The COVID-19 pandemic and the 2020 wildfire season caused an urgent humanitarian crisis for unsheltered Oregonians.
Safe housing was in short supply, both for those needing to quarantine and those at risk of losing their homes due to wildfire. In response, the Oregon Legislature allocated $65 million to Project Turnkey to acquire hotels and motels and to transform those properties into temporary housing. They tapped Oregon Community Foundation to serve as fiduciary, and OCF worked closely with Oregon Housing and Community Services to administer the funds.
“That’s an example of a project that I’m really proud of,” said former OCF President Max Williams, reflecting on his time at the foundation. “It was the ability to flex the relationships, the capacity and the connections of the foundation in a way that let us become a real servant to Oregonians during a really challenging and critical time.”
Project Turnkey created 19 new shelters in 13 counties across Oregon, adding a total of 865 new housing units in just under seven months. The initiative created a 20% increase in the state’s supply of emergency shelter beds, and was on pace to house 800-1,000 people statewide.
Those statistics tell a compelling story that demonstrates the impact that a community foundation can have on people in need. For the past 50 years, OCF has been putting donated dollars to work in order to write that story in Oregon, and from that work have emerged some striking numbers and statistics that are worth examining.
By the time he retired at the age of 70, William Swindells Sr. had already made an immense impact on the economic vitality of Oregon. During his three-decade tenure leading Willamette Industries, Swindells helped transform a small, family-owned lumber business into an industry titan that employed 7,300 people at 51 plants in 10 states.
Swindells had served on the boards of a number of nonprofits throughout his career, and in retirement he embraced philanthropy with the same fervor he brought to business. At the suggestion of his wife’s sister, Jean Gerlinger Doyle, Swindells started Oregon Community Foundation in 1973. He donated $63,000 of his own money to kickstart the foundation’s first fund, then convinced four Portland-based banks to transfer charitable trusts they held to OCF. Those funds formed the foundation of OCF’s endowment, and board members began strategically dispersing them to nonprofits throughout the state.
OCF’s leadership quickly came to the decision that the foundation should have a statewide focus, and in 1975 began awarding grants to Mid-Willamette Valley YMCA, Lebanon Community Hospital and Chamber Music NW, among others. The foundation’s footprint grew, and in 1977 Ned Look was brought on as its first hired executive director. Under Look’s guidance, OCF’s endowment and grant-making grew tremendously.
Look was succeeded in 1987 by Greg Chaillé, a visionary leader who helped OCF establish five regional offices, eight regional leadership councils and a strong network of local volunteers. Williams, former director of the Oregon Corrections Department, took the reins after Chaillé’s retirement in 2012. Williams helped OCF continue to evolve into a powerful force for good in Oregon, and in 2020 the foundation doubled its giving in response to the turmoil created by wildfires and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Since its founding in 1973, OCF has distributed more than $2.2 billion in grants.
“It’s not the amount that makes philanthropy so powerful,” Williams noted. “It’s the color of the money. It can do things that government money can’t do. It can fund things that government money can’t or won’t fund. It can partner with private sector dollars in a way that is often challenging for governments to partner. It can stick with something.”
That $2.2 billion is divided across a staggering 213,191 individual grants since 1973.
Melissa Adelman, OCF’s director of grants management since 2019, is uniquely positioned to observe how donated dollars improve the lives of Oregonians.
“It’s just such an extraordinary investment in our state,” she said. “For us to have put that much money into our communities in the last 50 years — I don’t think that we can overstate the impact that that has. It’s not just money. It’s money and it’s OCF’s role as a facilitator, as a conversation starter and a convener. All of that comes together to be such an incredible resource and agent of change.”
Unlike private foundations, which typically have one primary donor, a community foundation like OCF has thousands of donors.
“What that does is we end up having thousands of individual funds that get money out that each individually have some restriction on how we can get that money out the door,” Adelman said.
Donor Advised Funds represent the majority of OCF’s grantmaking. These funds are guided by individual donors, who recommend grants to OCF’s board of directors. OCF provides investment expertise to grow the funds, and can make connections to nonprofits that match the donor’s philanthropic goals.
Discretionary Funds are also established by individuals, but grants from the funds are made at the discretion of OCF committees focused on areas of impact such as arts and culture, education and housing stability.
OCF’s biggest discretionary fund is the Community Grants Program, which aims to “provide equitable access to funding for organizations serving communities' most pressing needs throughout Oregon.” This program receives more applicants than any other program, according to Adelman, and will distribute $7 million in grants throughout 2023.
As OCF continues to enhance its impact in Oregon, Adelman expects to handle an increasing number of grants each year. It’s a task she doesn’t take lightly.
“The more money we put out there, the more responsibility we have to be good stewards of that money,” she said. “You have to constantly be wondering, ‘What’s next?’ and how can we do this even better for the next 50 years?”
Scholarships have been a key component of OCF’s strategic giving since the foundation’s early years. OCF’s first scholarship fund, the Leora Frances Brunk McDaniel Memorial Scholarship Fund, was transferred to OCF from the Bank of California in 1976. The Oregonian Publishing Company Scholarship Fund, created in 1983 after a $2 million dollar gift from the Samuel I. Newhouse Foundation, awarded nearly $4 million in scholarships during its lifetime.
Over the past 50 years, OCF has awarded 53,375 scholarships worth more than $144 million in total. OCF’s scholarship program is the largest of its kind in the country, and in 2021 alone the program awarded $11.6 million in scholarships, 63% of which went to low-income students.
Half of Oregon’s current K-12 population is low-income, making scholarships a crucial step towards higher education for many students. OCF’s scholarship program aims to break down the economic barriers that often lock disadvantaged students out of the pursuit of their dreams, “especially low income students, students of color, students in rural areas, and those who are the first in their families to access higher education.”
Greg Chaillé and Kathleen Cornett, OCF’s longtime vice president for grants & programs, traveled across Oregon recruiting hundreds of volunteers, with a particular focus on rural areas. They helped develop a network of passionate Oregonians who were tuned into the needs of their communities and could explain those needs to regional leadership councils.
Those eight councils are comprised of volunteers who possess a “general knowledge of the region, its nonprofits and its community needs.”
“We have a deep commitment to volunteer engagement,” Williams said. “While the money is an incredibly powerful thing, the real secret sauce at OCF is our network.”
Sonja McKenzie, a certified volunteer administrator and OCF’s community engagement coordinator for volunteers, sees firsthand the tremendous impact that volunteers have on the efficiency and effectiveness of OCF’s giving.
“Volunteers are a really important, pivotal role with OCF,” McKenzie said. “They’re going to bring that lived experience, their regional experience from their community, and they’re going to give us some really great recommendations.”
Volunteers keep OCF apprised of local issues, evaluate grant proposals and scholarship applications, make funding recommendations, and help connect new nonprofits to the larger OCF network. Many volunteers specialize in certain fields, such as healthcare or education.
“They come because they know OCF and are inspired by OCF,” McKenzie said. “They really love their communities and really have a love of Oregon, and really want to make a difference.”
OCF has seen approximately 5,000 unique volunteers since its founding in 1973. Today, McKenzie estimates that the foundation’s volunteer force stands at more than 2,000, including some who have volunteered at OCF for decades.
Since its inception, OCF’s statewide focus has differentiated it from most community foundations. Today there are more than 830 community foundations in the United States, but only a handful that serve an entire state.
William Swindells Sr. felt that attracting donors from across the state was a smart business decision, since it pooled large sums of money under the strategic control of a single organization. Swindells recruited OCF’s early leaders from places like Medford and Umatilla County, rather than simply focusing on the Portland business community.
“OCF takes really seriously its statewide role,” said Williams, who stepped down as OCF’s president last September. “While it’s headquartered in Portland, we also have offices in Salem, Eugene, Medford, Bend — and networks in all of Oregon, and particularly rural Oregon.”
In total, OCF’s network serves 1,386 communities throughout Oregon.
“We have people in that network who represent all of Oregon’s communities,” Williams said. He emphasized that, although Oregon is home to a great diversity of political thought, there exists a unifying desire among its residents to come together and lift up their communities.
“We are a bridge-building organization,” Williams said. “What we have in common is so much bigger than what divides us.”
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