What does 'investing in the community' mean to you?

    Writing a valedictory is a daunting task. There are so many things one wants to say, and so little space for the last go-round.
   It has been a rare privilege to write about philanthropy for the last 16 months in a business journal of this quality, for too often there is a line drawn between matters of commerce and the business of the nonprofit sector.
   Heartfelt thanks to editor John Thompson for having the vision to understand the connection between philanthropy and business and the willingness to make space for a monthly column in these pages. I also want to thank those who have let me know that my monthly ramblings were useful to them.
   The philanthropic dollars that support the variety of important work local nonprofits do for our common good comes one way or another from business, our investments and our paychecks from business, government or nonprofits. This is important to remember, because our nonprofit sector’s success is integrally related to the success of our for-profit activities.
   Philanthropy is the critical difference between a good community and a great community, especially over the long run. Philanthropy is investment, pure and simple. Supporting youth programs is not just helping kids; it is an investment in their future and the future of our community. Providing philanthropic support to environmental organizations is a direct investment in ensuring that our children and their children can enjoy this special environment in which we are blessed to live. This is a particularly timely investment here, given all the pressures on the environment that exploding growth creates. The green spaces and clear streams that so enrich our lives and those of our fellow creatures on this planet cannot be replaced once they are gone.
   As I head down I-5 to run a community arts organization, I would be remiss in omitting philanthropic investments in the arts as an important element in making great communities.
   Whatcom County’s appeal, in addition to its environment, is its growing status as a center for all kinds of arts and cultural opportunities. The Mount Baker Theatre, Bellingham Festival of Music, Whatcom Symphony, Kulshan Chorus, Whatcom Museum of History and Art, Pickford Cinema, American Museum of Radio and Electricity, Allied Arts, Bellingham Theater Guild, Pioneer Museum in Lynden, Jazz Project, numerous dance groups and too many others to mention all add quality to our lives. Every one of them depends upon our philanthropic investments in the work they do in providing nourishment for our spirits and an understanding of our common heritage.
   This remains a very critical time for Whatcom County as we face the challenges of growth and the growing gap between the rich and the poor. Honestly, what will give you greater satisfaction in the long run, more unneeded stuff for yourself or the satisfaction of knowing that your investments are helping others reach their own potential as productive citizens? As government cutbacks increase, the nonprofit sector needs to make up the losses through private philanthropy. Your investments are essential.
   Sometimes the answer is not simply investing money in nonprofit organizations. They are always struggling for adequate resources, and could use some technical assistance from businesses on how to operate more efficiently and effectively.
   At one time nonprofits did not pay sufficient attention to their business practices, but now all realize that they are much more likely to achieve their missions through good business practices. If you own a business, why not “adopt” a nonprofit that could benefit from sharing your business expertise and the talents of your employees? Chances are that you will want to give the nonprofit some money, too, as you get a better sense of its mission and value to the community.
   Whatcom County is fortunate enough to have many talented and successful newcomers moving here, most of whom have had some experience with philanthropy and nonprofits elsewhere.
   If you know someone like this, do what you can to connect them with some philanthropic opportunities that will reward them as well as their new home. Philanthropic involvement brings a satisfaction that little else does, and it will connect them with many other caring individuals.
   The infrastructure of the nonprofit sector is a critical factor in the overall well-being of our communities, for they depend upon the integrity with which local nonprofits do their work.
   One important thing you could do is to support a revitalized Whatcom Council of Nonprofits, which was started by the Whatcom Community Foundation several years ago before it went dormant for lack of financial support. A team in the first class of Leadership Whatcom has taken upon itself the task of making WCN a vital resource for all nonprofits, but it will need some financial support to reach its full potential.
   This is the kind of philanthropic investment that has the potential for great returns throughout the entire nonprofit sector as it promotes best practices and connects the nonprofits with one another and with the larger communities they serve.
   We routinely invest for the future in business, and we should do no less in philanthropy. The ultimate philanthropic investment is in our children, for it is our gift to the future for all those who follow.
   While investing in our children’s future through charitable giving and volunteering is important and admirable, it is even more important that we invest in their commitment to philanthropy and to community. Philanthropy needs to be a part of the education our children receive, at home, in school and in our various religious institutions.
   One of the best things interested business leaders and others could do is start some programs for young people that teach them the values and purpose of philanthropy, and then give them some hands-on experience in the joy of helping others or protecting our environmental inheritance for future generations.
   All of these parting pontifications come down to one essential task: building a solid, caring, interconnected and sustainable community through vibrant and creative philanthropy. If nothing else, I hope that my commentary over the past 16 months has been a positive force in that direction.

Don Drake drake.dondrake@gmail.com was President of Whatcom Community Foundation for eight years. He is leaving Bellingham soon to become Executive Director of the Salem Art Association, founded in 1919.


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