The new president of the Oregon Community Foundation was in Astoria Friday to take part in the North Coast Leadership Council, where he listened to concerns about how the economic downturn continues to affect the region and ideas about how to reverse it.
The foundation’s president, Max Williams, said one of the top priorities for the statewide charitable organization is providing funding for continuing education opportunities and workforce development.
“Concerns about education are still pretty high,” he said, despite rumblings from economists that the worst of the economic downturn is in the past.
The economy shows signs of improving, Williams said, but there’s still a big need for charitable giving.
Williams met with the North Coast Leadership Council, one of the Oregon Community Foundation’s eight satellite councils, at the Columbia River Maritime Museum Friday. The council assists the Oregon Community Foundation, the state’s largest public nonprofit, and provides guidance on how funds should be used in the region.
On the North Coast, the foundation provided the first dollars for the Liberty Theater restoration project.
What Williams heard on the North Coast tends to echo conversations from across the state.
“What we’ve heard pretty consistently … is what impact the economic downturn has had on the community,” he said.
The recession took its own toll on the foundation. During the worst of the economic downturn, the foundation’s corpus dropped drastically.
The Oregon Community Foundation is ranked as the sixth largest foundation of its kind in the country, with assets exceeding $1 billion, and it’s one of the few that covers an entire state. But when the recession took hold, the foundation’s assets dipped below the $1 billion mark.
Things improved in 2011, Williams said.
With five offices around the state, and 65 employees, the foundation oversaw the dispersal of about $80 million in grants in 2011 and another $7 million in scholarships.
Williams points to the foundation’s “regional action initiative,” which led to the formation of the state’s eight regional committees in 2008, as a major benefit to the foundation.
The regional committees allow the foundation to tailor funding to specific regions, Williams said.
“For me, the most important part, particularly being the new president, is hearing the committees talk about the particular needs of the region,” he said. “What are the priorities we should be thinking about as we’re doing our longer-term planning?”
Using a special one-time allocation of $1 million per region in 2008, the foundation’s local volunteers picked programs in which to invest.
Along the North Coast, the initiative led to the formation of Project GLAD, a professional development program for teachers that focuses on improving literacy among students.
“Both in Eastern Oregon and in the North Coast, (the regional action initiative) laid the groundwork for strong, self-sustaining leadership councils,” he said. “We expect that to continue to aid us in all the work we do.”
Locally, the foundation was responsible for providing the earliest money for the restoration of the Liberty Theater.
Williams was named the foundation’s new president in November 2011 and took its reins earlier in the year.
He came to the foundation after serving for eight years as the director of the Oregon Department of Corrections, overseeing the state’s prison system. Prior to that position, Williams had been a trial attorney and state legislator.
The move from being the director of the Oregon Department of Corrections to running the state’s largest charitable foundation has been a big one for Williams. The state’s prison system has a biannual budget that exceeds the Oregon Community Foundation’s total assets.
Looking toward the future, Williams’ message is that the community foundation, even though it covers the whole state, centers itself on providing seed money and “catalytic investments” at the local level.
“It’s really the generosity of Oregonians that’s created this,” he said.
This story originally appeared in Daily Astorian.