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Giving Thanks: A Fifth Century Vision for Essex County

Giving Thanks: A Fifth Century Vision for Essex County
The Salem News
Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Salem News published Dave Welbourn's column in its opinion section Saturday, Nov. 22, 2014.

Essex County is just beginning a long string of 400th anniversaries. If we could go back that far, we’d see early seasonal fishing villages and natives with a few French words. In the summer months, we’d have seen Captain John Smith sailing past Cape Ann and Nahant, mapping every harbor and island.

The colonists that soon followed found themselves unprotected on a deep-forested shore. Their survival depended entirely on working together to clear land, build houses and churches, plant gardens and protect themselves.

That sense of common purpose was the seed of our exemplary nonprofit sector and the spirit of giving we now show daily.

Two hundred years later Toqueville noted with amazement something the French aristocracy had not yet seen: “The propensity of ordinary Americans to form voluntary associations for the public good.” If he were to wander across the 34 cities and towns of Essex County today or meet some of the 20,000 trustees who serve on the boards of our 2,500 nonprofits, he would undoubtedly still be impressed by our “private action gathered for the public good.” By now, it’s genetic.

Like most visitors to America, he quickly learned first hand the way of life those early settlers established for generations to come: We are a nation that gives because it’s thankful, and says thanks because of all the giving.

This is a season that begins with Thanksgiving and ends at New Year’s Day, inspiring a greater rush of giving and caring in America than anywhere else in the world.  Still, this time of year can overshadow the charitable history that Essex County practices year round.

For the past sixteen years, Essex County Community Foundation has partnered with thousands of barn-raising efforts. Millions of dollars in ECCF donor advised funds have been given in grants and scholarships, 11,000 nonprofit leaders and board members have been trained through dozens of governance-related workshops, and thousands of improvements have led to a better quality of life across our county. Issues such as job training, land conversation, arts programs, affordable housing, and education, to name a few, are being addressed—together.

Our upcoming 400th anniversaries—of colonial towns; of the first royal charter for commercial enterprise; of the first real housing boom; of the first twinkle of America’s love affair with philanthropy and nonprofits—present us with an opportunity to advance again. We have prospered here because of our values, our ideas, our work ethic and constant replenishment by new Americans coming to Essex County from all over the world.  Compared to our first 400 years, there is greater potential for giving now, yet much need remains.

So, what if we all establish a Fifth Century Fund, if you will, to tackle modern problems like heroine addiction or mental health counseling?

What if Fifth Century philanthropy became synonymous with big ideas and robust conversations that solve real problems? What if our boards demonstrated community wisdom, taking ownership for growth and grants much like the early settlers did?

What if, together, we inspired new volunteers throughout our communities, developed next generation leaders, or extended the reach and impact of stronger nonprofit organizations?

Better still, what if each of us encouraged charitable giving within our families so that every child in Essex County will grow up eager to help others, and no child will go to bed hungry?

We can be proud of the fact that Essex County represents the first American society of philanthropic and charitable activity, making Giving-Where-We-Live a common feature of life here. 

If in the early days of our fifth century, we focused together on producing America’s first county wide success in solving say, hunger or poverty, wouldn’t that be the most historic achievement of all? And that would be a great new reason to give thanks.

Dave Welbourn is President/CEO of Essex County Community Foundation in Danvers, which promotes philanthropy and strengthens nonprofits serving the people of Essex County.  He will be retiring in December.

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