Its decision to end the winter sports center’s funding fits the philanthropy’s mission to vary the projects it supports.
The Maine Winter Sports Center in Aroostook County received more than $30.2 million in grants from the Libra Foundation over 15 years, which made the center part of a select group of organizations that benefited from major, long-term funding from the foundation.
The only grant recipient to get more money from Libra is the Pineland complex in New Gloucester, which has been awarded $48.4 million.
The duration of the Caribou-based center’s funding, as well as the scope of its efforts to create and maintain training for elite winter athletes and offer skiing trails to the public, make the facility a unique recipient of a private foundation’s support.
Libra has given away $172.8 million in grants since 1989. It has funded hundreds of large and small projects, ranging from a $1,000 annual grant to the Portland Conservatory of Music, to a $50,000 grant for the Southern Maine Agency on Aging, to a $5,000 grant for building new cabins in the Belgrade Lakes region for the Pine Tree Society for Handicapped Children and Adults.
Unlike many foundations, which must adhere to a narrow mission, Libra supports a variety of organizations throughout Maine, following the philosophy of late founder Elizabeth Noyce, the former wife of Robert Noyce, the co-inventor of the microchip and a founder of Intel Corp. Her passion was Maine and as a result, Libra is focused on Maine projects and organizations, especially those that help with economic and youth development.
“Betty’s mantra was ‘I can’t do much about the problems of the world – war and peace, hunger – but I can help in my own backyard,’ ” said Craig Denekas, Libra’s president and chief executive. “Her love was the state of Maine. We try to support a wide range of projects throughout the state.”
The Maine Winter Sports Center, which relied on Libra for $1.34 million of its $1.7 million budget last year, said Libra’s decision to end funding came as a surprise. The center, which produced six Olympians competing at the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, said it got notice about two weeks ago that funding would stop.
Libra, however, said it has been telegraphing its intention to scale back and exit the project since 2010. Libra said its overall funding of the Maine Winter Sports Center’s programming and coaching will end as of April 30, but the foundation expects some financial support to continue for a transition period for the competition sites in Fort Kent and Presque Isle.
“We accomplished what we were hoping to. It was time to let it stand on its own,” Denekas said. “All projects need to find a way to be sustainable. They’ve made great progress over the past 15 years and it’s time for them to envision what the next 15 years can look like.”
Change is difficult, Denekas admits, and no decisions to end funding are made cavalierly.
“There’s no division here. We wish no one ill. We don’t want to pull the rug out from anybody,” Denekas said.
The goal of all the investments is to help projects or organizations mature so Libra can redeploy funds to new ideas, said Jere Michelson, Libra’s executive vice president and chief financial officer.
Penny Noyce, the daughter of Libra’s founder and chairwoman of Libra’s board, said the decision to move on from the Maine Winter Sports Center was unanimous among the foundation’s four trustees.
“It’s really unusual to support a project to this level. We’ve discussed it over a number of years about ways to decrease our spending and how the communities can take on more support,” Noyce said. “We like programs to be simple. That allows administration to be straightforward and focused. The Maine Winter Sports Center had ambitions to go into other directions beyond skiing. We were happy with skiing. New directions are fine, but it’s time for us to move on.”
Every foundation is different in how it approaches funding and allocating resources.
The Maine Community Foundation, for example, primarily makes one-year grants to provide seed money for an organization or project to get started or to provide a bridge to other funding options elsewhere. Maine Community Foundation is the second most-active foundation in Maine, according to the Maine Philanthropy Center.
“Libra is to be applauded for the entrepreneurial and creative approach they took with Maine Winter Sports to create such an organization. Not many other funders would have committed to that type of long-term project. They not only created infrastructure and a community of support for the center, but they helped build strong leadership to keep the project going into the future,” said Meredith Jones, Maine Community Foundation’s president and chief executive.
“We always plant the seed when talking to an applicant. We always ask, ‘When our funding ends, how will you keep the project going?’ Funders are rarely perpetual funders,” Jones said. “I’ve rarely, if ever, heard any funder say they’ll do anything indefinitely.”
Libra’s four trustees – Noyce; Owen Wells, vice chairman; William Ryan, former chairman of TD Bank; and Denekas – meet four times a year in daylong meetings to assess the foundation’s current portfolio, discuss the health of various projects and review grant applications.
When weighing grant applications, the Libra foundation relies on everything from gut instincts to data such as the number of jobs created by each group or project, to the other funding sources available, to the groups’ governance and structure. The foundation makes annual grants to 30 organizations it considers critical to Maine, such as the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, the Maine Public Broadcasting Network and the Portland Museum of Art.
“I can’t give you a recipe on how it works,” Denekas said. “Sometimes we change the portfolio to keep things current and fresh. Sometimes, it’s time to move on.”
Some decisions have been controversial, such as the 2010 decision to stop funding the scholarships for summer camps for children in Lewiston, Portland and Bangor after more than a decade. The program gave more than $30 million in scholarships to about 33,500 children.
Libra didn’t sour on the program for a particular reason. It was merely time to move on to fund other projects.
“We look at that as a good, in and of itself. People ask ‘How can you stop that?’ For that time, and for what it was, it was a good thing. We try to look at it in that light,” Denekas said.
While no program is a sacred cow, the most likely candidate for perpetual funding is the Raising Readers program, which provides free books to all children in Maine, from birth to age 5.
“Raising Readers – we love that program. We’re rock solid behind that program. I expect its support to continue,” Denekas said.
Jessica Hall can be contacted at 791-6316 or at:[email protected]@JessicaHallPPH