By Betsy Maury | firstname.lastname@example.org
I remember first seeing the logos of Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation when I attended an after-school musical at my son’s school in 2011. As a new resident in the area, I wasn’t quite sure what connection the foundation had to the school or the musical it was putting on, but I gathered it was some kind of funding organization involved with children’s educational programs.
Supporting the community, and touching many demographics
Several months after that I again saw the Berkshire Taconic banner at the Jane Lloyd Fund clambake on Satre Hill in Salisbury, CT. A friend had encouraged me to attend this fun, neighborly event of traditional New England seafood the first summer I was here but I really had no idea who Jane Lloyd was or what the event was about. I found out much later that Berkshire Taconic supported a fund that helped local cancer patients manage day-to-day living costs, and that it was named in honor of a woman whose friends and neighbors rallied behind her with financial support during her battle with breast cancer. The memory of the late Jane Lloyd – and that chain of generosity and good will – is now linked to many Northwest corner residents.
Being new, with knowledge of only a small part of the regional landscape, I was for the first few years here still somewhat hazy on what Berkshire Taconic was and did in this area. After a while, I began to see the familiar logo in brochures in the doctor’s office and at the school, and at community art events and concerts. The foundation seemed to be involved in activities that supported community residents in various ways, and seemed to touch many demographics across many different towns.
It wasn’t until 2018 when I had the opportunity to join the staff of Berkshire Taconic that I fully understood the scope of their work or their value in the community.
A public charity
Berkshire Taconic, like other community foundations, is defined as a public charity. This means that they pool and invest the money of generous donors and make grants in the public’s interest. Like most community foundations, Berkshire Taconic administers a variety of fund types – from scholarship funds, to arts enrichments funds, to field-of-interest funds – in which donors and community groups can build charitable resources for the purpose of making place-based grants.
Berkshire Taconic currently holds eleven area funds that cover specific subregions, such as the Northeast Dutchess Fund, which is dedicated to improving the quality of life for residents in Dutchess towns; 33 education enrichment funds that award grants for projects in every public school district in the foundation catchment area; more than 50 agency funds that provide lasting endowed support for the missions of local nonprofits; and over 100 donor-advised funds that let people make grants to their favorite nonprofits. In 2017, the foundation distributed $6.5 million in grants and scholarships to individuals and nonprofits throughout the entire region.
A community assessment
Shortly before I joined the foundation, Berkshire Taconic embarked on a year-long community assessment of the area, asking residents about strengths and weaknesses, challenges and opportunities in the communities where they live. The foundation serves residents of 70 towns in four counties across three states, within a 2,200-square-mile footprint encompassing Berkshire County in Massachusetts, Columbia and northeast Dutchess counties in New York and northwest Litchfield County in Connecticut.
Not surprisingly, top concerns for the long-term health of the area were jobs and economic opportunity, and key strengths were the natural beauty and high-quality arts organizations that embrace these small towns. Across the
board, there was concern about deepening inequality. By conducting such an ambitious study, the foundation was able to learn about common trends and issues across the region and get an idea of how it could best leverage its relationships and resources to address them.
A Closer Look
The community assessment (later published on the website ACloserLook.net) seemed to me indicative of one of the core strengths of Berkshire Taconic as a convener of community-minded people within its catchment area. It was, in fact, the thing that drew me to work there.
The study captured data from donors, full-time residents, business and civic leaders and nonprofit professionals in the region, all of whom brought a different perspective to the research. It chronicled the demise of a community social net in some places and a lack of optimism about the future in others. Reading these differing viewpoints made me think my own perspective on life in the country was woefully incomplete.
A growing understanding
Over the year since I’ve been here, my understanding of the foundation’s strength as a convener has deepened as I’ve met with and listened to all kinds of people engaged in the life of their communities, working to enrich them in one way or another.
I’ve met donors concerned about access to fresh and healthy food in Columbia County and opioid addiction in northwest Connecticut, and program officers working to get teens into summer jobs or move the needle on child literacy rates.
I’ve met volunteers who give their time and resources to the tiny arts organizations and historical societies that make up the unique character of this rural area. Over many listening sessions and Marketplace sandwiches in the Sheffield office, I’ve seen what community connection looks like.
The foundation’s work is:
The work of the foundation is deliberate, responsive and innovative. Much of it is human work – making that extra phone call, listening to that different point of view, connecting this person to that one. All of the work is informed by the belief that communities matter, that leadership matters. The work is undertaken by a foundation staff that has deep roots in towns in the area – from Pittsfield to Falls Village, Ghent to Millerton. It is guided by a board that hails from all corners of the four-county region who volunteer time, resources and expertise to the foundation’s mission of strengthening communities through philanthropy and leadership. Taken together, it is a powerful partnership of good will.
Three strategic priorities
Out of the community assessment, the board and senior foundation staff landed on three strategic priorities where they could best assert their leadership to meet community needs: economic opportunity, educational attainment, and community engagement. In the last year, a flurry of activity has taken place around these goals, bringing new expertise into the foundation and reaching out to knowledgeable local leaders to think creatively about best practices. These efforts have yielded fruit in innovative programming around school-to-work and new partnerships focused on increasing participation in the arts in Berkshire County.
The knowledgeable staff
Getting to know the Berkshire Taconic staff has been an unexpected pleasure for me. The organization is filled with the kind of people who pitch in at fall festivals, or serve Christmas dinner at a soup kitchen; they are usually the ones who say “yes” to another school fundraiser.
They are collegial and generous with their time and talents. Some have advanced degrees in education or law and some know a lot about things like local bow-hunting regulations, dive bars in Pittsfield, or secret places in the Great Mountain Forest. Many have library cards, most keep the heat at 60 degrees in the winter and they all vote. They have babies, teenagers, and aging parents. To a person, they are hopeful about the future of the region.
The New York Times reported toward the end of 2018 that the 60 million people living in rural America’s small towns and farm communities have experienced “relentless economic decline” in the last 25 years. Some places in the Berkshire Taconic region have seen this trend along with an aging and declining population. Yet, donors have made a difference for many community nonprofits in this area by providing vital funding to support their core missions. Generosity can tip the balance in small communities. There is no question that philanthropy will need to work alongside public policy and the private sector in the years to come to ensure that all residents stay and thrive in this area.
Community foundations like Berkshire Taconic are well-poised to lend agency to this effort. With their convening power, knowledge of community needs, and access to philanthropic resources, they can help lay out kindling for a bright future for every resident.
To learn more about Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation or how you can help, please visit its website at www.berkshiretaconic.org.