Happy birthday, West Marin Fund

07/21/2021

A healthy community is a healthy community. I know that sounds redundant, but it isn’t really, because when it comes to community, “health” has two completely different but equally vital meanings. The West Marin Fund, now celebrating its 10th year of life, understands that duality as well as or better than any private or community foundation in the world. My evidence? The astounding number of thriving and well-run nonprofit organizations in our watershed that are encouraged and supported financially by the fund, whose staff, directors and active advisors are fiercely intent on keeping them and the communities they serve in good health.

The first meaning of community health concerns place: the health of the landscape that hosts the 16 villages, 90-some ranches and about 50 small farms west of the coastal range. The second meaning is civic health. But you can’t have one without the other. If an ecosystem or a watershed is healthy, the communities in it will also be healthy. And if those communities are not healthy—socially, civically or spiritually, it will show in the landscape. The West Marin Fund has strived since the day its doors opened to protect and sustain both of those vital types of health.

Of course, community health is not why West Marin is famous. It’s much more famous for the fourth- and fifth-generation ranches, the rolling hills, the organic farms, the pristine waters supporting aquaculture, and the public lands beloved by millions, all less than an hour from a major metropolitan area of 8 million people. But we are also known worldwide for our healthy landscape kept that way with creative zoning, sustainable agriculture, clean water stewardship, well-balanced environmental activism and the tireless efforts of community organizations committed to keeping every aspect of our communities healthy, in both senses of the word.

There are currently over 100 active 501c3 nonprofit organizations serving West Marin. Close to half of them exist to either protect the biota, encourage the arts, educate youth, make homes affordable or make life easier for the disadvantaged, aged or infirm. And at least one form of community health is, to some degree, an objective of most of the others.

At the very heart of our nonprofit sector is this comparatively tiny, community-driven gathering of true citizens who 10 years ago created a unique and imaginative philanthropic institution whose mission is simply to support “the long-term well-being of the community it serves.” The key words in that mission are “long term.” It’s so unusual for foundations of any type or category to think long-term, most of them being reflexive, three-years-and-you’re-out funding mechanisms too often directed by people who live far from the community they allegedly serve or claim to care about.

The role of nonprofits in all American communities has become increasingly critical as government funds for education, health, infrastructure, parks, libraries, conservation, the arts and other vital activities have decreased. Community organizations everywhere still struggle to provide the financial support and services that have been lost. In today’s economy, the need for local services is more urgent than ever, as individual donations have decreased during economically challenging times. The most prominent foundation in this county, the Marin Community Foundation, provides important support to nonprofits west of the coastal range, but it can’t meet all our needs, and some of our community organizations have suffered from limited operating funds.

Ten years ago, for example, our only large medical clinic, the Coastal Health Alliance, lost $300,000 in federal funds. A year or two later, the major arts supporter Gallery Route One, which provides school and environmental art programs, lost 11 percent of its annual operating budget due to a cutback in foundation giving. Then Shoreline Unified School District, serving 500 elementary and secondary school students, was forced to cut $1 million from its budget over the past three years, threatening arts, music, athletic and other programs and even endangering core teaching positions.

It was situations like these that inspired the founders of the West Marin Fund to create a new community foundation. Launched with zero dollars and a vision, the fund can now step forward to fill critical funding gaps when they arise and create emergency projects like its Covid-19 Community Response Fund, which not only provided emergency funding to food banks, rental assistance and extra help for vulnerable local charities, but also hosted advisory workshops for nonprofits and small businesses applying for Paycheck Protection Program and Economic Injury Disaster Loans.

Several times a year, the fund sponsors workshops for nonprofit leaders designed to teach managerial skills and knit the community more tightly together.

West Marin and its one-of-a-kind community foundation have thrived on the principle that small is good and that diversity strengthens the whole. Yet by being small and responsive to specific needs, our nonprofits are still at risk of losing funds when donors, foundations or government agencies shift priorities or let their missions drift. But for the past decade, the fund has stepped forward to address specific needs, and ultimately, to provide more substantial operating support to charities and other nonprofits serving West Marin communities. 

Since its founding in 2011, the fund has donated, either directly or from donor-advised funds, over $4 million in 660 grants ranging between $500 and $150,000 to 85 organizations. Many community projects would have floundered or disappeared without that support.

Although the fund and the organizations it supports do not operate behind a singular motto, if they did it would almost surely be that “A healthy community is a healthy community.”    

 

Mark Dowie is an advisory board member of West Marin Fund. He lives on the outskirts of Willow Point.