The City Magazine Since 1975

Growing Good

Growing Good
November 2015
A Charleston native reflects on the evolution of local philanthropy

My father, Billy Muckenfuss, was a Charleston character. He was a chubby, bespectacled tax accountant who was respected for his sharp mind and integrity. Off the clock, he was jokester, quick with a quip and an offer of a drink. I learned many life lessons from my dad, including a love of mathematics, the courtesy of punctuality, and the art of a snappy retort. As I approach his age when he died, I realize that one of the most important lessons, giving back, was taught subtly in our home.

As a child in the 1960s, I was aware that my parents were both active in the community. My mother volunteered to help disabled children, and my dad served on committees in church and for many clubs. At home, my siblings and I were often reminded of “the poor children” who were less fortunate. I never did understand how cleaning my plate at every meal would help the impoverished, but I do remember the satisfaction of filling a cardboard sheet with dimes for the March of Dimes drives. In my frugal home, those shiny coins had to be earned through chores—one by one a reward for raking a yard full of leaves or helping to scrape the wax buildup off the linoleum floor in the kitchen.

I loved the occasions when I got to accompany my dad to fundraising events like the Sertoma Club’s preseason football games. We would tie on canvas aprons and sell programs to support the club. Even more fun was using a cardboard canister to collect for the American Cancer Society during a spectacular Bevo Howard aerial show. It was a thrill to hear silver coins clinking after they slipped through the slot, and it was utter joy when an occasional paper bill was inserted. I also learned a variety of ways that folks say “no.” I had to ask my dad what it meant when a man replied to me that “It would be easier to get blood out of a turnip.” I never liked turnips anyway.

Then, in the 1970s, Charleston reached a tipping point. Joe Riley became the mayor, Spoleto Festival USA began, and thousands of visitors discovered the immeasurable, unpublicized charms of the Lowcountry. New businesses arrived, the port’s activity multiplied, and “people from off” began to buy property.

Before this second renaissance for the city, philanthropy was low-key and unheralded. Few buildings were named for donors, and “anonymous” was the most generous and most frequent contributor to all charities. Churches and synagogues were the largest grant-makers, and family members and neighborhoods stepped up to take care of those who were experiencing hard times. In those days, community-wide giving and endowments were rare.

With the area’s growth in development and recognition, the residents began to realize that Charleston was no longer a backwater of Reconstruction and the Great Depression. Led by its vibrant young mayor, the city started to plan for a future on the world stage. New wealth, provided by “come yahs” (new residents) and experienced by “bin yahs” (natives), produced a flurry of expansion and looking forward.

And philanthropy grew as well, evolving from charities’ annual requests for support to long-term visions of sustainability. Professional fundraising replaced door-to-door solicitations. Individuals began to write checks with lots of zeroes instead of offering up pocket change. The paradigm of this shift was the creation of the area’s first community foundation. In 1974, Rotary Club members donated $9,000 to establish the Trident Community Foundation to support long-term community needs in Charleston, Berkeley, and Dorchester counties. Today, that organization, renamed Coastal Community Foundation, continues its mission of building endowments to foster philanthropy for the “lasting good of the community,” with more than $230 million in assets, grants last year exceeding $18.5 million, and an expanded service area of nine counties.

I think my dad would be delighted to witness the exponential growth in local philanthropy over the last 40 years. After his death in 1992, I learned about a multitude of charitable donations he had made quietly or anonymously, including an annual gift to the Community Foundation. He was generous and modest, and he and my mother would be appalled that I am mentioning their charitable activities. Sorry folks, but your examples were good ones. You taught me that lessons of charity truly begin in the home.

A third-generation CPA and retired accounting professor, Linda M. Plunkett, Ph.D., serves on several nonprofit boards, including that of Coastal Community Foundation.