Celebrating 20 years of creating resilient and resourceful communities

Several years ago, I was asked to visit a Canadian Mental Health Association program funded by the First West Foundation. During the visit, I was introduced to a young woman who wanted to thank me personally for supporting the Youth Supper Club because it had such a positive impact on her life. She expressed how alone she felt in her struggles with mental illness before joining the club but that through the program she had since met many others who were facing the same challenges. She also discovered she had a passion for cooking. With the CMHA’s help, she applied to Okanagan College’s culinary arts program and was accepted with a full scholarship! She went from being isolated and alone to having a community and purpose in life. It’s these kinds of stories that illustrate the importance of the First West Foundation’s work.

We don’t always hear about these stories because the foundation doesn’t run its own programming. Rather, we grant investment earnings generated by our permanent endowments including our regional divisions (Enderby & District Financial, Envision Financial, Island Savings and Valley First) to charities that help individuals or groups facing challenges. As a grant-making organization, we get requests from hundreds of charities in our communities each year and the need is continually growing. It’s sometimes quite difficult to narrow down the distributions. So when we review grant requests, we’re always asking the question: is this program/project helping someone learn something new or equip them with the ability to deal with challenges?

Stepping it up
It’s been amazing to see the growth of the foundation in the 20 years since its inception. In 1999, the First West Foundation distributed just $14,000 in grants and I was working on it off the side of my desk. In 2016, we’ve distributed over $680,000 in funding to 222 charities across our trade areas and have three dedicated employees.

I think a big turning point for the foundation was in 2004 when we embarked on a major fundraising initiative for SOS Children’s Villages BC—a charity that provides homes and a supportive environment for the most at-risk foster children. We pledged to fund two new homes for the society, which required around $525,000. At the time, the foundation was only generating about $100,000 annually in grant funding but we were determined to fund these two homes within two years. This meant a $325,000 fundraising goal—an ambitious and challenging goal for a grant-making charity with no dedicated staff and no fundraising experience. Our board of directors, staff, and members really stepped up and helped realize the goal. The two homes have now been a part of the village for 10 years.

Creating viability
What people might not realize is that every dollar donated to the First West Foundation is invested to generate community funding for perpetuity. So all those donations work year after year to help fund community programs. In the last three years, the foundation has doubled its assets, doubled it distributions and more than doubled the number of endowments it administrates.

While it’s important to talk about the numbers that make up the foundation, it’s also important to share stories we have about the people and communities we impact through our granting.

Elevating our focus
The First West Foundation recently underwent a strategic planning session and the board reaffirmed the foundation’s vision to be a sustainable charity that helps create resilient and resourceful communities. One way we are working to this end is to encourage the creation of new endowments with the Foundation by credit union members or charities in our communities. The addition of new endowment funds will allow the foundation to increase its support of the community. We’re also looking for ways to be innovative in our grant-making; for example, taking advantage of any opportunities that help leverage our funding for greater community impact.

While there may be many changes in the future, one thing is clear: the First West Foundation is an entity that will have a positive impact on our communities for generations to come.

By Seline Kutan, Executive Director, First West Foundation