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Flathead Community Foundation disbanding, moving assets to Whitefish

by CHAD SOKOL
Daily Inter Lake | December 1, 2020 12:00 AM

The Flathead Community Foundation is disbanding after 15 years and transferring its assets to the much larger Whitefish Community Foundation, a move both organizations say will strengthen local philanthropic efforts, eliminate redundant administrative costs and ensure that funds are distributed according to donors' wishes.

The Flathead Community Foundation, based in Kalispell, was founded in 2005 to manage charitable endowments and give grants to local nonprofits. Tom LePage, the foundation's executive director since 2019, said the organization has struggled to cover its overhead costs in recent years as the amount of charitable assets under its management has shrunk.

"We would roughly have to be six times our size in order to be naturally self-sufficient," LePage said Monday.

The Flathead Community Foundation reported about $1.15 million in assets on its last Internal Revenue Service filing in 2018. LePage said the amount under its management is now closer to $800,000. In part, that's because the foundation has encouraged its donors to give to causes aimed at mitigating effects of COVID-19, he said.

The Whitefish Community Foundation, established in 2000, meanwhile reports assets totaling more than $36 million. Among other things, the foundation trains local nonprofits and hosts the Great Fish Community Challenge, an annual, collaborative event that has raised more than $9 million over five years.

During the past year, the Flathead Community Foundation's board of directors considered three potential ways to make the organization viable, LePage said. The first option was to eliminate some administrative costs by returning to an all-volunteer model. Aside from LePage, the foundation has one other paid employee who works part time.

The second option, LePage said, was to secure a grant and invest in new systems to manage donated funds. But that would have involved duplicating efforts by the Whitefish Community Foundation.

LePage said it became clear that the two foundations should combine their assets after they worked together on a COVID-19 Day of Giving and Unity event in May.

"It's an odd way to look at fulfilling the mission of a nonprofit, to actually dissolve and hand over your resources to someone else," he said. "But it is by far the most efficient and beneficial for the Flathead Valley."

The transfer of funds should be completed by the end of the year, LePage said. That includes unrestricted funds as well as restricted endowments that can be spent only for specific purposes and in specific increments.

The transfer should be "seamless" and will preserve all the restrictions and qualifications intended by individual donors, LePage said. And it will benefit people across the Flathead Valley – not just Whitefish residents, he said.

"I think [the Whitefish Community Foundation's] giving pattern for the last three years has embraced the whole community – from Polson to Polebridge, and from Browning to Eureka – but people's perception of them is that they only focus on Whitefish," he said.

LePage, who has worked with nonprofits for about 30 years, said he's not sure about his own post-consolidation plans, but indicated he will step aside and let the Whitefish Community Foundation operate as it sees fit.

The decision to dissolve the Flathead Community Foundation prioritizes collaboration over competition, he said.

"Philanthropy should not be about the Braves versus the Bulldogs," he said. "It should be about what is best for the broader community."

Reporter Chad Sokol can be reached at 758-4434 or csokol@dailyinterlake.com