Rockin’ A Hard Place | The Rock got great help to take care of itself when needed most

We Rock dwellers enjoy the distance we have from America. It takes awhile to get anywhere from here, by ferry or bridge. We like to boast that we take care of ourselves in this beautiful place. And there’s no better proof than this: About 800 nonprofit organizations on Whidbey Island (with a population of just 68,500) are doing good work to take care of us. That’s about one nonprofit for every 85 Rock dwellers.

But during this prolonged pandemic, many of our nonprofits have been hurting, unable to do their usual fundraising and community events, and many of their volunteers haven’t been able to work because of quarantines and social distancing. So, to help when it was needed most, our newest and brightest means to take care of ourselves really stepped up.

The Whidbey Community Foundation has been around only since 2016. It was created to funnel more resources and help increase the skills and capacity of our nonprofit organizations. In 2017, its first full year of operations, it helped three Rock nonprofits by giving out $37,000 in grants. Last year, that skyrocketed to 53 nonprofits that received an amazing $333,000 in grants.

But there’s an even better part. In 2020, the Whidbey Community Foundation opened a special COVID-19 resilience fund and handed out 49 grants totaling more than $231,000 to help nonprofit organizations deal specifically with pandemic challenges on Whidbey.

Here are a few of things it did to help during COVID: It funded free child care for health care and essential workers at the Boys and Girls Clubs in Oak Harbor and Coupeville. It gave the WhidbeyHealth Foundation money to purchase 22 air-purifying respirators for the hospital. It gave grants to all the island school districts to help with reopening costs, including sanitizing equipment and personal protective equipment for students and teachers.

It gave a $25,000 grant to the Opportunity Council to help seven licensed child care providers on Whidbey pay staff and keep their doors open. It gave grants to those helping house and feed the homeless and hungry. And it partnered with the Skagit/Island County Builders Assn. by offering a $25,000 matching grant in a fundraising drive for local food banks on the island.

“COVID really validated our foundation and why it’s needed,” said Nancy Conard, Coupeville’s former mayor and a driving force in creating the community foundation five years ago. “Our purpose has always been to bring leadership in identifying and supporting the needs of our Whidbey people with resources, and people saw that during the pandemic.”

Even with the focus on the pandemic, the foundation also continued its “normal” grants last year, supporting organizations that work to help veterans, youth, the arts, housing, human services, animal welfare, education, the environment and historic preservation. The money helped many of them stay afloat or even expand their work, especially as other fundraising dried up or was delayed.

Among those receiving grants last year were Friends of Friends, Sno-Isle Libraries, Sound Water Stewards, the Saratoga Orchestra, the Whidbey Playhouse, the Organic Farm School, Summit Assistance Dogs and the Pacific Rim Institute.

The community foundation has very low overhead; it has no formal office. Much of its work is handled out of the home of Jessie Gunn, a mother of two who was hired as its only paid staff member in 2019. As program director, she ensures that grants are properly documented and meet all legal requirements for nonprofit groups.

She has a strong background to do so, having done philanthropic work in New York City and for national nonprofit organizations. Her husband is from Whidbey, and they moved back here a few years ago to help operate his family’s business – which happens to make Whidbey Pies, one of our Rock’s best and favorite products.

The community foundation raised more than $900,000 last year from all sources. That included hundreds of small donations of under $200 to its COVID-19 Resilience Fund. It also included much bigger grants of thousands of dollars from large regional and national philanthropic organizations, which trusts our local foundation to get the money where it’s needed most. And it included a growing number of gifts from donor-advised funds, which are usually set up by older, wealthier people to make regularly scheduled large donations to pre-selected causes.

“I am struck by how many people have moved here to Whidbey to have an active retirement, enjoy our beautiful environment and be involved in the community,” said Nancy Conard, who now serves as the foundation’s executive director and as a board member. “A lot of these folks have come from big cities and are familiar with how community foundations can leverage the work of local nonprofit organizations. That experience is invaluable and something we might not expect in a rural area.”

The foundation has come a long way from the day in 2016 that Robin Hertlein, then Coupeville finance director under Mayor Conard and now a professional grant writer, told the mayor about a number of grant opportunities the community was missing out on because it had no community foundation. Every other community in the Puget Sound area had one — but not Whidbey.

“It gives me a lot of satisfaction to see how this has taken off,” Conard said. “When I was mayor, people always told me what a great community this is, and I would say it’s because of the people who live here — a community that takes care of itself.”

Harry Anderson is a former Los Angeles Times reporter who lives on Central Whidbey.