Upfront: Fund ho!

West Marin Fund hits its stride

by Tom Gogola

Five years after it was founded, the West Marin Fund (WMF) has quickly forged a critical presence as the go-to regional fund to support preschools, food banks, senior services and many other gestures of empathy and environmentalism in far-flung parts of Marin County. The fund serves 11 unincorporated towns along a legendary coast where the only government to speak of is often the public utility district—and where the people most in need can be stubbornly awesome when it comes to their right to live free in a part of the world increasingly given over to the forces of Airbnb and other impediments to a life of humble poverty.

The organization, says founding board member and longtime Inverness resident and activist, Michael Mery, sprang from “an appreciation of the diversity and social and environmental health of the place we share, in the face of significant economic change, in order to nurture what we have.”

Mery notes that there are 60 nonprofits up and down the coast, serving a population that’s a fraction of what you’ll find in the eastern parts of Marin County—where, by contrast, there are more than 1,000 nonprofits competing for grants and donations, many through the Marin Community Foundation (MCF).

The WMF came into being, in late 2010, when nonprofit managers in West Marin saw how the well-funded and Novato-based MCF wasn’t fully serving the needs of wild West Marin County. The MCF had de-prioritized funding environmental organizations and gave rise to the WMF in the process, says WMF Executive Director Catherine Porter.

At its founding, the organization set out to raise at least $2 million by this year, and in its first round of grants, in 2012, keyed in on small, but critical, grants in the $600 to $4,000 range. According to MCF press materials, that first round saw a total of $56,000 granted across 27 organizations that included the Coastal Marin Fund, KWMR radio, Friends of Sam’s House in Bolinas, and the Papermill Creek Children’s Center. In 2013-14, the fund sent a total of $226,000; in June of this year, it granted $48,000 across 26 recipients, including a grant to newcomer lit-mag the Inverness Almanac. All told, says Porter, about $1.3 million has been dispersed so far.

In short order, says Mery, it’s become hard to imagine a West Marin without a West Marin Fund. On a recent morning, the sprightly, yet self-conscious elder dropped by downtown Point Reyes Station’s West Marin Commons (aka, The Commons)—a project made possible through the work of the fund—and which celebrated and reified one of its core missions when it carved out this green corner hangout: Amplify the diversity.

The Commons, Mery says, opened to the public on Mexican Independence Day (Sept. 16), to emphasize the WMF embrace of immigrants. He says The Commons, leased by the owners of the Tiburon ferry, serves to celebrate the “emergence of the Latino population in the public space, a big change in the last three to five years.’ Now there’s an executive director at the Papermill Creek Children’s Corner Preschool, Maria Niggle, who Mery says with a wide smile, is the first-ever local nonprofit executive director who is not a native English speaker. Buenos tiempos!

“Many nonprofit leaders were leery of the WMF at first, but I think now all see it as central to the nonprofit community,” says Wendy Friefeld, the executive director of West Marin Community Services. Her organization provides a spectrum of services in the Pt. Reyes Station area—among other things, they host a food pantry and provide immigration services, child care and college scholarships.

Friefeld was a founding member of the WMF board after a 13-year hiatus away from West Marin nonprofits. She’s happily surprised she came back, she says via email, since the WMF is perfectly suited to the needs of its client community.

“We have received numerous West Marin Fund grants, not large in the scheme of things but large for us,” she says. With the grants, the organization has “been able to undertake projects to make us more effective”—including marketing and using new databases to improve tracking for clients and donors.

“Our people gather knowledge and provide services, or amplify services,” says Porter, who adds that WMF still works with the Marin Community Foundation and is on call for legal services, should the need arise. “We keep money with the foundation,” Porter says.

Friefeld adds that the fund has helped keep her organization on the MCF radar. The foundation is one of the most well-funded in the country, to the tune of about $400 million. “The fund now functions as a central referral point and has raised our profile with MCF,” Friefield says, “including a conduit to donor-advised funds, and setting up networking opportunities that have enhanced exchanges and collaborations.”

Closer to home, Porter notes the unique character, and characters, that populate West Marin in both spirit and bodily presence. Some folks would just as soon live the life of noble poverty, in their cars or in the woods among the redwoods—and here’s where the great benefit a close-to-home foundation comes to bear: “Because it’s a community foundation in an area that has a manageable population and 60 nonprofits,” Porter says, “the advantage is that you know everybody.”

And knowing everybody means knowing what they’re in need of.

Need a shower, wood nymph? Sam’s House in Bolinas will provide one, and laundry services too, with money raised through the West Marin Fund. It’s a small but humanizing gesture, “but it’s not really about the money,” Porter says.

“This is the first time we’ve ever been recognized as an integral part of the caregiving community. Half of it is just being recognized as a caregiver in the community.”

Got a grant-worthy endeavor? Applications for the autumn 2015 grant round are due Nov. 1, so get on it.

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