Acorn Foundation – Generous people and causes that matter

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“Connecting generous people who care with causes that matter…forever.” This is the mission statement of the Acorn Foundation, and the reason Nicky Wilkins and Margot McCool feel privileged to work for Acorn.

The Acorn Foundation was established in 2003 after local lawyer and well-known community advocate Bill Holland, and Peter Wyatt, respected for his entrepreneurial support of the Bay of Plenty (notably through the Compass Community Trust), visited America to investigate how community philanthropy operates there. They found a simple model for raising funds into perpetuity which became the Acorn Foundation.

It works by people in the community setting up endowment funds which become effective at their death and/or they can make regular donations during their lifetime. The funds are invested by the community foundation and the proceeds distributed to local charities and causes. As the fund grows so does the amount distributed, and because the capital remains intact, the foundation can continue forever.

The name Acorn was taken loosely from the proverb, “Great oaks from little acorns grow.” The Acorn Foundation is well on its way to becoming a mighty oak. In the 15 years since its inception it has grown to involve nearly 300 donors with some $20 million invested. In 2017 $854,000 was distributed to the community. This year is it likely to be near one million.

Nicky Wilkins has been General Manager of the Acorn Foundation since 2006. Margot McCool joined in 2008 and acts as Operations Manager. Theirs are two of the few paid positions in an organisation which relies heavily on volunteers and runs a tight financial ship with only one per cent of the fund going to administration.

Nicky laughs when she tells how she got the job. A friend suggested she apply. She supplied her CV on a Friday, was interviewed by Trustees the following Tuesday and offered the job the next day. “It was a godsend for me,” she says. What she has achieved in her 12 years with the Foundation suggests she was the godsend.

While Nicky brought a strong marketing background to the role, and has put in place many initiatives, her most invaluable attribute is her ability to build relationships.

Generous People

Nicky’s core role is to grow the fund, to attract and look after the interests of the donors and to honour them. “I am talking to people about death and money, two subjects one does not normally discuss with strangers.” All credit to Nicky that she quickly engenders trust, affection and respect and that she knows nearly all the donors personally. “This makes it much easier if I have to gently remind someone they usually give us a big donation at this time of the year! I have to strike a fine balance and not become a pain in the neck. I liken it to fishing – having patience and knowing when it is appropriate to reel in the line.”

Nicky points out that donors can nominate a charity for their funds to benefit or make unrestricted donations which enable the money to go where it is needed most, due to Acorn’s robust application and distribution process. “I often see the relief written all over the face of a new donor, confident in the knowledge their philanthropy is taken care of by Acorn…for life and beyond.”

In her role of connecting generous people with causes that matter Nicky is answerable to another group of generous people – The Board of Trustees of the Acorn Foundation, all volunteering their time and expertise to their community in their governance of the Foundation.

Among her responsibilities is developing and implementing a strategic plan for growth, working with corporate supporters, like the Legacy Trust (set up by Greg Brownless to funnel all the profits from his funeral business back into the community), and the Tindall Foundation. Tindall’s selection of Acorn as its funding manager for the Bay of Plenty Region gave the foundation a huge kick-start.

Acorn, as one of the first community foundations to be set up in New Zealand, has set the bar for other foundations, and thanks to support from Tindall, Nicky has organised Trustee Workshops to share their experience and help other regions set up similar foundations.

Nicky is known for pushing hard when she really believes in something – like Vital Signs, a research tool she saw used in Canada to measure the health and vitality of a region by identifying trends, strengths and weaknesses over a wide range of categories. “It took four years to get it accepted here, a bit like herding cats!” she laughs. The results of the second Vital Signs survey have just been released. “It has been invaluable in providing evidence-based research for our funding.”

Causes That Matter

While Nicky’s main focus is on the donors, Margot McCool, as Operations Manager, facilitates the process of deciding who benefits from their generosity. She works closely with the trustees who are on the Investment Committee, overseeing the role of Craigs Investment Partners who manages the funds; and those on the Distribution Committee who make the final decisions based on criteria which reflect the region’s Vital Signs. “We are tasked with looking after other people’s life savings,” she points out.

The funding process starts in May. Short on-line applications are initially screened, with those clearly meeting the criteria asked to apply in more detail. “We read every application then spend July meeting with those organisations we are not familiar with.” The final decisions are made in early August and the fortunate beneficiaries paid out that month. Last year 70 organisations were selected by the Acorn Distributions Committee to benefit, in addition to the 50 already specified by donors.

After working in the commercial arena Margot finds the not for profit sector very refreshing. “I have enormous respect for the passion and ability of the many volunteers we meet, and their openness and willingness to share knowledge and skills.”

Margot is also responsible for marketing, “Very modest, we have to see every dollar work,”  she says.

Amazing what is achieved when neither are full-time roles. Nicky and Margot obviously enjoy a synergetic working relationship. They share similar backgrounds, both university educated in marketing and commerce respectively, both travelled and worked in London during their OEs, both happily married with grown-up children.

Both believe so unreservedly in the foundation they work for that they have, with the blessing of their families, set up endowment funds with Acorn to make our region a better place. Among the many things they are adamant about is that donors to the Foundation do not have to be wealthy people, pointing out that when you add your contribution to a big pool, you can be part of making a huge difference.

As the Acorn Foundation prepares to celebrate its 15th anniversary in May, Nicky prepares to step down later this year, leaving behind a legacy she can be proud of.

To find out more about Acorn Foundation visit www.acornfoundation.org.nz or simply call Nicky or Margot on 07 579 9839