Building a Community: Denise Spencer



The coastal lifestyle did not lure Denise K. Spenser to the top job at the Community Foundation of the Lowcountry. In fact, after she interviewed for president and CEO of the foundation, she was sure she had blown her shot at the position because she had admitted that she did not play golf.

But it turns out the sport wasn’t a requisite for the job, which is how the Community Foundation, headquartered on Hilton Head Island, ended up with a leader with a passion for volunteerism, concern for community and social justice locked into her DNA.

“I did not come here for the weather, the beach or golf,” said Spenser, who has been at the helm of the foundation since 2006. “I came here to work.”

And work she does. Spenser heads a foundation that is a driving force for positive, sustainable change in the Lowcountry. One of 800 Community Foundations in the country, the Lowcountry agency is the largest source of unrestricted philanthropic resources dedicated to Beaufort, Colleton, Hampton and Jasper counties.

“One of the reasons that I found this particular job intriguing is because I love the Community Foundation model,” she said. “It is so flexible.”


– Denise Spencer

The intersection of wealth and poverty in the Lowcountry fits well with the foundation model of strengthening a community by connecting resources and needs, Spenser said. The region’s strength is its “very highly experienced population,” she said.

“People who come here from all over the world to retire,” she said. “People who have lived here for years, and generations … who understand the needs and history better than anyone else. So we have brain power and understanding that exceeds that in many other places.”

The Michigan native’s own “brain power” includes a strong focus on giving, thanks to her father — who ran a funeral home and nurtured the idea of volunteerism in her from a young age. As a teen, Spenser worked as an unpaid volunteer at the funeral home, greeting people at the door. She also volunteered as a candy striper at the local hospital and connecting nursing home. Spenser gravitated to the facility’s residents there who had few visitors, eager to absorb their knowledge and delve into their wealth of experience. She’s also a voracious reader “of all nature of things” who enjoys writing and using that to share her newly found knowledge with others.

Spenser calls her father an amazing grief counselor who inspired her and the works she does with the foundation. He often provided help to widows long after the funeral, repairing broken appliances, or buying used equipment at garage sales that he could give to people in need. But he discouraged Spenser from going into the funeral business: “My father felt strongly that that was not a career for a woman,” she says.

The Community Foundation of the Lowcountry has been instrumental in helping area residents in a number of ways. But it is the current initiative to connect low-income Hilton Head Island homes to sewers that brings excitement to Spenser’s voice. The confluence of health, environmental and social issues makes the project a big deal, she said.

Project SAFE — or Sewer Access For Everyone — has raised nearly $1.8 million toward its four-year goal of  $3 million and has connected 93 families to sewers, with another 32 approved for sewer hookup. The average cost to connect a home to the sewer system is $6,700.

 “I am the only person I know who has sewage in a bucket at the top of their bucket list,” she deadpans.

Spenser uses that hypothetical bucket to remind herself of her role in the community’s success.

“A mentor of mine once said, ‘If you want to know how indispensable you are, stick your finger in a bucket of water, pull it out and see what kind of hole you’ve left’,” she said. “I’ve lived my life with that thought. It is not about me. It is about the work. It is about the institution.”