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Tom Eblen: Rural non-profits can have a big impact

Tom Eblen
Tom Eblen

Danny Maggard was 6 or 7 years old when his father took him up a mountain ridge to help him dig a dozen dogwood seedlings. They replanted those small sticks along the driveway to their home near Hazard.

"It's something I didn't think much about then," said Maggard, 57, an executive with Kentucky River Properties. "Now, in the springtime, I admire those huge dogwoods every time I drive up that driveway. They're gorgeous trees."

Maggard uses that memory to explain the potential he sees in the Community Foundation of Hazard and Perry County, on whose board he sits. The foundation was created in 2009 to raise local money for community-improvement projects related to health care, education, housing, the environment and the arts.

The foundation and three other organizations are now taking that model to 11 other counties in the region through the new Appalachian Rural Development Philanthropy Initiative.

Last month, the federal Appalachian Regional Commission awarded a $1 million grant to the foundation, the Brush Fork Institute, the Foundation for the Tri-State in Ashland and the Center for Rural Development in Somerset. They will use the money to start community foundations in Bell, Clay, Elliott, Knott, Knox, Lawrence, Letcher, Lewis, Magoffin, Martin and Whitley counties.

The goal is to tap into local resources and focus them in meaningful ways. Last year, the General Assembly approved legislation giving tax credits to people who made permanent gifts to community foundations.

"It's something that has always been in urban areas, but it hasn't been in rural areas as much," said Mack Baker, a Hazard insurance agent who also serves on the community foundation's board.

There are now about 700 community foundations across the country. Many are in big cities, but others have seen big success in states such as Iowa and Montana, which are dominated by small towns and rural areas.

Since 1967, the seven-county Blue Grass Community Foundation has been a vehicle for creating 250 charitable funds that have awarded $17 million in grants to support community-improvement projects in Central Kentucky.

The new Appalachian Rural Development Philanthropy Initiative faces a special challenge. Those 11 counties are some of the poorest in America. Where will the money come from?

The non-profit Kentucky Philanthropy Initiative published a study last year that estimated Kentuckians' wealth at $311 billion. The study estimated the amount of that wealth that will transfer from one generation to the next at $72 billion over the next 10 years and $173 billion over the next 20 years. If just 5 percent of that transferring wealth were donated to community foundations, the impact could be huge: $8.7 billion over 20 years.

Even in some rural counties, the numbers can be significant, according to the study. Perry County's wealth transfer over the next decade is estimated at $410 million. If just 5 percent of that went to the community foundation, it could create endowments generating more than $1 million a year in income forever that could be used for local improvement projects.

"It's a pretty common thing for people who were raised in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky to have a warm place in their heart for the area," Baker said. "It's just a matter of educating people to tell them what we're all about."

In just three years of fund-raising and grant-making, the Community Foundation of Hazard and Perry County has had an impact, Baker said. Grants so far have focused on health care and the arts. Among the foundation's fund-raising and awareness events was a 5K run/walk in October called Run for the Hills.

Maggard thinks the early success of Hazard's community foundation can be replicated to some degree throughout the region. "I think it's got unlimited potential," he said. "When you think of philanthropists, you think of Rockefellers. But philanthropy can be for everyone."

The result, he said, could be addressing some of rural Kentucky's longstanding problems with local direction and money, rather than always looking for help from the government or outsiders.

"I want things to be better in the future, and this is one way of getting there," Maggard said. "It's not about doing this for us, but for our kids and grandkids and great-grandkids."

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