To fully understand how an organization like the Sarnia Community Foundation operates, it would be helpful to start with its beginnings and that’s a story that someone like Jane Anema, who has served as executive director since 2008, is best qualified to tell.
That “origin story” began in 1982, two years after Marceil Saddy had replaced Andy Brandt as mayor, but it was actually city staff who got the idea for what became the Sarnia Community Foundation, mostly because they weren’t keen on having to administer various grants and gifts that would otherwise flow through the City.
“The city was starting to recognize that they were starting to get money coming in from estates and other sources and they didn’t really want to have to deal with the granting process,” said Anema.
“So Marceil Saddy and Andy Brandt, who was then the MPP, put their heads together, and came up with a solution, which was to have the Ontario Legislature create the Sarnia Community Foundation.”
In that respect the organization is unique among the 191 other community foundations in Canada, although for most practical purposes, the Sarnia Community Foundation operates much like those others.
“But the legislation does allow us to have a broadened scope,” says Anema. “For example, if I have a donor who lives in Ottawa, who grew up in Sarnia, and wants to support something here but also wants to support things in Ottawa, I can work with them. We don’t have a geographic restriction, so in some ways it was very forward thinking in terms of the legislation.”
Having opened its doors on January 1, 1983, the Foundation shortly thereafter received its first donation of $25, a cash gift that continues to generate value for the community.
Anema explains how that works.
“We operate on an endowment model, so that $25 got placed into an investment account and what we do on an annual basis is take the income that we’re able to earn on that money and pay it back to the community in the form of grants, with a smaller percentage going to pay our operating expenses here at the Foundation,” she said.
The first year of the Foundation’s operation attracted about $2,500 gifts, which Anema acknowledges was a “very, very slow start.”
Late in 1983, the Foundation initiated a capital campaign, reaching out to some 50-60 people, each of whom was asked to contribute $500, which created an endowment pool that some two years later had ballooned to a quarter million dollars.
One of the first projects handled by the Foundation was a gift directed to produce what is known as the MacPherson Foundation, located on the downtown waterfront and crafted by artist Ron Baird.
While the Foundation worked with Suncor on the purchase of the St. Lawrence House Centre for the Arts, another significant event was the donation of Mayor Saddys home upon his death. Subsequently, the funds from Saddy’s home became part of an endowment that continues to pay most, but not all, of the Foundation’s operating costs.
“The more funds we have at the Foundation, the closer we come to having this nice balanced budget, which was very close when I started in 2008,” said Anema. “We had about 30 funds at the time and had just started with donor advised funds, and agency funds, directed by charities that didn’t want to run their own foundation anymore.”
One of the first examples of those was (and is) the YMCA Sarnia Lambton Legacy Fund.
Anema herself has had a lifetime of volunteering, having done so since her early teens.
She recalls a conversation with the Director of Community Investment at the United Way of Winnipeg, who turned to her one day and said “you know, you’d be a great executive director of a not-for-profit, because you really get how all of this works together.”
What Anema took from that insight was the realization that what’s required to bring money through the door is to build relationships.
“That’s actually what the Foundation is all about,” she adds. “It’s about listening to people’s hopes, listening to what they dream for their community, and helping them make that possible. And they can do that right now with gifts today, in terms of what they see as a community need.”
One of those key needs has a lot to do with mental health, something Anema acknowledges is a huge issue in the community.
“We have three funds that are actively working right now to build back end monies for mental health initiatives in the community,” she said.
That early conversation in Winnipeg may have been the nudge Anema needed, not only to acquire her MBA —which she earned through Royal Roads University — but to ultimately go after the part-time Foundation position she know holds (she’s also coordinator of volunteer services at the Sarnia Jail).
But back to the Foundation.
“It really is about stories that are as yet unfinished,” said Anema. “And the opportunity for someone to come to us and work on building a true legacy for the community. The things that they care about are at the core of what we do. I think about Marceil Saddy, who left us his home with the intent that this Foundation would grow. Well, the Saddy fund is still part of our operation, his legacy. If the house had burned down, we’d have nothing. But we have this fund, still in his name, that continues to create value for the community. And it’s the same with some of the other fundholders that we have. It’s creating value to the community in their name.”
When Anema came to her current position, endowments totaled about $1.2 million, a number that’s now just short of $8 million.
As that total grows, the result in part of what Anema says is an investment strategy that is “pretty conservative” in nature, it means more money goes back to the community in the form of grants, the result of a formula that is governed by Canada Revenue Agency rules, currently about $325,000 annually.
Add in the so-called “flow through” gifting that comes to the Foundation for direct dispersal and that total last year was closer to $500,000.
Another benefit of working with the Foundation, albeit not entirely obvious, is the choice of being anonymous.
“There are funds at the Foundation that are only known by acronyms,” said Anema. “I know who the donor is, and my treasurer knows, but that’s it. Not even the board knows. They don’t need to know. Others of course, want people to know, and that’s fine too. But it’s their choice, not ours.”
By February, a call for grant proposals will be well underway, followed by meetings of a committee to review those requests, with board decisions made in June.
For donor advised funds, grants begin generally as soon as the Foundation’s year-end numbers are finalized.
What that means is that the funding activity is spread throughout the year.
So what would Jane Anema like to see if she could wave a magic wand?
“I think awareness of who we are and what we do. The other thing is that some people have the perception that this is just for rich people. It’s not and it isn’t. Our smallest donation was 57 cents. A little boy came in and wanted to donate to one of the funds. And he dumped his piggy bank on my desk. 57 cents. Now that money is working just as hard as the $1.2 million. And actually we probably made more of a fuss because it had come from a five year old.”
This article originally appeared in the September/October issue of Lambton Shield magazine.