Community foundation president finds joy in giving and helping others

dgary@macon.comJanuary 7, 2013 

It’s not unusual for Kathryn Dennis to get approached in the grocery store or cornered in the ladies’ room at a charity event.

For her it’s not a bother. She loves the interaction.

“I don’t have a 9-to-5 or 8-to-5 job,” she said with a smile.

As the president of the Community Foundation of Central Georgia, Dennis said she has “the happiest job around” because it blends two of her passions: helping people and building an organization.

“I’ve been afforded the opportunity to see firsthand the work of some remarkable, on-fire, driven people to make a difference,” she said. “I get a bird’s-eye view of the gifts people are giving everyday and a lot of times they are silent and (people others) don’t get to see. That’s probably been the most joyful thing for me.”

The Community Foundation is a publicly supported philanthropic organization that carries out the charitable interests of donors by investing funds as scholarships and grants. These funds benefit 16 counties, including Bibb, Houston and Peach. With $62 million in assets, the foundation has given out $50 million in grants since its establishment in 1993, according to Dennis.

“You give through the Community Foundation, not to the Community Foundation. We want to grow the pie of people giving, not just reallocate the dollars,” Dennis said. “Our goal is to build a permanent endowment to support Central Georgia so that there is always money to support the people that are doing the hard work to make our communities a better place to live.”

The foundation gives about $400,000 a year in community grants to nonprofit organizations that meet the grant program requirements. Grants have been awarded to various organizations, including the InTown Macon Neighborhood Association, the Macon Little Theatre and the Boy Scouts of Central Georgia. The grants sometimes serve as seed funding for start-up initiatives or offer a stamp of credibility for other programs.

“Sometimes a grant allows a nonprofit an opportunity to try something,” Dennis said. You might have a noble failure, but you won’t know unless you try.”

Although Atlanta-born and raised, Dennis, 50, has called Macon home for more than half her life. She and her husband have raised three children here. She decided to take the Community Foundation job 10 years ago, Dennis said, because she wanted to support the community she has grown to love.

Before becoming the Community Foundation president, the University of Georgia alumna worked as a branch manager with SunTrust Bank for 18 years. While there, Dennis began building the private banking division from the ground up and working with estate planning and trusts in the wealth management division, all while finding time to volunteer. Volunteerism is something her parents instilled in her early in life.

“She’s a phenomenal woman,” said June O’Neal, executive director of the Mentors Project of Bibb County, which works with at-risk middle and high-school students. In 2011, the project took a group of students on a disaster relief trip to Alabama. With the help of the Community Foundation, the Mentors Project found a sponsor.

O’Neal said Dennis’ commitment to city involvement is unwavering. Although Dennis sometimes refers to O’Neal as the “Mother Teresa of Macon,” O’Neal commends Dennis for her service.

“She knows the community, and she cares about the community. She transforms it into foot service and heart service for the community,” O’Neal said.

Despite heading organizations throughout Macon, Dennis refrains from making herself the center of attention.

This former chairwoman of the Stratford Academy Board of Trustees is also the 99th president and first female president of the Macon Rotary Club, a 98-year-old service organization of professional leaders.

“I really think I have more similarities with the past 98 presidents than differences,” she said. “We all have a love for Macon and for Rotary. It was an honor to be asked to be president of Rotary whether you are a man or a woman.”

Karen Lambert, president of the Peyton Anderson Foundation, said the Community Foundation has flourished under Dennis’ leadership.

“Her stewardship of the foundation’s mission is both extraordinary and exemplary. She has expanded the reach of the foundation’s impact and, through her strong and knowledgeable leadership, more citizens are contributing their resources to benefit worthy charitable endeavors in our community,” she said.

The Community Foundation often partners with the Peyton Anderson Foundation to address community issues.

Although she is sometimes seen as the face of the organization, Dennis said the foundation has never been about her but always about the community the foundation serves.

“The Community Foundation is here because of the donors. It’s strong because of an amazing board of directors who had a vision to start it, support it and keep it going,” Dennis said. “I have the good fortune of sometimes being the face in the front, but it’s everybody else that makes it great.”

With almost 250 funds to give to, donors choose to contribute to a variety of causes, such as education, after-school care and animal welfare. Donors sometimes choose to give to the foundation with no strings attached.

“There’s a great amount of flexibility when you give through the Community Foundation. If you have a wide array of interests and you want to be able to support a lot of different things over time, the Community Foundation is a beautiful way to do that,” Dennis said.

Brandy Flynn, 30, a junior at Macon State College, is among those who have benefited from donor contributions. This year, Flynn received a $2,000 scholarship from the Career Women’s Network Scholarship Fund to help further her education. Before the scholarship, the mother of two did not have money for textbooks and, for a long time, attended her classes without them.

“There are not a lot of scholarships out there for non-traditional students,” Flynn said.

The scholarship will be disbursed in two $1,000 increments for this academic year.

“We believe there is so much work to be done in our communities,” Dennis said. “There are so many organizations that need help. As the Community Foundation, we need to support everybody.”

However, with the economic downturn in recent years, “supporting everyone” has become a challenge. Needs have risen, Dennis said, and at the last grant cycle in June, the foundation had a record number of requests.

“People are very generous and are meeting the needs,” she said, but as far as long-term planning, most of the foundation’s work lately has been with donors giving through their estate plans, meaning the foundation receives the gifts once the donors have died. The foundation is not receiving as many gifts from living donors, she said.

The most challenging time, Dennis said, was between September 2008 and May 2009.

During that period, “the market was so volatile, and it was going straight down. We’re invested mostly in equities. We take the fiduciary responsibility to manage those funds very seriously.”

At one point, Dennis wondered when things would turn around, although she knew in her heart, she said, that things would recover.

“Giving away money is very difficult because you want to do it right and you want to help so many people,” she said. But she plans to stay the course.

“We’ve got a lot still to do,” she said.

To contact writer Danyelle Gary, call 744-4347.

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