The Niagara Community Foundation: Making a Difference
Liz Palmieri has helped a lot of money go out the door in the last 10 years. The Niagara Community Foundation’s executive director since Day 1, Palmieri says more than $3 million has been granted to support a vast range of local projects everything from health and education to arts, heritage, recreation and community services. Some of the cheques have been large, some of them not so large.
But it’s the little ones she remembers most.
“When you hear the stories, it’s remarkable. The big ones are important, of course, but the little ones you wonder how they make an impact, but they do. A grant beneficiary comes in and talks to the board about the money. “We gave $500 to Niagara Child and Youth Services, which deals with children’s mental health issues. Why do they need $500 from us?
“Well, we gave them money for a camera for their art therapist. What they do is document the progress of a child’s therapy through their art. And they create a photo journal of the art that they can refer to. At the end of the therapy they give the child a photo journal of the progress, and it does a world of good.”
Then there was the time the Foundation donated $500 for an outdoor classroom for the Eco Club at Parliament Oak School in Niagara-on-the-Lake.
“It’s right in the general area where the first parliament in Canada met. When the club advisor called the whole classroom was there and you could hear them all cheer when they heard that they got the money. It makes you feel good, that’s for sure. You know you are making a difference.”
And that is the bottom line for the Niagara Community Foundation- making a difference.
The idea for the Foundation was hatched in 1999 by Niagara Falls businessman and philanthropist Frank Branscombe, and former Niagara Region chairwoman Debbie Zimmerman. Their concept of a region-wide agency was quite revolutionary for its day.
“Every other foundation was largely dedicated to one city,” Palmieri says. “The notion that you could do one for a whole region had never been attempted before.”
At least not that anyone knew of in Canada. In Maine, there was a foundation dedicated to the entire state, which led the local steering committee to believe it could work in Niagara. Today, the Niagara Community Foundation is held up as an example for others to follow.
“The initial indicators of success were having enough money in the bank to get through those first few years, to hire a full-time professional staff person from the get-go, and to have a couple of bigger gifts to do the public launch.”
The Foundation got off the ground with $100,000 from members of the Branscombe family and another $100,000 from the Niagara Credit Union. Then there was another $250,000 in operational support, donated office space on Queen Street in St. Catharines and gifts of office equipment, supplies and furnishing. The first six grants in 2001 were for less than $10,000 shared by six groups. It’s come a ways since then, granting more than $500,000 last year. The Foundation has raised $16 million, most of which is held in endowments. The largest gift was $1.7 million to fund local charities.
“We’re always looking five years out in terms of operating support and growing the endowment. We know we can do better. We’re always trying to increasing the impact, and now we want to concentrate on letting people know what we are doing with our grants because we now have stories to tell both in terms of donors and recipients.”
Palmieri first got involved with the Niagara Foundation as a volunteer while working with the Niagara College Foundation. She finds the work uplifting and rewarding.
“Why Am I still here? To keep helping make a difference. It’s great when you get to talk to people about what they want to do for their community.
“The whole notion of creating a community-wide legacy fund is a really nice option. Capital campaigns are important, ongoing donations to charity are important. This is a different way that people can support those charities that are important to them, and continue to support them when they are no longer here.”
You can learn more about giving to the Foundation or applying for grants by going to www.niagaracommunityfoundation.org.