The last in a series of short historical reminiscences to mark the 30th anniversary of the Homer Foundation, Alaska’s first community foundation. The series has been produced by the foundation and written by board member Tom Kizzia.
With a new generation of leadership taking over from the pioneer founders, the Homer Foundation was preparing to move into its fourth decade when the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
The time of disruption that followed gave the community foundation a new role: as a sturdy vehicle for local philanthropy with a ready online fundraising presence. Community members quickly poured more than $70,000 into an emergency fund set up to help area nonprofits through the crisis. The foundation’s effort was matched by excellent charity work from some of the area’s churches.
Apart from the special COVID-19 fund, an existing program of the foundation’s that provides small emergency grants to individuals and families saw a huge increase in demand.
Like most of its counterparts around the country, the Homer Foundation was set up back in 1991 to give money to nonprofit organizations, not to individuals. The Community Chest is something of an exception.
The Community Chest works with the Homer Community Food Pantry, which distributes assistance to households with non-food emergency expenses — a month of missed rent, say, or cab fare to work when the truck breaks down. What might seem a small amount of money can keep families from tipping into cascading financial troubles or even homelessness. Frontline food pantry workers who handle the payouts maintain strict annual limits on each household.
The decade-old Community Chest program gave out $15,000 or so annually in its early years, then $25,000 and higher. During the pandemic year, the program has provided more than $80,000. Administrators say the increase was driven by an influx of people new to the food pantry or new to the Homer area, and especially by staggering bills for back payment when deferred bills for utilities and rent suddenly came due this year.
Close to half of this year’s big increase in payouts came from state and federal pandemic-relief funds. The rest, like nearly all the money that has passed through the Community Chest program over the years, was provided by one anonymous Homer family.
The Homer Foundation’s longstanding policy of remaining an independent community foundation proved useful again this year, allowing the stand-alone organization to serve as fiscal sponsor for two community projects: reconstruction of the community park in Kachemak City and the skate park at Homer’s HERC building.
That independent streak entered the Homer Foundation’s DNA through its founders, who also insisted on giving all their investment earnings away each year and reaching into their own pockets to keep the organization going. With the foundation’s recent growth, that idealism has finally been tempered by the need for a more reliable and sustainable source of operating funds. This year the board instituted a new system of charging small fees to manage the community’s money — already standard practice in other community foundations across the country.
The foundation’s own income was affected by the pandemic, with its lone fundraising event, Halibut Cove Live, closed down for several years. The jazz concerts, staged across the bay from Homer at Harmon and Pauli Hall’s Quiet Place Lodge, provided a chance to draw support not only from year-round locals but from summer visitors to Kachemak Bay. The unique concerts are expected to resume in the future.
With its transition of leadership complete, the Homer Foundation’s board of trustees set a goal of quadrupling its endowment to $20 million by 2028. That could provide $800,000 in scholarships and grants to local nonprofits every year (by comparison, the foundation gave out $280,000 in fiscal year 2021).
It might seem an ambitious target for a small foundation that took 16 years to reach $2 million in assets. But on the foundation’s 30th anniversary, the board is looking at a trend that has brought major growth to community foundations across the country: once firmly established, those organizations often become beneficiaries of generous bequests, as community members write their wills with a mind to giving back.
The first such bequest in Homer arrived unexpectedly this year, when a retired teacher, who wished to remain anonymous, left nearly her entire estate to the foundation. The gift to the community was more than triple the next largest single donation in the past three decades.
Pledges of many more bequest gifts are already on the books — not surprising in a small Alaska town where the pioneer traditions of informal community associations and neighbors helping neighbors reach back to territorial days.