By far our biggest, most feel-good event of the year is our annual scholarship luncheon. It’s easy to see why: the event brings together Berks County’s outstanding students, their parents, and the donors and volunteers who make our scholarships possible. As they sit together and get to know one another, you can see the power of “paying it forward” at its best.
The Community Foundation will distribute more than $400,000 in scholarships from 97 scholarship funds to 188 students this year. That brings the total amount of scholarships we’ve distributed since we began awarding them in 1995 to nearly $3 million.
For me, the best part of the annual luncheon is watching the crowd of nearly 400 people listen as a former scholarship recipient or donor tells his or her story.
We heard from Nicole Acevedo a few years ago, who told the story of her brother, Jorge, and how a drunk driver cut his future short. The Acevedo’s created a fund in Jorge’s memory to help send other Reading teens to culinary school, which was where Jorge dreamed of studying.
Last year we heard from Community Foundation board member Latisha Schuenemann, a local attorney who worked her way through law school several years ago with help from a scholarship fund.
This year, we heard from Omasiel Comrie-Reinert, a bilingual nursing student who’s earned her Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree and is on her way toward her Master’s degree, thanks in part to several Community Foundation scholarships she received. Omasiel gives back through volunteering and helping others achieve their educational dreams.
The application period for our scholarships will reopen in January 2013. Mark your calendar now and be sure to tell a young person you know to search our website for a fund that might match his or her interests. Who knows? Maybe next year they’ll be at the luncheon, too.
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I received many nice notes and calls following the recent announcement that I was elected chair of the board of the Council on Foundations. It’s a nice honor to be selected, and a big job as the Council goes through some fairly big transitions.
One of my friends asked me a simple, but important question: “Why do you bother?” It’s a great question, because it’s one that a manager should ask everyday about every activity. After all, time I’m spending on Council business is time I’m not spending in Berks County. But, as I’ll explain, we think it’s more than worth it.
It’s important to note that while this role comes with a lot of visibility, we encourage all of the people on our management team to be involved in national networks that expand their understanding of philanthropy. Franki Aitken, was (until recently) on the Council on Foundations audit committee and has been an active member of the Foundation Administration and Operations Group. Heidi Williamson served as chair of CommA, the national trade association for community foundation communication directors. We think there’s a professional development value in being connected to a network of peers.
It’s also important to understand that the Council represents over 1800 foundations worldwide ranging from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the largest, to the very smallest family foundations. It’s a huge network that spans the globe and an incredibly broad array of interests (my personal favorite is the Arcus Foundation, which was established to promote equality for lesbian and gay individuals and to support the conservation of great apes. That’s a diverse set of issues!).
Being involved in that network gives us tremendous access to resources that benefit our community. Our relationship with program staff of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, for instance, has allowed us to tap their expertise in community information systems. That expertise, along with a grant from them, led to the creation of bctv.org, an emerging information hub for our community.
Our involvement in these networks has allowed us to expand the impact of our programs. This year, another group of our Youth Advisory Committee (YAC) members will travel to Russia to attend a conference with Russian community foundation youth banks. That conference, like similar ones we’ve attended, will leave our kids with a much broader understanding of the role of philanthropy across the world, and a unique opportunity to experience a different culture. That’s all made possible by relationships our team has built through networks like the Council on Foundations.
Because the Berks County Community Foundation’s visibility has increased through our involvement, we’re invited to participate in discussions we otherwise wouldn’t be involved with. Heidi Williamson, for example, recently attended a small meeting of mostly national funders to talk about the future of public libraries. The program officer at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation had heard about our Libraries Task Force Report (interestingly, because of a chance meeting at a Council on Foundations event with Karen Rightmire, the Executive Director of the Wyomissing Foundation). As a result of that meeting, we’ve been able to bring a great deal of new information back to the community about how we might re-think our library system for the twenty-first century.
At Berks County Community Foundation, we think one of the most important roles we play is helping to bring new ideas, information and resources to bear on issues in our region. Building relationships with other funders around the country is a critical part of that process.
That’s why we bother.
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There is good news in the city. On May 1, KaBoom! and The Humana Foundation named Reading as an official “Playful City USA.”
Christine Anderton, who volunteers as our Gilmore | Henne Community Fund’s executive director, submitted the application on behalf of the fund and the many volunteers and local companies who’ve worked tirelessly over the past few years to breathe new life into parks in our community.
While park revitalizations at places like 2nd and Oley and Barbey’s playgrounds are mammoth undertakings, receiving the Playful Cities USA designation was no small feat in and of itself.
The application process involved mapping and photographing each park in the city and developing essays on public policy changes that would benefit local parks and their surrounding communities. Letters of recommendation were submitted by Mayor Vaughn Spencer, the Junior League of Reading, Opportunity House, Berks County Community Foundation, and Andy Cush, who owns General Recreation, Inc.
The designation is a wonderful recognition of a true community effort to make sure children in the city have safe, clean places to play. Congratulations to John Gilmore and Chad Henne for their leadership in this important work.
If you’d like to get involved, the Gilmore | Henne Community Fund is gearing up to tackle 2 Parks in 2 Days again this June. This years’ projects are located at Opportunity House and in West Lawn. More information is available at www.ghcommunityfund.com or http://www.causes.com/causes/496114-gilmore-henne-community-fund.
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“Believe deep down in your heart that you're destined to do great things.”
Those words, uttered by the late Penn State Football Coach Joe Paterno are familiar to any Penn State graduate of a certain age—and anyone like me who grew up in State College. “Believe deep down in your heart that you’re destined to do great things” is a phrase that many of us could recite in our sleep.
Berks County is truly an extraordinary place by many measures.
Think about the natural beauty of the place. If there is a more breathtaking sight on earth than the view from the peak of Hawk Mountain, I don’t know where it is.
If any area in the United States has a greater history of innovation and industry, I don’t know where it is. The Reading Railroad, Carpenter Technology, VF Corporation, CHBriggs, Bills Khakis and Radius Toothbrush are just a few examples of the insanely great companies that Berks County has given birth to who have literally changed the world we live in.
But it’s not just business. Think of the arts. We’ve contributed people who were arguably the greatest American poet (Wallace Stevens), short story writer (John Updike) and pop artist (Keith Haring). And as I sat in my living room writing this post, Taylor Swift won two Grammy Awards.
And while Bleacher Report says that Reading native Lenny Moore was the 15th best running back ever, I could find a bunch of guys in any sports bar who would argue that he deserved a higher slot.
The location of our community is an unparalleled asset. 40 Percent of the population of the United States lives within 500 miles of us. It takes about 90 minutes to get from Berks County to the tunnels leading into Manhattan, one of the most dynamic economic engines on the planet.
In short, it’s an amazing place with a long, long track record of producing amazing people and companies.
And yet, I wonder: Do we believe deep in our hearts that we’re destined to do great things?
All of us at the Community Foundation have wondered: Why do we tolerate such mediocre public schools in a community that has so consistently produced greatness? Why do we believe that we deserve dysfunctional local government? Why is it that we’re willing to accept a city in our core that is failing socially, economically and governmentally?
We should. While Berks County may have some kind of collective self esteem problem, we think one of our jobs at Berks County Community Foundation is to ignore that—and to exhort Berks County to the collective greatness that Coach Paterno suggested. We’ll continue to support places of excellence. The Community Foundation will support the best of Berks County. And we’ll never believe anything short of the best is good enough for our residents.
Our donors don’t entrust us with funds to do “mediocre things.” They expect that we’ll challenge the community—and support those projects and organizations that reflect the very best of what Berks County can be.
Whether you’re a volunteer, a donor or a grantee, you should know one thing.When you affiliate yourself with Berks County Community Foundation, you’re getting involved with a group of people—both board and staff—who believe deep down in our hearts that we our destined to do great things.
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Jon Scott, my good friend and CEO of Berks Economic Partnership, recently posted an opinion piece on bctv.org highlighting the importance of strong public education to our efforts to attract and retain great jobs for our region. I couldn’t agree more.
When I arrived in Berks County twenty years ago, the community was pretty complacent about job creation. We were still enjoying a robust, highly diversified employment base that softened the pain of cyclical recessions.
Through that process, we heard over and over that the key to economic competitiveness for our region would be the availability of a well-educated workforce. We heard that from Richard Florida, whose “Rise of the Creative Class” is the definitive book on the subject. But most importantly, we heard this from local business leaders. If there’s one message we’ve heard from the corporate community in Berks County, it’s that their ability to build and retain a Berks County employment base depends on their ability to hire the right people. They tell us all the time about the need to hire rigorously educated people with sufficient math and science skills to understand their technical needs and sufficient communications and liberal arts skills that allow them to think innovatively.
So beyond Jon’s great note is a pressing question: where are those employers now?
Our public school systems are openly discussing cutting core academic programs, with the conventional wisdom being that there will be less uproar from cancelling world languages than from cutting football programs. Probably an honest assessment. Definitely scary.
And where are the employers? Where are the letters to the editor? When will the business leaders in those communities appear at school board meetings to express their priorities? Is Berks Economic Partnership the only voice to be heard?
If educating our future workforce is our region’s highest economic priority (it sure seems like it is), then surely it’s worth fighting for.
But if they don’t hear from the business community—arguably one of the best judges of their performance—they’re likely to make the wrong decisions.
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We’re delighted that Berks Women in Crisis is moving into its new building. It’s been a long process for Mary Kay Bernosky and her dedicated team. Check out an article on the new building in the Reading Eagle. We’re even more excited that the building is scheduled to become the fourth LEED® certified building in the City of Reading.
It’s actually quite a relief for us.
Five years or so ago we announced that we’d be building the city’s first “green building.” To say that people didn’t know what we were talking about would be an understatement. One prominent local leader even remarked that he thought it odd that we would have picked out the color of the building in advance.
Still, we felt an obligation to help the community think differently about how we build buildings, and how those buildings affect the environment, the community and the people who work with them. It was really clear to us that Berks County was far behind the curve in thinking about buildings that would cost less to operate and provide safer working environments.
I’m often asked if we’re pleased with our building and the answer is—“delighted.” It’s done everything we could have hoped for in providing us with better visibility, a place to bring the community together and now—a place where new companies (and new jobs) are created.
But the real success is the number of LEED buildings that have been built in its footsteps: Albright College’s new Science Center, the new addition to Opportunity House for its Second Street Learning Center, and now Berks Women in Crisis. Clearly, folks in the public benefit sector have come to see that—given their need to stretch limited resources—green building technology makes sense.
The trend is catching on outside of the city as well as some local school districts have made commitments to build to LEED standards. Penn State Berks’ new Gaige Building is a model of sustainable design.
Yes, five years ago we faced a lot of skepticism. Today, the idea of building smarter buildings is on the verge of becoming “standard operating procedure” for the community—as it should be. We expect that most years, we’ll save as much as $34,000 in our building on energy costs alone.
Congratulations to Berks Women in Crisis for becoming the latest organization to exhibit leadership for our region! And enjoy the new digs!
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Sometimes we flop. It’s true, but in foundations we don’t talk much about our failures and what we’ve learned from them. There’s a human tendency to move onto the next thing and of course, to talk a lot about your successes.
If, in the eighteen years since Berks County Community Foundation was organized we didn’t have some pretty big flops, I’d think we weren’t doing our jobs. After all, the permanently endowed funds at the Community Foundation give us the independence to take risks. And since we’ve had some spectacular successes, it only makes sense that we’ve had some pretty big failures as well.
In the mid 1990s, the Community Foundation, along with a host of influential donors, spent over a year working to establish a “United Arts Fund” that would have served as a collective fundraising tool for local arts and culture groups. We undertook the effort because it was clear that the arts groups were struggling for funding and not terribly good at fundraising. The United Arts Fund was an idea that never went anywhere. There was massive opposition to the idea from the arts groups themselves and in the end, we all decided to throw in the towel after a lot of hard work.
The lesson: Don’t try to help organizations or people who don’t want the help. We were a little too “big brother” on that one.
Sometimes though, even when they ask for help, it’s hard to help. In 2007, the Reading School District asked us to help it establish a foundation to raise money to support projects at the district. We’re sometimes skeptical about the viability of school district foundations but Reading has such a large alumni base and such a compelling need that we agreed to take it on full-force. We hired a great executive director with a lot of experience and enthusiasm, Anna Kaye, who helped recruit a board of directors and had some early, phenomenal success. Anna, for instance, created a partnership with Boscov’s and Fleetwood Fixtures to turn the decrepit school store into a really cool store that gave kids an opportunity to understand retail business management.
But the district lost interest. We couldn’t get administrators to return calls or attend routine meetings. Anna moved away and was never replaced by the board. In time, the group faded away.
I’ll always believe that our biggest failure was our inability to convince the community, particularly city government, that the financial crisis in the city was real, imminent and bigger than we’d thought. Over the years, we spent more than $100,000 to document the city’s problem. Our partnerships with Reading Eagle Company and the Pennsylvania Economy League in this effort attracted national attention. We believed, and still believe, that the financial crisis facing the city is a threat to the whole region. But mayors and city councils came and went, largely denying the problem, covering it up with one time fixes and ultimately making it worse. Finally, in 2009, the city filed for Act 47 protection. But it was too little, too late and the city’s financial collapse proved unavoidable.
The lesson: Good community philanthropy works in the world of facts, data and action. That’s not always a good fit for the political environment where how the message is delivered is sometimes more important than what the message is. Sometimes, we get into environments where we just aren’t the best players for the job.
This is not an exhaustive list. But it’s proof that sometimes, grantmaking and community organizing work will hit failures.
We’ve had some amazing successes in areas like farmland preservation, green building development, and Asian studies. And why we always try to learn from what worked, it’s just as important that we identify what didn’t work, share our experiences and learn from them, too.
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Last month, I visited with members of Congress in Washington who are clearly wrestling with difficult choices as they think about upcoming budget measures. In particular, the need to reduce the federal deficit and the pressures to adequately fund government sits at the top of their agendas. Along with that, there’s growing pressure to reform our nation’s tax structure, and the most common phrase I heard was “everything is on the table.”
One senator even asked me if I could quantify the impact of completely eliminating the charitable tax deduction. While I was a little taken aback by the question, it is a fair one, and the truth is, I can’t. The honest to God’s truth is that I don’t think anyone knows for sure what would happen to charitable giving in the United States if we didn’t have the charitable deduction.
Some conflicting research has been done, but predicting future human behavior is notoriously difficult.
But I’m not eager to find out. The charitable contributions of Americans to support others in their communities are a national treasure—and unmatched in any other part of the world.
Let me give you one example.
The Greater Berks Food Bank runs a program called the “Weekender Backpack.” The concept is pretty simple: Children who wouldn’t have food over the weekend go home each Friday with a backpack full of food for them and their families. The importance of that program is so self-evident that it bears no further discussion.
And it’s entirely funded by charitable contributions to the Food Bank (you can make a contribution here). It costs about $155,000 a year to send 1,400 backpacks home with kids from Berks and Schuylkill Counties. For many of those families, it is the only food they have for the weekend.
No rational analysis of our nation’s economic picture suggests that shifting resources from one societal pocket (the Greater Reading Food Bank) to another (the U.S. Government) advances us as a nation.
Everything may be on the table for members of Congress. But I’m more concerned about making sure there’s food on the table for our children.
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We’ve been watching the debate over the proposed “Downtown 20/20” plan for Reading with considerable interest. As long ago as 1995, when the Community Foundation made the grant that established the Reading Downtown Improvement District, we’ve been urging the city to focus on its downtown core. We sponsored trips to Greenville, South Carolina so local officials could see its downtown revitalization and to Philadelphia to visit the Avenue of the Arts.
Our interest in this comes from a simple fact: We’ve been unable to identify a successful city economic revitalization that didn’t begin with its downtown core and move outward. Think about Philadelphia, Chattanooga, Greenville and even New York City (the Times Square revitalization) as examples.
And so, to add to the debate, we’d add these observations.
Mayoral Commitment is a Must
Before anything else can happen, the city needs a mayor who is willing to make downtown revitalization his or her number one priority. Every mayor who has led one of these efforts has been monomaniacal in his or her focus on the downtown and willing to take some political heat for not paying enough attention to the residential neighborhoods.
I have no idea what Mayor Spencer’s economic development plan is for the city. But if he doesn’t make it his top priority, you can forget any real progress.
You Have To Have Some Faith—And Do Two Things at Once
The debate about whether to backfill the empty storefronts, assure public safety or do the street-scaping has a historical answer: Most of the cities that have been successful have focused on the physical aspects of making the street more pedestrian friendly (Penn Street is a pedestrian disaster area) while aggressively promoting downtown events.
In fact, events are so important, that we’d wonder whether one or both of the proposed market houses should be designed as “event space” not additional retail space.
This takes a leap of faith. Making downtown nice again will require some major capital (that’s why it’s got to be the mayor’s top priority if it’s going to happen). There will be a tendency to see if “just doing the events” will work. It won’t. There’s no cheap route to success here.
Sure, a downtown needs to be safe to succeed. Or, more accurately, it needs to be perceived as safe. And while there are a lot of “experts” out there who will go orbital when we say this, there’s no evidence that the perception of safety in downtown Reading is hurting downtown Reading.
Call It Downtown 2035
Being realistic is part of the game here. To imagine that the kind of success being dreamed of here will come in the next seven years is simply unrealistic. These efforts take 20 to 30 years of hard work to become sustainable.
Worry about West Reading
In the past twenty years, West Reading has undergone a remarkable transformation. While it’s not quite “there” yet, the emergence of a walkable, vibrant commercial district is within reach. In fact, parts of it are there. You can have drinks in one spot, take a leisurely stroll for dinner at a nearby restaurant and stop at one of the specialty stores along the way.
Most of the downtown revitalizations we’ve seen have included about eight blocks of activity. That’s got a lot to do with what’s “walkable” (or “strollable” might be more accurate). Reading shouldn’t act like it’s in a silo. Before it spends a lot of money pursuing a downtown strategy, it needs to give some careful thought whether this regioncan support another eight blocks of walkable retail. We don’t know the answer, but it’s a question that needs to be explored.
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A big congratulations to the Berks County commissioners for their efforts to keep about 90 jobs here by convincing U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement not to relocate their family detention center to Texas. In the battle to retain jobs, that’s a huge win as the jobs required to administer the facility are relatively high paying. And, as we seek to rebuild the region’s economy we need every job we can get and the commissioners were both persistent and creative in their efforts to keep these jobs here.
Understand, we’re not taking sides on the debate about U.S. immigration policy. We have worked with groups raising funds to make sure that the detainees at the facility receive access to basic legal services from some national nonprofits, but immigration policy is way outside the range of things we consider ourselves experts in.
Our point here is that if the jobs are going to be somewhere, we’re unabashed in our desire to see them be here. And while we’re often critical of county government (it’s part of our job here to prod them to do better) they deserve credit for keeping these jobs.
We’ve been openly skeptical about the over-emphasis on recruiting new companies to come here and as regular readers know, more convinced that growing small businesses will be a more successful job creation strategy. But the very best way to create jobs is not to lose them. And we all owe the commissioners a big “thank you” for their efforts to keep these jobs right here, where Berks County families can benefit.
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Last week, the Reading Eagle ran a list of the top 25 employers in Berks County. It’s striking for a couple of reasons. First, we’re fortunate in Berks County to have a diversified economy. The list is evidence that we’re not dependent on any one business or industry for our economic vitality. We’re not—in short—Detroit.
It’s also striking that sixteen of the twenty-five biggest employers are homegrown enterprises. That’s staggering. It’s a stark reminder that Berks County is the beneficiary of a long history of entrepreneurial activity. That’s probably why our unemployment rate is almost always better than that of the nation.
While it may be attractive to governors and mayors to recruit “the next big employer”, that is just not Reading/Berks County’s history. In working to create jobs in a community, it always pays to build on your strengths, and our strength has been building great companies.
That’s why we’re supporting the Jump Start Incubator , the most significant effort in recent memory to support business start-ups. The incubator, a partnership with Kutztown University’s Small Business Development Center will give start up business first-class office space and built-in support from Kutztown University interns. Tenants will have full access to the conference facilities of the community foundation and benefit from shared technology, educational opportunities and the camaraderie that exists in being around other entrepreneurs. A huge thank you to Customers Bank for their generous gift that made the construction possible.
The incubator will provide services and support to clients that aren’t located there as well—an innovation among incubators. We know you can’t run a restaurant in our building (though that would be convenient) or manufacture here. But that doesn’t mean you won’t be able to participate in the seminars and networking opportunities.
Our steering committee includes representatives of the Greater Reading Chamber of Business and Industry and the Berks Economic Partnership, along with a group of successful local entrepreneurs. This group has helped us attract the first clients for the incubator, and we’re on track to fill the existing space up in a very short time.
The Jump Start Incubator isn’t the first time this strategy has been tried in Berks County. A decade or more ago, a similar project was attempted, but failed to gain much traction. In other communities, incubators have succeeded spectacularly and sometimes failed awfully. In planning ours, we looked at the successes and failures and by making sure that our incubator is sized appropriately(it’s probably a little small) and capitalized adequately, we think we’ve maximized the chance of success.
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Berks County’s unemployment news may be getting better, but we know it’s still not good for people looking for jobs right now. It’s particularly hard for young college graduates as the unemployment rate among people 20-25 is about 14%.
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One of the projects we’re most proud of is our award-winning Youth Advisory Committee. This is an extraordinary group of young people dedicated to making our community better. Not only are they great grantmakers, they’re a lot of fun!
One of our most memorable YACsters is Kit Mellott. Kit (who went by Katie back then) was active in YAC during the middle of the last decade and was part of the first group to go to Russia with us to work with youth advisory groups there. A Boyertown High School graduate, Kit has kept in touch with the community foundation throughout her college years.
Last year, Kit graduated from Elizabethtown College. Wanting to make a difference in the world, last week, she headed off to Tanzania to work for six months at the Kao La Amani orphanage there. She’s raised funds through the organization through her website, The Kit Project . She’ll be working at the orphanage with children from 3-13, many of whom have lost their parents to AIDS.
It’s hard to express how satisfying it is to see one of our YAC alumni taking on a role in global philanthropy. Tanzania is a long way from Boyertown, but Kit credits some of her courage in undertaking such an adventure to YAC and our Russia trip. That makes us all very proud.
Sometimes (actually a lot of times) I’m in meetings where older people are fretting about the lack of direction, ambition and commitment of younger people. I wish all of you could have a chance to meet Kit. You’d stop worrying about the next generation in a big hurry!
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Sometimes, something happens that makes a community aware that it has a crisis.
Last week, most of the senior administrators of the Reading School District announced that they’d be leaving in February as the result of disagreements with the school board. This team was here on temporary contracts while the district looks for a permanent superintendent, a job that looks like it just got a lot harder to fill.
It’s hard to know what to think. The resignations announced last week continue a disturbing revolving door at 8th and Washington Streets. As best I can remember, Drue Miles (the current superintendent) is the 6th person to hold that job in the 17 years since the Community Foundation was formed. That’s a lot of turnover.
In addition to the administrative and governance mess that appears to exist, there have been media reports about an ongoing FBI investigation into the operations of the district.
Our own experiences with the district have been with an organization that is not functioning where it needs to at either the board level or the administration level. A few years ago, at the district’s request (a meeting attended by both the superintendent and a board member) the Community Foundation established, funded and housed the Reading Education Foundation to bring charitable funding to support a variety of educational programs in the district. Along with a strong group of community leaders, we provided an opportunity that most urban school districts can only dream of. Despite some early successes, the effort died largely due to a lack of support and attention from the district.
In fact, in seventeen years of making grants and working with the district, it’s hard to point to any significant sustained success that we’ve had—outside of our work with Lauer’s Park Elementary School.
It would be easy for the Community Foundation to write off the Reading School District as a “bad investment” and move on. After all, there are lots of organizations to invest in—and we just haven’t been able to find a good way to work with this one.
That would be easy, but I think it would be wrong.
Twenty-seven percent of Berks County’s school students attend the Reading School District. While they’re the poorest students in our county, they begin their education with every bit of potential as the students of Wyomissing or Brandywine.
Moreover, our region’s economy depends on all of our children having access to great educational opportunities. That seems unlikely in the case of a district confronting leadership challenges like those facing the Reading School District. Still, I can’t imagine any self-respecting business deciding not to develop 27% of its most valuable assets, just as a community cannot turn its back to more than a quarter of its future residents.
It’s not clear what private philanthropy can do. So far, grantmaking and community organizing haven’t made a difference.
One group does have clear responsibility, however. Section 14 of the Pennsylvania Constitution reads: “The General Assembly shall provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of public education to serve the needs of the Commonwealth.”
I promise that Berks County Community Foundation will continue to look for ways to help the Reading School District deliver on our promise to our children. But it may be time for the legislature to ask if they should do the same.
And we’d love to hear your thoughts. What can be done?
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As we enter 2012, here’s our wish list for the new year for Berks County.
1. A Better Sense of Self Esteem
Collectively, we ought to feel better about the place we live in. When visitors come here they marvel at the architecture of Reading, the breathtaking beauty of the Oley Hills and the quaintness of places like Womelsdorf and Boyertown. Sure, we’ve got a lot of work to do in the community, but it really is a great place to live.
We should all appreciate that a little more.
If there’s one thing that’s clear—it’s that the problems of the City of Reading aren’t limited to the City of Reading. Drive through Muhlenberg Township, Shillington, Mt. Penn or any of the boroughs and townships that surround the city for that matter and you’ll see communities in deep distress. Having 73 different municipalities provide municipal services may have made sense in the 1700s, but today, we need to find better ways to work together.
This seems to make so much sense, it’s hard to understand why it’s so hard.
3. Better Educational Attainment
We won’t be adding “jobs” to this year’s list—but that’s a must. But we won’t get there by holding our breath and wishing new jobs into existence. Jobs in the 21st Century will flock top places where people have high levels of education. While it’s an uncomfortable fact, it’s a fact: We trail the counties we compete with in educational attainment. Obviously, we haven’t thought that this was very important.
Perhaps we should start thinking this is important, and expecting a different kind of outcome. Lauer’s Park Elementary School is proof that there really are no excuses. Excellence in education is right here under our noses.
4. A Community Health Center
Okay, we’re kind of cheating on this one because the folks at Berks Community Health Center are close. But it’s worth noting that a Community Health Center will attract a lot of new federal dollars to our community. And those dollars will all go toward making high quality health care more accessible for the residents of our community.
Can’t imagine anyone wants to argue with that.
5. A Real Plan For The City of Reading
There’s a lot riding on the shoulders of Vaughn Spencer, Reading’s new mayor. Being America’s poorest city is a distinction without any reward. We’ve long argued that the City cannot dig itself out of its financial hole-no Pennsylvania city can. But a necessary prerequisite for the Reading is to have a coherent plan that makes state help possible. What we’ve seen is a decade of “random acts of community development” that, even in retrospect don’t form a coherent strategy.
Here’s hoping that Reading’s new mayor can articulate a new vision for the city that reflects tomorrow’s realities, not yesterday’s. There are lots of people ready to help.
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One person in the history of Berks County Community Foundation has never received the credit he deserves.
Gene Struckhoff was considered the father of the modern community foundation movement. A former CEO of the Baltimore Community Foundation, “Struck,” as he was known to everyone, served as both Vice President and President of the Council on Foundations. In 1994, when Berks County Community Foundation was organized, Struck was serving as CEO of the York County Community Foundation.
Since Struck had written what was literally the book on how to start a community foundation (a large red notebook that everyone in the field seemed to have a copy of when I started at Berks County Community Foundation) the Wyomissing Foundation hired Struck to serve as a consultant to its steering committee.
Struck was called “the Johnny Appleseed of Community Foundations.” He helped start or revitalize dozens of community foundations. His research about how community foundations worked and grew formed the basis for foundation planning across the nation.
Gene Struckhoff died last week at the age of 91. A grateful community foundation field mourns his passing. Our thoughts are with his family.
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There are a lot of reasons, it seems, that people make their charitable gifts at year end.
For some (not anyone I know…..ahem), it’s a function of procrastination. I know there are organizations I need to support, but I just don’t get around to it until “the last minute.”
We’ve also helped people make sure that their last minute giving was done in the smartest way. Our all-time record was a donor who called wanting to transfer stock through us to a charity. That’s a routine practice for us, but this call came at 2:00 p.m. on New Year’s Eve. We were lucky and found one banker still in his office who could transfer the stock to us. For complicated reasons, that allowed the donor to make a donation of about $50,000 with a net (after tax) cost of only about $15,000.
I don’t usually use this space to talk about giving strategies, but it is the thing that Berks County Community Foundation does better than anyone else. And whether you’ve been procrastinating, are thankful (or both) we’re here throughout the month to help you.
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On September 23, the Reading Eagle ran an editorial noting the incredible affection that Berks Countians have for their public libraries. It’s an outpouring of support that we saw over and over again during 2010 as the Community Foundation led a county-wide initiative to study our library system.
Earlier this year, the Community Foundation’s Libraries Task Force issued a sweeping, detailed and thoroughly researched set of recommendations for the community to consider.
Other than a lot of meetings being held, not a lot has happened.
Unfortunately, the process has exposed an unattractive side of our library systems.
Let’s be clear.
Couldn’t have been clearer.
Our system of libraries is in deep trouble.
But they’re too important to let die.
Collectively, they fill a great need.
Children find a safe place to go after school for help at the Northwest Branch of the Reading Public Library.
The people of Berks County know that.
We can’t look to Harrisburg to solve this problem.
It takes putting families, children, people looking for work, and the elderly first. It means putting aside petty political backbiting.
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It may surprise people to learn that at Berks County Community Foundation, we spend a lot of time talking people out of creating scholarship funds. After all, we manage a lot of scholarship funds and are very proud of the achievements of our scholarship recipients.
When we meet with donors, the most frequent thing they want to do is to set up a scholarship fund.
To get a student they’re particularly interested in, they’ll often match the price offered by another school. The “sticker price” is more a function of trying to assert their prestige level. We know of one college where not a single student paid the stated tuition last year.
Now, the merits and the ethics of this aren’t of concern to Berks County Community Foundation. We’re not interested in telling schools how to run their business. But meeting the intent of our donors is our business and we’re very good at it.
And we know that, if we award a scholarship after the student’s price has been negotiated, most times the school won’t give the student credit for the scholarship. In other words, the scholarship doesn’t lessen the burden of higher education costs on the family at all. And that’s not what our donors want. The answer to “why” is almost always that they want to help make college more affordable.
We’re affiliated with an organization called Scholarship America that works with colleges who will agree not to penalize students for getting a scholarship, but given the lack of transparency it’s hard to really know and certainly burdensome to check.
Making matters more complicated is that public institutions in Pennsylvania (like Kutztown University, Reading Area Community College and Penn State) almost never engage in the practice.
We still have donors who set up scholarships. Their main goal might be to encourage students to attend a particular college. But by and large, as long as colleges discount tuition—and as long as we can’t assure donors their charitable goals will be met—we’ll be working with donors to encourage other, more creative ways of helping young people get great educations.
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It’s clear that finding big, new companies to move into the Greater Reading area isn’t likely to be the most effective job creation strategy for the community. But every community—and certainly ours—needs to find ways to build a new, stronger base of jobs for our residents.
So if landing the next Toyota plant isn’t in the cards, what is?
The pattern is clear enough that, in business terms, you might say Berks County has demonstrated a unique competency in helping to grow local companies.
And that—not finding some giant new company to move to town—is likely to be where our future job growth will come from.
Currently under construction, we expect the center to welcome its first clients in early January. Unlike other incubators, we’ll be welcoming clients from the nonprofit and for profit sectors as our one and only objective for the center is to create jobs.
At Berks County Community Foundation, we really believe the future of job creation for the community lies in helping local businesses grow. So, along with Kutztown University Small Business Development Center and Customers Bank, we’re putting our money (and our building) where our mouth is.
What else should we be doing to encourage new job growth in the region
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