Laurel Shulman stands next to her softball coach in 2000, top row, left.

I’m a huge fan of baseball. HUGE. I played softball growing up, and it really doesn’t matter what team is playing, I just want to be in the stadium (or better yet — on the field) contemplating the teams’ next move and the players’ dexterity. I’m missing it already as we head into winter, and recently spent some of the time not watching thinking about the similarities between baseball and community foundations.

If you ask someone to explain baseball, it is hard to imagine a brief explanation. Batting averages, pinch hitting, leagues — there are so many delightful variables! But brevity is possible, it’s a simple game: you throw the ball; you hit the ball; you catch the ball. (Bull Durham, anyone? )

When it comes to the nonprofit funding landscape, community foundations can appear complicated like baseball but have a clear and simple explanation. When I transitioned from working in a direct service nonprofit to working at Triangle Community Foundation, I found myself a bit confused about the connections between all the services and resources the Foundation offered the Triangle. I remember sitting in a huddle room on my first Friday on the job with a giant piece of paper, thinking “what is it that the Foundation actually does?” I reflected on my orientation meetings and slowly connected the dots like a paint by numbers art project.

Community Foundations specialize in three functions: getting, growing and granting money. As a 501(c)3 public charity, we operate under guidelines and regulations provided by the IRS. Simply put, we get money from donors, we grow money through financially prudent investment management, and we grant money to eligible nonprofit organizations. We work with many different constituents to accomplish these three tasks in our geographic focus of the Triangle area, specifically Wake, Orange, Durham and Chatham counties.

Just like baseball, the inner workings of community foundations are a bit more nuanced than just “we fund nonprofits in the Triangle.”

Getting Money (Donor Development)

Community Foundations offer different services and resources depending on the fund being created and/or the tax advantage being sought. Put simply, we “get” money for different reasons from different donors. Below are a few specific (but not exhaustive) examples of what “getting” money looks like at the Foundation.

Complex Assets: community foundations can provide assistance in donations of complex assets, such as real estate, a business interest, etc. For example, a person may want to donate a piece of property for charitable purposes, but the organization they love in their town is unprepared to handle that asset. The Foundation can handle this type of gift and supports the donor in charitable giving in their area of interest. The donor then advises a fund that they can use to grant over time to support that organization.

Operating Reserves: a nonprofit may have cash that is growing at a very small rate in their bank account and wants to see increased returns. That nonprofit transfers those reserves into the Foundation, so that we can invest it in our portfolios and enhance their financial stability and capacity. When the organization would like a cash infusion from the fund into their budget, they request it and we send that grant to them.

Donor-advised Fund: Often families want to gather all their charitable gifts over a period of time into one taxable year. Thus, establishing a donor-advised fund is attractive because it provides a larger tax-deductible gift, while also allowing the donor to grant to their favorite causes over time. Additionally, donor-advised fundholders receive access to Foundation expert staff who are in relationships with nonprofits in the Triangle and are their connective tissue to what work is happening in the Triangle.

Growing Money (Finance)

Our capacity to serve the community is directly tied to our ability to preserve and enhance our financial assets. The Foundation receives money through a wide variety of sources — it can be an IRA contribution, proceeds from the sale of a business, a gift through an estate, securities transfer, etc.

Our board of directors has developed investment policies and guidelines that provide for prudent asset management. An Investment Committee, comprised of board members and volunteers knowledgeable in the investment field, oversees the investment activities of the Foundation, together with an independent investment advisor specializing in university endowments and foundations.

The Foundation offers a variety of options for donors to align with their financial priorities and the community’s. We also offer a socially responsible investment portfolio and we have started to experiment with impact investing partnerships ( we will be seeking more partners soon). The primary goal with our investments is to take a bucket of money and make it into a bigger bucket of money, so the nonprofit sector in the Triangle can receive more assets to do the important work they do daily. The secondary goal is to provide support in the long term, to meet today’s needs and be here for future generations in our community.

Granting Money (Community Engagement)

And finally, the fun part (sorry Finance!) — putting grants back into the community so that everyone can thrive. This occurs again through many different mechanisms, depending on the fund type, but is governed by IRS regulations. All money granted from the Foundation must go to an eligible recipient, a public charity, school, religious organization or government agency.

It is a little-known fact that Foundation staff very rarely if ever are making grant decisions. Most decisions are made by donors or advisory committees, and the type of fund designates who has the authority to make the funding decisions. For discretionary dollars (money pooled from funds with unrestricted or broad funding criteria), the Foundation relies on grant cycles and volunteer advisory committees of community leaders and issue area experts to make funding decisions. Donor-advised funds allow individuals to decide and request grants from the fund they advise to eligible organizations. Scholarship and award funds are the only fund types that can grant directly to individuals and there are many IRS rules that govern those selection processes. Designated funds, in their inception, name the designated organizations to receive money from the fund. Then the Foundation processes those grants on an annual basis.

The Special Sauce

For me, the joy in playing baseball doesn’t come from the mechanics of the game but in the synchronicity between all the players in crucial moments. It’s the double plays and stealing bases, it’s diving to catch a quickly hit ball and it’s when a base runner gets caught in a game of pickle between first and second. The special sauce at the Foundation is similarly found in the interactions between the collective community we work with. Fundholders have access to expert staff who are well connected to the incredible nonprofits working in the Triangle. Daily we share resources to fundholders to guide their charitable impact. Nonprofits find allies in our Program Officers, calling them for advice, learning how to have stronger grant applications and providing feedback and (ultimately shaping) the discretionary funding process and eligibility requirements. Community leaders of all sorts find themselves working with us in many different avenues. For the sake of blog brevity, I won’t list all the ways, but the point is that as a community foundation, the special sauce is in the community.

Bringing it Home

I started playing softball when I was in second grade, and it took me a good number of years to understand how to throw, hit and catch the ball. After countless hours of practice and an incredible coach, I found myself playing shortstop for one of the top three teams in the state of Florida! (Why we were playing double and triple headers in the dead heat of summer, I still don’t know, but I’ll tell you I remember it as deeply fun and rewarding experience.) It’s been two and a half years since I sat alone in the huddle room with a large piece of paper during my first week at the Foundation, and I’m glad to share that while community foundations seem overwhelmingly complex, they are actually quite simple organizations who are here to be the connective tissue between individuals with charitable intent and the nonprofits doing the work to make the Triangle a better place.

Contributing writer is Laurel Shulman, Donor Services Officer, Triangle Community Foundation.