A post to Exponent Philanthropy's blog

Succession Planning: Becoming New After 40 Years

Most conversations on succession planning turn to how to bring on the next generation or whether to sunset the foundation. Eldon and Betts Mayer thought differently. They wondered if their community on an island in Maine would be willing to take on their family foundation. Three years later, the fund has an engaged board of directors and over 450 donors.

Here’s how they did it.

Maine’s Chebeague Island has 350 year-round islanders and over 2000 summer residents. Three miles by five miles, the island has no bridge to the mainland. It does have a general store, a lovely hotel, and a thriving boatyard, where both lobstermen and recreational boaters coincide. Chebeague also has ten nonprofits that perform many functions that government usually does.

Over the past 40 years, Eldon Mayer has been a moving force for most of the island’s nonprofits, including a superb library, a recreational center that has both a basketball court and a pool, and a high-quality day care and early childhood learning center, open year-round.

It is fair to say that while there are many generous people on the island, the quality of life would not be nearly as high if it were not for Eldon Mayer’s leadership to back new ideas with financing and fundraising support. His giving started first as an individual who had cared a great deal about the island from childhood and then blossomed through the foundation he set up in 1991. He relied on a small group of very discreet year-round islanders to advise him on his giving.

Eldon turned 80 several years ago. He wanted to put more money into the foundation, but his wife suggested that he needed to envision the future of philanthropy on Chebeague before he did any more giving. So the two of them invited several savvy friends and me, a philanthropy advisor who summers on the island, for a meeting to brainstorm the future. Here are the steps the group came up with:

  • Transfer the foundation’s remaining funds to the Maine Community Foundation as a donor-advised fund, called The Recompense Fund.
  • Form a hands-on board of advisors, all who are dedicated to Chebeague and bring specific experience and skills.
  • Communicate the goal of The Recompense Fund—to sustain the year-round community of Chebeague—via information every month in the town newsletter and on the island website; explain the change, tell stories, ask for feedback, and be transparent.
  • Invite everyone to be a contributor.
  • Remind givers, in every message, that their first and best dollars should go to their favorite nonprofits, and only then should they give to The Recompense Fund.

Here’s the amazing part. I took a deep breath and recommended that, at the end of two years, Eldon should step off the board. He needed to indicate to the community that the fund now belonged to them, not to him or his family. He had put 40 years of heart, brains, and dollars into his philanthropy, but no one would believe he was willing to share power unless he stepped aside. He agreed.

Today The Recompense Fund has received gifts from a wide spectrum of the island community, both year-round or seasonal residents. The range of gifts keeps expanding. Some have made multiyear commitments. Others have included the fund in their bequests. One major donor recently came forward with a multiyear grant to match all donations that come in over the next three years. The board has decided to withhold 20% of all gifts so that the corpus will grow.

The youngest donor is 26; the oldest is 100. Every year since the transfer, the amount of money given out has nearly doubled. And every August, there is a pizza party at the school, when the community of givers and grantees comes together to hear and celebrate the awards.

Here’s an example: The town needed special equipment to take ambulance transfers onto the ferry. As one donor on the island said, “We would have funded that if we had known, but how would we know? What a gift that we now have a community trust that learns the needs of the island.”

What a gift indeed. All because a generous man who cared deeply about the island was willing to think creatively, was reality-based, took succession planning for the fundamental priority that it must be, and did what is best for his community.

Mally Cox-Chapman is an Exponent Philanthropy member through the Common Sense Fund and principal of Benefactory Philanthropic Advisors LLC.

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