NEW HANOVER COUNTY –– For the first time since before the hospital sale was approved, the public is invited to share its wants, needs, and goals for the New Hanover Community Endowment, Inc.
The nonprofit tasked with overseeing $1.25 billion in proceeds from the sale of the county-owned New Hanover Regional Medical Center to Novant Health is soliciting public feedback, which will be used to shape its grant-making criteria.
This private board has the potential to make life-changing decisions that could alter life in the region if it embodies an effective grantmaking strategy.
It will gain access to up to 4% of the endowment’s total market value annually, roughly $50 million in its first year. Market conditions and investment strategy will influence how much of a slice the board gets access to; the total fund is barred from dipping below its initial infusion, per the bylaws established by New Hanover County last year.
Monday, all 13 members of the endowment will gather publicly for the first time –– but the focus won’t be on them; it’ll be on the public.
The first of two listening sessions, members of the public are invited to sign up to speak in three-minute increments. Attendees can sign up in person and written comments will also be accepted.
Endowment members won’t make a presentation but a moderator will be on-site to keep the meeting flowing. “The focus is for us to listen,” said Spence Broadhurst, chair of the endowment. “I hope we have so many people here we have to stay late.”
Broadhurst said welcome commentary is completely open-ended. The invitation should not be confused with soliciting information on specific grant needs –– that will come later, planned in September 2022. “We’re asking about community needs … What do we need to focus on out there?” he said.
“It’s a pivotal time.”
Forming grant-making criteria
Mandated by Attorney General Josh Stein as part of his approval of the $1.5-billion transaction, the endowment must host two listening sessions prior to finalizing its grant-making criteria.
An endowment community advisory committee, a yet-to-be-formed subgroup also required by Stein, will examine feedback shared during the listening sessions to help guide the formation of grant-making criteria. This committee will come up with draft criteria which it will recommend to the endowment for final approval planned in July 2022.
“This first one … we don’t know whether we’ll have five people come or 50 people or 100 people,” Hannah Gage, endowment co-chair, said of the upcoming listening session. “We hope there will be a lot of voices.”
Gage said there’s no expectation for who will come or what will be presented. “We really are trying to understand what it will take for us to build a more equitable community,” she said.
Carefully developed this year by the full board, the endowment’s mission statement is “To improve the health, education, safety, and economic opportunity of every person in our community.” Other tenants of its guiding principles focus on equity and inclusivity.
“We hope will hear: What do we need to do in public education?” Gage said. “What things would make our systems better? What do we need to build a healthier community and have access to affordable health care? Do we need more green space in certain neighborhoods? What kind of affordable housing do they envision?”
Meeting bi-monthly, the board has engaged in frequent education sessions led by leaders in the philanthropy industry. As one of the nation’s largest per-capita health legacy foundations ever formed, members have leaned on expertise from leaders across the country to implement an effective agenda.
One lesson Gage said she’s already learned from these sessions is to be prepared to fail: “If you’re not failing about 20% of the time, you’re not pushing the boundaries of what you can do.”
She also heard from an industry expert, “Don’t turn up your nose. If it’s an organization that hadn’t been around for a long time, that doesn’t have lots of resources, if they have an extraordinary idea, then jump. Find a way.” This advice will be relevant in New Hanover County, where most nonprofits are accustomed to seeking modest grants, with many lacking experience six figures and beyond.
At the listening sessions, Broadhurst wants to hear avant-garde ideas. “I’m looking for something I don’t know,” he said. “I am hoping that there’ll be members of the community that will bring forth things, ideas, even just ways of looking at things, perspectives that maybe I don’t have right now.”
The first grants are anticipated to be issued by November 2022. For now, most of the endowment’s money has been parked in an index fund, a reserve that “mirrors U.S. Treasury bills,” Broadhurst explained –– “the safest, most secure investment in the world.”
If anything, the endowment’s initial investment strategy, still under construction, will be overly conservative, Broadhurst said.
“It’s going to be a period of time, maybe several years, before this money is fully invested, fully making the returns, and putting us in a position where we can make the kind of grants that we’ve been talking about –– the 40, 50-million-dollar grants.”
Gage emphasized that public input doesn’t stop at the listening sessions.
“We don’t forget for one minute whose money this is or why we’re here,” she said. “And what we’re doing, we are building this in service to the community. So having this two-way street all the time, is what we will need as we focus on the things that we decide are the most important to pursue.”
The listening session will take place Tuesday, Oct. 26, at the Wilmington Convention Center beginning at 7 p.m. A second listening session will take place Wednesday, Dec. 1, beginning at 4 p.m. at Ashley High School.
Learn more about the New Hanover Community Endowment.
Send tips and comments to Johanna F. Still at firstname.lastname@example.org