35 Years and Counting
The Early Years
The Montana Community Foundation’s (MCF) story begins in Billings in the early 1980s, when a new generation of community leaders began to emerge. One of these people, Bob Waller, was elected president of the Billings Area Chamber of Commerce and under his leadership the “Forward Billings” project was launched in 1983. An idea and eventual task force that came out of this project was to study the need and applicability of a community foundation in Billings. The appointees were George Selover (Selover Buick), Nancy Hansen (Norwest Bank), and David Auer (Wyo-Ben). Others added a bit later included Doug Sipes (Peat, Marwick, Mitchell), Tom Topel (Dorsey & Whitney), and John Irelan (Chamber Executive Vice President).
This group knew they would need help, which led them to the National Council on Foundations and a man who would later be known as the Johnny Appleseed of community foundations, Euguene “Struck” Struckhoff. With Struck’s help and encouragement, the Montana-Wyoming Tri-Basin Community Foundation was established in late 1984. At the time, the thinking was to broaden the base and cover more of Billings’ trade area, which included Northern Wyoming. This effort wasn’t greatly successful, and the reason isn’t clear, though it was likely due to Wyoming’s own efforts at the same time to establish a community foundation.
In 1986, the name of the Foundation was changed to the Community Development Foundation. With incredible support and sponsorship from the Junior League of Billings, the Foundation gathered some $300,000 in 35 separate endowment funds by 1988. Two of the largest were a result of the generosity of two families and their desire to help students through scholarships – the Sam and Hulda Clark Scholarship Endowment Fund and the Winston and Helen Cox Educational Excellence Fund, both of which still exist today at MCF. While it was a sizeable amount, it wasn’t nearly what the group hoped.
Struck’s suggestion was to take the foundation statewide, though that met with a great deal of skepticism in the beginning, primarily because of local pride, East vs. West divisions, and the belief there simply wasn’t enough wealth. Reluctantly, the group accepted the advice and with help from the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, Northwest Area Foundation, the McKnight Foundation, David Auer’s contacts around the state through the Montana Society of CPAs, and a whole lot of driving and legwork, this new statewide foundation was realized and headquartered in Helena under the guidance of Clark Pyfer, John Delano, and Steve Browning.
Amid this skepticism, by the end of 1988, the original Billings-based foundation had been legally merged into the new statewide Montana Community Foundation.
We Get By with a Little Help From Our Friends
In order to help counter skepticism regarding the creation of a statewide community foundation and marshal the resources necessary to launch and sustain such an effort, MCF engaged a number of trusted and respected people to serve on the board and staff during its early development efforts.
MCF also implemented a regional governance and support structure, conducted board meetings throughout the state, and made use of a national consultant in community foundation development.
MCF also obtained significant financial support from national and regional foundations, including Ford Foundation, McKnight Foundation, Northwest Area Foundation, Otto Bremer Foundation, and Chambers Family Foundation, now known as the Chamber Initiative. This funding helped seed the effort, establish the organization’s rural endowment and philanthropic development bona fides, utilize creative matching grant strategies, and establish a significant funding track record.
Getting it Down to the Local Level
One of MCF’s key strategies for building endowments, encouraging important local projects, and providing local grant resources was the creation of a network of Local Community Foundations (LCFs). Some of these were LCFs with their own 501(c)(3) status that maintained their endowments at MCF, while others were community funds held under the aegis of MCF’s non-profit status that had their own committee structure to make grant recommendations and raise local funds.
Initially supported by the Ford Foundation’s Rural Initiative, this ultimately provided technical assistance from MCF’s organizational development staff, challenge grants for endowment development, materials development, and statewide and sub-state meetings to build LCF’s capacity.
Watching Law Being Made
MCF has been involved in various public policy and advocacy efforts over the years.
Maybe most notably, in conjunction with the Governor’s Task Force on Endowed Philanthropy, established by then Governor Marc Racicot, MCF helped to establish and maintain legislation to build endowments for Montana nonprofit organizations through a charitable endowment tax credit, now called the Montana Endowment Tax Credit, an incentive for irrevocable planned gifts from individuals and outright contributions by eligible business entities. Over the years, MCF has continued to advocate for the renewal of the tax credit.
Subsequently, the Task Force helped to lobby on the federal level for the passage of the IRA Rollover Legislation, now known as the Qualified Charitable Distribution, which allows certain individuals to make a gift directly from their individual retirement account (IRA) to a charitable organization with that contribution counting towards their IRA’s Required Minimum Distribution obligation.
Additionally, MCF, in conjunction with the Women’s Foundation of Montana, was involved in the Cap the Rate Alliance, which helped to pass I-164 to cap interest rates on payday and car title loans.
Philanthropy as a Tool for Impact
As MCF has grown in capacity, resources, and the local community foundation network, the organization has continued to find ways philanthropy can serve as an effective tool for creating true impact in Montana, often through the generosity of individuals and organizations.
This includes the creation of the Women’s Foundation of Montana which was established in 1999 through a generous matching gift from the Chambers Initiative that has since served Montana women and girls.
Additionally, the MCF scholarship program has awarded a growing amount of scholarships to deserving Montana students each year.
The Montana Disaster Recovery Fund was established in response to a devastating wildfire season and the need for a statewide mechanism for disaster philanthropy.
More recently, the Snowbird Fund was created as a small means for addressing a need around community searches for Missing and Murdered Indigenous People (MMIP), a growing epidemic in Montana.
Also, in 2022, MCF made a million-dollar commitment to Montana by investing a portion of its endowment in Montana housing.
Looking at the Data
Throughout the years, MCF has also looked to data and research to address needs, create solutions, and build partnerships.
MCF commissioned its first Transfer of Wealth Study in 2006 which looked at the amount of wealth that would transfer from one generation to the next over a period of 10 years. This study helped to identify a unique opportunity in Montana to capture even a portion of that wealth for Montana, ensuring some stayed in Montana for the good of Montana. Since then, MCF has commissioned two additional studies (2011 and 2022).
MCF also participated in a unique social capital study led by Dr. Robert Putnam and Harvard University and has provided funding to support various studies and research done by partners such as Montana State University (MSU) Extension, among others.
The Women’s Foundation of Montana has also provided funding to support Status of Women in Montana reports, Women in the Workplace studies, and other relevant research around the status of women and girls in Montana and the issues they face.
Becoming a Philanthropic Leader
Since 1988, MCF has served as a philanthropic leader, hoping to serve as the go-place for philanthropy in Montana and a valuable partner to nonprofit organizations, local community foundations, professional advisors, donors, and other community and foundation partners.
MCF would eventually become the first community foundation in Montana to earn accreditation by the National Standards Board for U.S. Community Foundations, the highest standard for philanthropic excellence, establishing legal, ethical, and effective practices for community foundations.
Today MCF is governed by a diverse board of 18 people who are leaders located across the state. We have 20 staff, more than 1,400 regular supporters, nearly 1,500 charitable funds and planned gifts, and a continuously growing number of grants, scholarships, and annual endowment distributions which are awarded every year, throughout the year.
MCF remains as committed as ever to serving Montana through philanthropy. We continue to cultivate giving, facilitate grantmaking, offer expert financial management, and focus on grants and investments that make a measurable impact for the good of Montana forever. We also know that this work is possible because of the invaluable state and local partnerships we have and continue to build.
Final Note of Gratitude
Thank you to all of those who have been a part of our history and our story. You have truly made Montana a better place.