There was a time when Heather Larkin didn’t know what planned giving was. Words like “philanthropy” didn’t roll trippingly off her tongue.
Yet Larkin, a prospective lawyer sitting for the bar exam, found elements within the Arkansas Community Foundation that interested her enough to come on board in 1998.
“Honestly, I didn’t even know what a community foundation was,” says Larkin, who now sits as the Community Foundation president and CEO, fully up to speed on the inner workings of philanthropy.
“What better job is there than to help people?” Larkin says.
Founded more than 40 years ago, the Arkansas Community Foundation is a nonprofit public charity that promotes “smart giving” to benefit Arkansas communities. With a network of 28 affiliate offices that helps provide a reach into all 75 counties, the Community Foundation assists well-meaning people in finding the best ways to put their charitable gifts to work.
Whether helping to buy coats for students in need, funding food banks and educational programs or supporting the arts, the Community Foundation has provided close to $179 million in grants to Arkansas nonprofits since its founding in 1976.
“One of our greatest assets is we do a lot of stuff,” Larkin says, laughing about the wide range of work the Community Foundation performs. “One of our greatest liabilities is we do a lot of stuff.”
Giving It A Go
While she wasn’t up on philanthropy during her childhood in Charleston, Larkin did learn about giving firsthand.
Her parents, small-business owners, were active in roles with the chamber of commerce, school board and the church, among other things.
“I definitely saw them giving back to the community,” says Larkin, who echoes her parents by serving on several boards outside her work with the Community Foundation.
A Hendrix graduate who attended law school at UA Little Rock, Larkin was sitting for the bar when she got a call to let her know there was a position open at the Arkansas Community Foundation.
“I didn’t know what planned giving was,” Larkin says, but nevertheless, she looked into the job and was won over by then-CEO Pat Lile.
“We just hit it off for some reason and she took a chance on me,” Larkin says. “Here I am 19 years later.”
From Lile, Larkin learned the ins and outs of the public charity — to respect all parts of the state and not just her native River Valley and Ozark regions, how to utter words like “philanthropy” without feeling self-conscious — and eventually replaced Lile after her retirement in 2007.
Gifts And Grants
The Arkansas Community Foundation is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that, in a nutshell, transforms gifts from individuals or families into grants.
The foundation has approximately $336 million in assets, giving away close to $17 million in grants a year to support charitable causes named by donors. In 2016 alone the Community Foundation helped award 864 scholarships to Arkansas students, created 93 new funds to run its total to 1,927 and supported nonprofits statewide with 3,776 grants totalling $16.9 million.
It is the largest grant-maker in the state in terms of number of grants — approximately 5,000 to nonprofits each year.
“It’s a pretty powerful way to deploy money,” Larkin says.
Rather than dictate how money is spent, the Arkansas Community Foundation looks to local leaders to assess community needs, then works with donors to turn their gifts into grants that fund action.
How a Gift Becomes a Grant
Believe it or not, most donors giving through the Arkansas Community Foundation don’t write checks.
While some donate money, most gifts come in the form of stocks, life insurance policies and retirement plans. Many gifts are stipulated in a person’s will and come at the time of death.
These must be cashed in or liquidated and reinvested in a pool in order to be turned into money that then goes to the desired nonprofit. Sometimes it is preferable to let a policy or stock mature before it is cashed in.
Each gift brings its own set of challenges, legal and physical, with some more unusual than others.
Collections of jewelry — like the set of jade the organization once received — may require the Community Foundation to find an auction house in order to turn the property into cash.
The foundation has received farmland, rental houses and even a lumberyard in Eudora.
“It’s the people who live in that community, work in that community and by all accounts will die in that community making those decisions,” Larkin says.
Gifts are channeled into either foundation-directed grants like the Arkansas Delta Endowment for Building Community or donor-directed grants like the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra Endowment, the foundation’s oldest organizational fund established in 1977.
Cats & Coats
While most are familiar with the symphony, some of Larkin’s favorite endowments are a bit more obscure. The Dorothy Dupree Library Endowment stands out, namesake of a longtime Jefferson County Library board member who wanted to keep the libraries in circulation materials. And Larkin touted the foundation-directed Martha Barber Fund, an animal welfare endowment named for an animal lover who rescued strays and who put her money to work backing spay and neuter clinics and other animal care programs.
Then there are the coats.
Cara Mae Murphree, a childless widow living in Cherry Valley, approached a teacher and church acquaintance, asking if any of the school children needed a coat. A sixth grade boy was thrilled with the gift, though he was soon seen wearing the coat only every other day.
When asked why, he revealed he had been sharing the coat with his equally needy older brother. Soon the Cara Mae Murphree Endowment was born, ensuring coats for children in need every year.
Pillars & Publications
The Arkansas Community Foundation recognizes four pillars of a stable society: families, education, health and communities.
To strengthen these four pillars, the foundation augmented its many endowments with a one-day, online fundraiser called Arkansas Gives. Held in April this year, the third and final year of the campaign raked in $5.6 million in public donations.
But, Larkin says, the Community Foundation does not only deal in money, it deals in information.
“Because we believe better information leads to better decision making,” Larkin says.
With that in mind, Larkin is excited about the new edition of Aspire Arkansas, the county-by-county indicators report published in print every three to five years. Now, Larkin says, the Community Foundation is launching its online version in the spring — meaning it will be updated and available annually — and potential donors can see state trends in a host of categories ranging from graduation rates to prenatal care availability to poverty.
Donors can use the data to more effectively target where they want their money to go.
To Larkin, who once had no idea what a community foundation was and had never heard the term “smart giving,” Aspire Arkansas speaks right to the essence of the Arkansas Community Foundation mission.
“What our work here is really about is helping people get the best return on their charitable investment,” Larkin says. “Because Arkansans are so generous. They give and they give and they give.”