Building a lasting foundation in Otsego County

Imagine being the philanthropic arm of a rural community and having to deal with both a once-in-a-lifetime health pandemic, with people losing jobs and struggling to make ends meet, and a devastating tornado – all in a matter of months.

That happened in Gaylord, a city of about 4,000 people off Interstate 75 in northern Michigan. As the pandemic spread, the Otsego Community Foundation created the COVID-19 Fund, to help fill gaps and support the work of community nonprofits striving to assist those working in the hard-hit hospitality industry. The fund provided more than $250,000 to organizations, nonprofits and small businesses.

And then in May 2022, a rare tornado stormed through the resort community, destroying countless buildings and homes and creating widespread debris. Dozens of people were injured and two people lost their lives.

Again, the Otsego Community Foundation sprang into action, raising money to help recovering residents with housing, food, cars and other needs. In all, $1.6 million was raised to help those impacted by the tornado, which occurred one year ago this month and has been commemorated with community events. 
Stretched to unprecedented levels because of those emergencies, the Otsego Community Foundation, which manages charitable funds to support local causes, realized it needed a shift in its fund-raising focus. It needed to focus on a long-term approach to fund-raising to better serve the community.

“In peaceful times, we’re doing great work and we’re stretched,” says Dana Bensinger, executive director of the Otsego Community Foundation. “Add a pandemic, followed by a tornado, and you can imagine how stretched and limited we are.”

The organization has launched “The Way Forward,” a framework to enhance grantmaking, making it more impactful. Bolstering the Community Fund will help the organization move from a “band-aid” approach in helping the community to build a lasting foundation to address the issues facing Gaylord and Otsego County. 

Performance Plus was among the businesses destroyed during the tornado.
“This is a long-lasting strategic shift to create pathways of generosity,” Bensinger says. “This means that donations of all sizes can make the most impact on our community. It is a way to transform the tremendous philanthropy of this area into solutions that can only come from people who live here.”

Common among community foundations, the Community Fund is flexible and far-reaching enabling the OCF to respond to needs or proactively capitalize on opportunities Ironically, the Otsego Community Foundation had launched a campaign to increase donations to its Community Fund in 2022 and then the tornado ripped through Gaylord.

“It just reaffirmed that what we were doing with the campaign for the Community Fund was needed,” Bensinger says. “We always had a Community Fund but donor-centered funds allow for more donor engagement so historically that is where we focused.”

“Our specialty has been to cater to donors' wishes and that is an important part of our work, but we must have balance … when a pandemic or tornado hits, because of their restricted nature donor-centered funds are limited.  We were really lacking funds for the community that will allow the community foundation to be responsive or proactive.

Many of the businesses damaged during the tornado have reopened.“(A community fund) is the simplest way for us to be the most impactful in the community,” Bensinger says.

Community foundations term these community needs funds as “unrestricted,” and while donations to these funds are among the most important and impactful gifts a foundation can receive, they are harder to come by, says Christine Hitch, marketing communications director for the Community Foundation for Northeast Michigan.

“These types of funds enable a foundation to address the needs of its communities as they change and evolve from year to year, and generation to generation. For example, 25 years ago these types of funds were helping small nonprofits get computers for the first time. Nearly two decades later they were addressing the unique issues and needs that arose because of a pandemic no one saw coming,” she says.

“While we can’t possibly know what types of needs our communities will have in another 25 years, what we do know is that these types of community funds will be here to make sure foundations can meet those needs, whatever they are,” she adds.

For the Otsego Community Foundation, its renewed effort also marks a change in the local culture, which has relied heavily on volunteers or part-time workers to fill nonprofit roles.  The county is not home to private foundations – like more affluent or urban areas – to help support philanthropic efforts. There is no locally based Salvation Army or American Red Cross. The Otsego Community Foundation is the main resource to support local nonprofits. 

So far, the Otsego Community Foundation has secured $2.5 million in pledges for the Way Forward Campaign. 

As part of its efforts to make impactful changes, the Otsego Community Foundation consulted with local experts and held focus groups to identify strategic goals and fund-raising efforts over the next decade. They are fighting poverty and hunger, ensuring quality education, fostering good health, protecting life on land, and expanding innovation and infrastructure. 

“If you know and love and trust a foundation and want to give, give an undesignated gift so they can do what they need to do,” Bensinger says. “As you get to know these organizations, you’ll see these types of donations make sense.”

To donate, go to The Community Fund.
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