By JIM KEVLIN • Special to www.AllOTSEGO.com
COOPERSTOWN – The nation’s first community foundation, founded in 1914, is in Cleveland, Ohio, and in recent years it identified a lack of “capital wealth” as preventing the city’s blighted neighborhoods from rebounding.
“With a consortium of business people, government organizations and charities, they’ve funded several hundred small businesses in those neighborhoods. “Funding entrepreneurship kept wealth in the community,” said Harry Levine, chairman of the new Community Foundation of Otsego County. It’s creation was announced Tuesday, April 21.
It’s an example of what a community foundation can do.
Beneath the public’s radar, CFOC formed last year, when Levine assembled a 14-member board, ranging from Cooperstown’s Lou Allstadt, retired Exxon Mobil executive vice president, to the former Smith Ford’s Patsy Smith of Norwich and Cooperstown, and Oneonta Mayor Gary Herzig, “a cross-section of community-spirited people,” Levine said.
The original idea was, through focus groups and community meetings, to build a plan of action from the ground up over the next several months.
Then COVID-19 arrived.
“We put everything aside to focus on COVID,” said Levine, who operates a construction firm in Princeton, N.J., but also has a local home and recently ended his tenure as Otsego Land Trust president.
The board concluded it was time for action, which led to this week’s announcement of the first initiative: The COVID-19 Relief & Recovery Fund for Otsego County. Immediately, the Fund has committed $50,000 to help existing non-profits – 501c3s – address the crisis.
Of that, $30,000 is will be matched with private donations. Board members will reached out to their contacts for donations, and Levine urged members of the public – all of us – to donate to the initiative.
All money contributed to the fund will be used for COVID-19 relief; administrative costs will be covered by money CFOC raised previously. So far, the foundation has no staff, so administration will be handled by volunteers.
“Unemployment is rising and we are seeing growing numbers of potentially fatal illness,” CFOC said in a statement that accompanied Tuesday’s announcement. “The non-profit sector of our economy is faced with overwhelming assistance requests, and we are going to help.”
The priorities listed included helping healthcare workers, firefighters and police, and “essential workers”; education and sanitary supplies; support for “vulnerable populations” (the elderly and the homeless); addressing lost wages and lack of food when necessary “to fill gaps in government-led responses,” and to help people, the poor in particular, get healthcare when needed.
Tuesday evening, Oneonta Common Council pledged its support for the undertaking, and the Cooperstown Village Board plans a similar declaration at its April 28 meeting.
In an interview, Oneonta’s mayor, the CFOC vice president, said when the foundation board first met last year, the idea was to follow “the traditional model,” building a strategic plan based on grassroots inputs.
“Then, completely unforeseen circumstances developed,” Herzig said, referring to the coronavirus. “While we will follow the traditional model, this is not the time for that. There is a huge need. We have people in Otsego County who struggle in the best of times. In these circumstances, it is impossible for them to make it alone.”
He praised Oneonta’s Dewar Foundation and Cooperstown’s Scriven Foundation, a Clark family entity focused on in-county philanthropy: “They’ve done wonderful things.”
“The community foundation,” he continued, “is made up from support from every member of the community. Individuals can contribute, businesses can contribute, groups can contribute. It’s truly what the name implies.”
Herzig also pointed out that Otsego County has received some help from the Community Foundation of South-Central New York, but that is Binghamton-based and primarily focused on Broome County.
Another CFOC board member, county Rep. Andrew Marietta, D-Cooperstown/Town of Otsego, who is also regional manager of the state Council of Nonprofits, said that private foundations “can pursue their pet projects.” Not so a community foundation. “It’s truly what the name implies.”
“Community foundations are really trying to serve the broadest group of people and the greatest range of needs,” he said.