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What is a community foundation?
More than two decades have passed since the beginning of the Nemaha County STEP Foundation, but invariably that will be one of the first question Leslie Scoby hears each time she is introduced as STEP’s executive director.
She could point to over $100,000 of scholarships to local students and grants supporting community improvements that have been awarded over the years, but sometimes Scoby has found, the best way to explain STEP’s mission is by posing her own question.
“What do you guys want for your community and how can our foundation help you get there?”
“That’s it, right there,” she said. “STEP’s entire purpose is to help make Nemaha County a great place to live.”
As a tax exempt, public charity created and managed by local people, STEP provides an avenue for those who want to give back to their community, and it offers donors the flexibility to be as specific or as general as they want to be on how their money is used.
Grants are awarded twice yearly to causes that have emphasized community improvements, including parks, libraries and recreational facilities. Other endowments award annual scholarships to county students.
“The money stays local. That’s what’s so nice about our foundation – this money is staying right here,” Scoby said.
But as STEP completes its 21st year, it is becoming apparent that some changes are needed to ensure its ability to continue that mission. Membership and fundraising have tapered off, and the dollar amount of grants given out has declined.
With over $1.2 million in the bank, STEP remains in good shape financially, but most of its grants are funded through investment income. That has gone down, sharply. Twenty years ago, CDs were safe and offered a good return. That’s no longer the case with today’s lower interest rates.
“We want to be responsible to do the best we can with the money,” Scoby said. “We have done extremely well, but I believe we can do more.”
Another challenge is the need to get the entire county to “buy in” to STEP’s potential. Founded in 1993 as Seneca Area Striving To Ensure Progress, organizers quickly realized the foundation’s structure would work better in a county-wide setting. STEP board members now come from across the county, and grants have been awarded to every community, but there’s still the perception of it being a “Seneca” organization.
“We know we need to do a better job of involving people from all of the communities,” Scoby said.
One of the county’s smallest communities provides an example of how to work with STEP, she noted.
“Baileyville is a community that learned early on how we could give them the best bang for their donated buck. Baileyville knows how to do it,” she said.
For the first time, the next annual meeting, set Jan. 28, will be held in Sabetha, instead of Seneca.
And there’s a generation gap. STEP’s original community-minded members are now 21 years older and a younger generation is taking the leadership reins.
“There’s a lot of new young people who don’t know what we’re about,” Scoby said. “We need to change some things up to be more accessible. We need to look at increasing our presence on the Internet and exploring phone apps, as ways to give and apply for grants.”
Scoby would like to see her position evolve into a program educator who can go into Nemaha County communities and explain how STEP works, grow the membership and help guide charitable giving decisions.
Kansas community foundations have identified an unprecedented opportunity for growth with a near $79 billion transfer of wealth from one generation to the next projected over the next eight years. Most will be transferred to heirs or taxes, but the Keep 5 in Kansas program encourages estates to donate five percent to the community.
“Nemaha County has an extraordinary opportunity for positive change if we can just capture five percent (of projected transfer of wealth). Imagine what would be possible for our county with $12,000,000. We have the resources right here to do what we need to do,” she said.
Matt Diehl | Seneca Courier-Tribune

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