundation has been matching donors and causes


The Columbia Foundation, now celebrating its 35th anniversary, is sort of a matchmaking organization between donors and nonprofit organizations.

The foundation, started under the guidance of Columbia founder James W. Rouse in the early days of the planned community, has given start-up money to such local organizations as Columbia Pro Cantare, the Howard County Conservancy and the Family Life Center.

It regularly funds operating budgets for the AIDS Alliance of Howard County, the Columbia Festival of the Arts and dozens of other organizations. And it gives local philanthropists a venue for giving to local causes.

Chip Lundy, for example, has been giving money to the Columbia Foundation since the 1980s. He has two funds with the foundation: one in the name of his company, Williamsburg Developers, and another called the Lundy Family Fund.

The Williamsburg fund is "unrestricted," meaning the foundation can direct the money as it wishes, but the family fund, known as a "donor-advised fund," works almost like a checking account, through which the Lundys can request that the money go to specific causes - as long as they meet the foundation's standards.

Every year, Lundy receives a statement showing where his money has gone. "I can follow it, and I can look back and say we helped that organization," he said.

For example, he recently gave to the Mount Zion Methodist Church because his grandchildren attend preschool there. And he gave $5,000 through the family fund to Hospice Services of Howard County, which provides medical, spiritual and psychological support to terminally ill people and their families.

"I feel very strongly about giving back to the community where you live and you work," he said.

Though it's called the Columbia Foundation, the organization serves all of Howard County and sometimes nonprofits beyond the county borders, said Barbara Lawson, the foundation's president and chief executive since 1989. Its motto is "Creating a More Giving Howard County."

Both givers and receivers will be honored Tuesday night during the foundation's annual thank-you dinner, a $50-a-person gala at the Ten Oaks Ballroom in Clarksville.

The Columbia Foundation started in 1969 with a small donation from the Columbia Bank and Trust, now part of Bank of America. By the time of its first annual meeting the following year, the foundation had assets of $12,367 and had made its first donation: $5,000 to the Association of Community Services.

There are 10 similar philanthropic organizations in Maryland, Lawson said, but the Columbia Foundation is the oldest and also the most unique because it grew at the same time as its surrounding community and could claim credit for getting many local organizations started.

Thirty-five years later, the foundation has a budget of about $10,000 and gives more than $400,000 a year to more than 50 nonprofits. Since it started, it has given away $8 million, said Lawson.

Michael W. Davis, the board's development committee chairman, noted that the foundation has recently begun the process of increasing its endowment. The goal is to boost it by $2 million every two years for the foreseeable future, he said.

The idea is to give the foundation a strong core so it can continue giving during economic downturns, he said.

Twice a year, the 30-member board meets to go through grant applications and decide how the money will be spent.

On the first Friday of September, applications for operating grants are due, and on the first Friday in February, the project grants are due. Project grants support the development of new programs, services or events, while operational grants keep existing ones running.

In the applications, each organization tells about itself and why it needs the money. Donors say they like knowing that every organization that receives money has been thoroughly examined by the foundation. Members of the foundation at times go on site visits to the organizations requesting funding.

Of course, the foundation can't give every organization all the money it requests. For the 2006 fiscal year, which starts Jan. 1, the requests for operating grants totaled $305,800, Lawson said. But the foundation's budget was about $200,000.

The board meets twice a year to make its decisions, usually setting the budget in a single night. Members meet at 5 p.m., and by 10 p.m. the budget has been set. "People will take strong positions, but I don't think there's been an argument," Davis said.

Since board members tend to be involved in other nonprofits, extra efforts are taken to avoid conflicts of interest. If a board member has a stake in a particular nonprofit, that member has to leave the room while funding for that organization is decided.

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