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Foundation president reflects on work bolstering nonprofits

Daily Inter Lake | January 25, 2023 1:00 AM

Linda Engh-Grady has overseen the exponential growth of the Whitefish Community Foundation in the last several years, and in turn, furthering the assistance it provides to the valley’s nonprofits.

During her tenure as the foundation’s president and CEO, she has grown the organization’s assets from $1 million to $56 million including $17 million in permanently endowed assets.

When she first started as the only full-time employee of the foundation her salary was backed for three years by donors. Today, the foundation awards more than $10 million in grants every year through its various grant programs.

“It’s important to grow our asset base, but the amount that we grant out each year on average is almost the same as we take in,” she said. “That means that about $9 million to $10 million each year is going back into our community to help nonprofits.”

Engh-Grady joined the foundation in 2008 and is retiring this month. Looking back on her tenure, she says assisting nonprofits has been the most rewarding part.

“I’ve enjoyed working with them to make their projects come to fruition,” she said. “It’s been great to see them move through growth and expansion. Being able to have a nonprofit with a need and connecting them with donors is the best part.”

Prior to moving to Whitefish in 1993, she worked in the financial sector. She spent time working at the Glacier Gallery before taking on the role of executive director at the Hockaday Museum of Art for seven years.

At the time, the Hockaday was struggling with predictions that it wouldn’t remain open longer than a few months. But Engh-Grady oversaw remodeling work on the museum’s historic building and shifted to featuring art of Glacier National Park.

“We changed our focus and brought in shows with Glacier Park artists. That connection with Glacier was so perfect to make the connection promoting tourism,” she said. “I like taking on a good challenge and I enjoyed getting it up and running, then I was looking to move to the next thing.”

WHEN SHE first started at the community foundation, very little fundraising took place and board members gave most of the donations themselves. Using her background in art, Engh-Grady started by partnering with the Iron Horse Foundation to create a summer art show that for a few years became the mainstay of the foundation’s fundraising efforts.

Looking to increase awareness about the foundation, the Duck Derby was launched with donors adopting rubber ducks to race down the Whitefish River.

Looking again to increase fundraising and awareness, Engh-Grady began pitching the idea for what has now become the foundation’s largest program, the Great Fish Community Challenge. The foundation’s board took some convincing but the impact has now been realized with the Great Fish netting more than $5 million this year for 70 nonprofit organizations. Since 2015 the annual fundraising campaign has generated over $22 million for more than 85 charities.

“It’s become huge,” Engh-Grady said. “The campaign is the only fundraiser for many of the nonprofits that participate. It’s a giving season that allows for donations, but also raises awareness for nonprofits over weeks.”

The Great Fish is a six-week fundraising campaign designed to inspire community-wide giving while building awareness about the work of the Flathead Valley’s nonprofits. The foundation provides a percentage match on the first $20,000 raised by each participating nonprofit with the goal of inspiring greater giving.

“It’s about pulling the community together and inspiring people to give,” she said.

When the Great Fish first launched, some worried that the campaign might create competition between nonprofit organizations for the same donors but that hasn’t been the case. The length of the campaign gives donors the opportunity to plan their gifts and learn more about the nonprofits involved.

“Donors often give to all the nonprofits that are like-minded to what they care about — some donors will give to all the organizations that focus on children, others focus on health or conservation,” she said. “When you have one-day campaigns like Giving Tuesday you find that the same people are giving, but they give smaller amounts. The longer campaign lets donors sit back and understand how the nonprofit is going to use the funds.”

Engh-Grady has seen the giving campaign benefit nonprofits in a multitude of ways including limiting the number of fundraisers for some and creating sustainability for others. It’s one of the areas she says she is most proud to have worked on during her time with the foundation.

“I had no idea that it would turn into a core program for us,” she said. “It really gets people involved beyond just giving a gift and they love it. That’s been a huge help to the community.”

In order for a nonprofit to participate it must meet certain criteria set forth by the foundation.

“We want to assist nonprofits to make sure they are doing the best they can,” Engh-Grady said. “It also provides assurances to donors that we vet these organizations for them.”

Engh-Grady also in 2013 started the Circle of Giving program allowing donors to pool resources to support the mission of the foundation. The program has grown to provide over $1 million in grant revenue annually for local nonprofits.

BECAUSE OF the strength of the Circle of Giving, the community foundation was able to quickly start a Community Emergency Response Fund to support pressing needs. When the Covid-19 pandemic hit, the foundation was able to begin handing out grants to nonprofits that found their services in even larger demand like food banks and shelters. The funds also created a rental assistance program.

“Having those discretionary funds for emergencies is really important,” Engh-Grady said. “Covid taught us a lot about how having the Circle of Giving could assist with providing discretionary funding that we could immediately start using.”

Emergency funding for nonprofits has continued as a way to help nonprofits resolve situations that must be addressed immediately.

The foundation recently awarded an emergency grant to a nonprofit childcare facility to renovate the facility’s water-damaged basement so the space could continue to be utilized. With childcare in the valley hard to come by, it was a critical need that goes beyond the nonprofit itself, Engh-Grady notes.

“Providing funding for nonprofits is important because it trickles down all the way across the community,” she said.