Quick Questions with Darren Wilson, president of Lyndonville Area Foundation
Foundation directs $100K to community each year
LYNDONVILLE – The Lyndonville Area Foundation started as a small community foundation more than 50 years ago. A couple major bequests have been game changers, bringing the Foundation assets to $1.7 million and allowing the organization’s board of directors to distribute about $100,000 a year into the community.
That money helps pay for the big fireworks show in Lyndonville on the Fourth of July, a summer recreation program at Lyndonville, an annual payment of about $17,000 as the local share of the Stroyan Auditorium, $30,000 in scholarships, and many other community causes, including Medina Memorial Hospital and Hospice of Orleans.
The Foundation recently agreed to help fund a character education program at Lyndonville schools and the Young Entrepreneurs Academy for Lyndonville students.
Darren Wilson is president of the Foundation. His father-in-law, James Oakes, helped start the Foundation in 1967.
Wilson married Oakes’s daughter Wendy, who is president of the Leonard Oakes Estate Winery. The couple has a son, Sawyer, a seventh-grader at Lyndonville.
Wilson is a Florida native who works as a graphic and industrial designer with a focus in the automotive industry.
Wilson has served on the Foundation board since 2002.
“One of the advantages in a smaller community you can participate in organizations and you actually matter,” Wilson said.
He was interviewed recently at his office on Route 63.
Q: So your father-in-law was one of the Foundation’s charter members. What do you think that initial group was thinking back then when they started this?
A: Basically the Foundation was set up for the educational, recreational and civic benefit of the community. It was something to give back to the community. They started out with next to nothing.
I would venture they had a few hundred dollars when they kicked it off, possibly a couple thousand.
Q: So there was James Oakes and a few farmers, maybe?
A: It was a bunch of life-long Lyndonville residents who loved their community, who grew up and went to school here. They just wanted to get together and give something back to the community.
Q: I thought the Foundation was putting out $10,000 a year. I was surprised to see it’s about $100,000.
A: By law you have to give away a certain percentage of your assets. Right now we’re giving over $100,000.
Q: Are you tied to giving to the Lyndonville area?
A: Our bylaws and our charter is for the benefit of the Village of Lyndonville and the Town of Yates. Obviously, 50 years ago with not much money they could easily do that. As the Foundation has grown over almost a half century, we have had to look further than the Town of Yates.
We do confine it to Orleans County. We do things like Hospice, the hospital, the YMCA. We have had to broaden our steps. We recently gave money to the Genesee-Orleans Ministry of Concern for their furniture program to help the poor.
We try to look at things that at least the residents of Lyndonville and the Town of Yates could potentially be impacted by. Hospice is a good example. On any given week or month you will probably find a Lyndonville resident over there. Same thing with the hospital.
Q: Did the Foundation take a quantum leap recently in terms of assets?
A: It did about 20 years ago. The Foundation had very modest assets until about 1997-98. A resident, Mabel Stroyan who lived right down on Main Street, had accumulated a great deal of personal assets over decades. She had nobody to leave it to and it was a huge amount. It was somewhere around a million bucks.
The Foundation went from modest to “Holy Cow!” in basically a blink of an eye.
Q: You’re given out about $100,000 now, but back then it was much less?
A: You’re required to give away 5 percent at a minimum. And that’s where the Stroyan Auditorium comes in. The school wanted to expand and also add an auditorium, not only for the school but for the community.
There was a public portion of expansion for the school. The state would provide X amount of dollars for the school if the community would provide the remaining percentage.
The only way to raise the local portion was to do a massive amount of fundraising, which probably wasn’t going to happen because we were talking about three-quarters of a million dollars.
It was decided by the board of directors that Mabel’s money would take over the local portion. That way nobody was impacted. Taxes weren’t raised. The school got what it needed and Mabel got some recognition and her money went to something that would be permanent in the community she lived in all of her life. The timing was perfect.
Q: I have to think Lyndonville is unusual to have such a Foundation. What a blessing.
A: It is. We have had a couple other substantial contributions since then. We had another gentleman, maybe 2006 or 2007, who provided a contribution well into the six figures.
Q: Is that Frank Housel?
A: Yes, Frank B. Housel. That was earmarked for two annual scholarships for our graduates. The amount that he gave pretty much ensures those scholarships will continue forever. There are two for $4,000 each.
When I started on the Foundation board (in 2002), the Frank Housel scholarships weren’t even in existence, nor was the Wilson-Skinner. Basically we had three scholarships at maybe $1,000 or $1,500 each. Now we have eight scholarships and they’re all $4,000 each and the Skinner-Wilson is $5,000.
Q: Do you have anything to do with the Skinner-Wilson Scholarship?
A: No the Wilson doesn’t have anything to do with me. Donald Skinner is a 1950 graduate of Lyndonville. He has been a very successful guy. He grew up in Lyndonville and now lives in Florida. About five years ago he contacted the president then of the Foundation and wanted to set up a scholarship. He wanted to make it $5,000, payable at the end of a student’s second semester.
The other scholarships are payable at the end of the first semester. The kids have to meet a minimum GPA and then have to enroll in a second semester.
Q: I don’t think people realize the impact of the Foundation, or maybe they do?
A: I don’t think they do. One of the jobs of the Foundation’s president every year is to attend the graduation and present the checks to the students. There are other scholarships out there, although I think ours are the most substantial.
When I’m in the audience I don’t think most of parents are aware of these scholarships until maybe a month before graduation and we start soliciting the kids to apply for them.
I don’t think most of the residents are aware of our existence. Just recently, we finally decided to put our foot down to change the awareness level. We have a website for the first time (Click here). We’re creating some social media things like a Facebook page.
We’ve always been sort of low-key.
Q: Maybe more people would bequeath the Foundation more money if they knew you were an option.
A: It’s a beautiful double-edged sword. We would love for people to know about us to bequeath some things, but it’s also an attempt on the flip side to make other organizations aware of us. For example, at our January board meeting we had a request from a wonderful organization over in Waterport that works with refugee children. We weren’t aware of the World Life Institute and they weren’t aware of us. So a little self-promotion works both ways.
It’s not of the nature for a Foundation to get on a pedestal and use a megaphone, but we do want people to know we’re around.
The Foundation for example works closer with the Lions Club on the fireworks show which is spectacular.
Q: Isn’t that the third or fourth best fireworks show in the entire region?
A: I think it’s the fourth and we might be working towards the third. The Lions Club obviously has a huge stake in the event.
Q: You can see how your money takes the pressure off some of these groups.
A: It does. For instance over the holidays we have some very pretty lights and wreaths and stuff that are strung along Main Street. The Foundation recently purchased brand new lights for those. I don’t know who knows that, but it certainly is a very nice community touch to have our Main Street lit up.
The point I’m making is there is a lot of these little things. The playground moving, for example. I’m not sure if a lot of people knew the Lyndonville Foundation provided some funds to move the playground.
Q: In addition to you, how many members are on the board?
A: There are 12 members. We make up members of the community. It’s all-volunteer. None of us are paid. Five of the board members are what we call our Class 1 directors. It consists of the mayor of Lyndonville, the president of the Lions Club, the past president of the Lions Club, the superintendent of schools and the Town of Yates supervisor. Those five positions are whoever is in those positions at that time.
The remaining positions are community members who want to participate, who volunteer their time.
Q: You can see the benefit of the board of just getting the mayor, town supervisor and school superintendent in the same room for however many times you meet.
A: It’s four times a year.
Q: It’s good that they sit down that often. I’m not sure that happens in too many other communities. It’s good they can build those relationships.
A: It’s also good a way for building a need base. For instance, if the village or the town has a need, unless the supervisor or mayor is present, we may not know that need exists. For example, the summer recreation program, which goes on for five weeks at the school for 120-some kids, we started funding that along with the Town of Yates six or seven years ago.
That was initiated by the Town of Yates. They wanted something for the kids to do during the summer, even if just for a few hours. Our board members may not have known that if the Town Supervisor John Belson hadn’t mentioned the need for the program.
Q: Just having a few thousand dollars for some of these organizations can take the pressure off.
A: It can do amazing things, and most of it is very practical things. For The Arc of Orleans we provide some transportation money to help them get some of their special needs kids around during the summer months.
Q: So you’ve been on the board since 2002. How did you become president?
A: About three years ago the past president, Richard Pucher, stepped down. He had been president for about eight years. He is still on the board in capacity as past president of the Lions Club.
He decided to step down as president. We looked around the board. The vice president suggested I might make a good president, and I was willing to step in and give it a shot. I like my job. We’ve done some really interesting things.
We have some really terrific people on the board. Our treasurer for instance, Doug Hedges, has been on the Foundation board in some capacity for 25 years.
Dick Pucher has been a board member for at least 15 years. Our vice president, Rita Wolfe, has been on the board for at least 10 years. We just have some really great people. They are very smart. Collectively we do some terrific things.
We manage our money very well. We’re now considered a private foundation because we actually earn more off of our investments than we do from donations. That changed about eight or nine years ago. I think that says a lot about our capabilities and fiduciary duties. I think we’ve done a lot with the money. We take care of it. We plan to run this foundation forever.
Q: How much does the Foundation have in assets?
A: Right now we have approximately $1.7 million. It’s a good chunk of change. We’re always happy to take bequests and contributions.
In the case of Donald Skinner, he is a perfect example. He grew up in Lyndonville and still has connections to the community and general area. He simply wanted to give back to a community where he grew up in and loved. That’s the type of thing the Foundation exists on.
The money that we’re giving out didn’t come from anywhere except from within. We’re literally transferring the money from the Lyndonville area.
Q: You are able to do this with a group of volunteers?
A: We’re not paying people. That’s one of the things we pride ourselves on. We do have some operating expenses. We have to pay our accountant to do our taxes. We have to buy stamps and envelopes and stuff like this.
But compared to our assets, we spend maybe $6,000 to $7,000 a year, including paying our CPA, and that’s for doing our taxes and certain filings that we have to do every year for our 501c3 status.
That’s it out of $1.7 million. We pinch pennies everywhere we can when it comes to our operating expenses. The village donates meeting space to us so we’re not crowded in somebody’s house. We’re meeting in a public arena. People in town can walk in. That’s what drew me to the Foundation 12-13 years ago.
Number one, I found it remarkable that a community of this size had such a thing, and that it had the assets that it did. The fact that they were giving these fantastic amounts of money to scholarships, the school, the Lions Club, The Arc of Orleans and the hospital. We’ve given $250,000 to the hospital since I’ve been on the board. And this from a community of less than 1,000 people. I find that inspiring if nothing else. And the money is all coming from this community.
Sometimes it’s a $2,500 donation and sometimes it’s $250,000 or $500,000. But it all goes into the pot and eventually it all goes right back into the community.
We are struggling at times to give away the money and that is a wonderful situation to be in. We do have a minimum to give away, and as our assets our growing we have more dollars to give away.
Q: It’s put some onus on the community to dream a little, to consider some projects and programs to benefit the community.
A: Yes. We have to look forward. That’s something the board and myself are doing. We have to project forward five, six, 10 years down the road, wondering and looking into not only future sources of income but who do we give it to.