Blue Mountain Foundation grew from a very Walla Walla decision

Foundation news | Friday, May 15, 2015

Contact: Casey Richards

More than 30 years ago, a group of 36 community leaders gathered together to learn about community foundations, and vote on whether Walla Walla should have one.

Mary Lou Tillay remembers that meeting well, as she was one of the few businesswomen in the room with "... the cream of Walla Walla businessmen"—people who made things happen.

John Reese and Pete Peery, both attorneys, shared with the group that people were concerned about local wealth being donated outside Walla Walla due to the lack of a local, neutral nonprofit in towna charity that could benefit the whole community rather than a single nonprofit.

When put to a vote, 95 percent of the gathered businesspeople said yes to a community foundation.

A second question was put to the group: Should we join with an existing community foundation or start our own?

One reason to go with another city's community foundation was that it was up and going. The local group wouldn't have to apply for tax-exempt status, and all the expenses of starting a nonprofit, hiring a staff, creating an office, putting together a board.

On the other hand, the closest foundation was in Spokane, a 3½-hour drive away and wasn't in the Blue Mountain area where people enjoy local control.

By the end of the day, the group decided to create the Blue Mountain Area Foundation.

Across town, an 80-year-old business was closing its doors. Walla Walla Credit Bureau had been, and still was in the early 1980s, a going concern. But the four-man board of directors had a dilemmaon the retirement of the managing director, who would run it? Further, what would the many merchants in town who relied on its credit reports do?

Frank T. Carlile, chairman of the Credit Bureau Board, was tasked with selling the business.

"We were all amazed," he said, "that we actually received an offerand a cash offer!"

Now the question was: What to do with the proceeds?

In a "very Walla Walla" decision, that is, acting in the best interests of the community, the Board decided to give all of the proceeds to the new community foundation.

The purpose of this initial fund: Support the local United Way.

A grateful Blue Mountain Community Foundation board decided to raise $250,000 for a fund to support operations to keep administrative fees as low as possible.

Art Griff, former owner of Tallman's, led that successful campaign for a sustaining endowment. From that initial campaign, the Foundation's sustaining funds are over $925,000.

Thirty years later, Walla Walla Credit Bureau's gift of $200,000 became a permanent endowment where only a set amount could be spent each year. Its current value is $360,000. The beauty of endowments is that while it has grown in value, it did so while distributing over $525,000 to the United Way of Walla Walla. Each year about $18,000 goes to the United Way.

That early group of founders succeeded in creating a neutral nonprofit that now has nearly 300 funds, containing $39 million charitable dollars, benefiting the entire community.

That's very Walla Walla!

Kari Isaacson is executive director of the Blue Mountain Community Foundation, and has 35 years experience in philanthropy.