Community-FoundationThink of the Community Foundation of the Lowcountry as part petri dish of ideas to help everyone in the  community prosper, an angel fund to jumpstart them and a local talent search of volunteers, thinkers and donors.

Its mission is to pull together community resources to keep residents in Beaufort, Jasper, Colleton and Hampton counties safe, healthy, educated and fed and local communities vibrant.

The foundation started nearly 20 years ago when Hilton Head Hospital was sold and went from nonprofit to for-profit. The sale created a $22 million kitty organizers employed to tackle an array of community needs, not just health related.

“We try to get new ideas off the ground. We’re the R&D of local philanthropy,” said Denise Spencer, foundation president and CEO. “We have a huge brain trust in this area. Not only wealth, but wonderful experience and expertise. We provide an opportunity to gather resources of all kinds and marshal them to address significant community needs and opportunities.”

For example, the foundation has provided seed money for Access Network, a health and housing agency, as it addresses need after need, said Gwen Bampfield, president.

“They helped us over the years with a number of ways to provide supportive services for our clients, early on before the state funded us,” Bampfield said. “They gave us a grant when rapid HIV testing first came out. The state helped a year later.”

Think of the Community Foundation of the Lowcountry as part petri dish of ideas to help everyone in the community prosper, an angel fund to jumpstart them and a local talent search of volunteers, thinkers and donors.

Compared to other funders, the foundation’s process is a lot less convoluted, Bampfield said. “Over the years, they learn certain organizations,” she said. “They have a good community network. They, more so than other organizations, reach out to the community. You see their staff at different meetings and venues. They are on top of the needs and gaps in services. That does make their process more friendly. If I have a new project, they are the go-to organization.”

The foundation generally funds or “incubates” a program only for a year as a test case. If it appears to be sustainable, agencies have to seek longer-term funding from individual donors and other grant making sources.

“We have a long-standing partnership with the foundation,” said Narendra Sharma, chairman of Neighborhood Outreach Connection. “They got us started with seed money. They understood the importance of the outreach programs in low-income neighborhoods.”

The NOC provides health screening, workforce development and pre-school and after-school programs for both struggling and successful minority children who don’t get much support at home, Sharma said.

“We went to the foundation from the outset,” he said. “They have a good understanding of the needs and the issues we are facing. They have a lot of integrity and are very rigorous in their process. They do site visits and have involvement of high-caliber people.”

The foundation also helps agencies become more effective by dispatching financial advisors, public relations experts or leadership instructors upon request through its Strengthening Nonprofits program.

Another vital supply line is the new and growing Lowcountry Volunteer Connections online service, which can be accessed through the foundation website, and matches people who want to volunteer in the community with local opportunities.

“Only the imagination limits what the foundation invests in,” said Carolyn Torgersen, vice president of marketing and communications for the foundation.

The foundation hosts regular “coffee and conversation” sessions, inviting anyone who has an idea or sees an unmet need in the community.

“We want to hear people’s concerns, ideas, hopes and dreams,” Spencer said. Finding the people with ideas or resources is harder than finding needs, she said.

“Nonprofits find us,” Spencer said. “We have a captive audience of nonprofits. Volunteers are harder to get to. Many are behind gates.

” That’s one of the benefits of the foundation’s biennial Public Art Exhibition that gathers 20 sculptures from around the world to display at the Coastal Discovery Museum at Honey Horn. It’s under way now, through December.

“The Public Art Exhibition is a very visual aspect of the work we do and we like that. It raises awareness of the foundation,” Torgersen said. The foundation also hopes the event builds a deeper community commitment to the arts. Spencer said the power of the foundation comes from the synergy it creates within the community.

“When we are all pulling together, it’s an amazing thing,” she said. “Everything we do is a collaboration. This is a collaboration, community workshop in every sense.”


Memory Matters, formerly Alzheimer’s Respite and Resource had two funds established at the Community Foundation for the construction of its new facility. One, the Alzheimer’s Respite and Resource Building Fund, was established in 2008 to accept funds for the development and construction of a facility for the organization. The Community Foundation provided administrative services such as gift acknowledgements/ tax receipts, fund accounting, and investment services.

The second fund was a project fund established by the Rotary Club of Hilton Head Island. The Rotary Club of Hilton Head Island – Alzheimer’s Respite and Resource Building Fund was established in 2007 by the Rotary Club of Hilton Head Island to provide funds for the development and construction of a building for the organization. By working through the Community Foundation, donors, which were primarily Rotarians, received a charitable deduction for their gifts, and Rotary benefi tted from the Community Foundation’s administrative support.

Since 1999, Memory Matters has received nearly $2.3 million from the Community Foundation of the Lowcountry through both its competitive grantmaking and donor-directed funds.


carolinCarolyn Torgersen,
Vice president of marketing and Communi Cations

What is your background and how did you become involved in the organization?
Originally from Ohio, I graduated with a degree in retail marketing and management from Miami University and began my career with a division of Federated Department Stores. I was transferred to Atlanta, and managed the division’s nine-state region grantmaking and social responsibility program as community affairs coordinator. After vacationing on Hilton Head Island since the 1980s, which everyone from Ohio seems to do, I made the leap to permanent resident in 1999 when I became the Hilton Head Island Foundation’s first director of communications. Since that time, the foundation expanded its service area and was renamed the Community Foundation of the Lowcountry and I was named VP for Marketing and Communications in 2007.

What drives you to do it?
In our office, the day to day is never the same. We can have a committee meeting one day filled with community volunteers discussing the design and promotion of our Public Art Exhibition, and the next day have a local nonprofit board learning strategic planning techniques. In the springtime, the office is filled with local high school students nervously awaiting their interviews with scholarship committees. Individual donors pop in and out, establishing funds to fulfill their own charitable vision. They all have stories to tell, and my passion is collecting those stories and getting them out into the broader community.

denisesDenise Spencer,
Foundation President and Ceo

What is your background and how did you become involved in the organization?
The change of venue, from my native Midwest to the Southeast, was exciting to me. I had been the CEO of a community foundation in mid-Michigan for 12 ½ years. I was attracted to this location for several reasons: 1) there is no better place for a community foundation than in the middle of an area with significant needs as well as significant cultural, intellectual and financial resources, 2) this appeared to be an organization that lived by both a set of core values and an active strategy, and 3) I believed that I had the skill set to continue the forward momentum of this organization. In spite of my inability to play golf, I was fortunate to have been selected to be the President and CEO in 2006. So I have now been at the helm of a community foundation in one place or another for 19 years. Prior to that I worked for 20 years for my alma mater, Central Michigan University.

What drives you to do it?
I believe in the beauty of the art form that is a community foundation. It is born out of its larger community; it has local leadership, local donors, and a local understanding of the needs of the area and how to address them. And in keeping with the “community” and “local” aspect of this work, there is virtually nothing that we do that is not a collaboration. We do our work in partnership with organizations that are on the ground providing direct services. We do our work in partnership with donors who have both a vision for what they want to accomplish, and trust in our framework and knowledge about how to make it happen. We utilize all of the skills of a capable staff, an influential board, and caring volunteers. For me, being the catalyst for the community to come together to improve community is incredible in all the many ways it happens.