We sat down with CCF Program Officer Veronica Hemmingway to discuss her work here at the Foundation, her homecoming back to South Carolina, and how she became involved in philanthropy in the first place, and some of the other passions that drive her both professionally and personally.
Veronica, what is your role on the Grantmaking & Community Leadership team at CCF?
I’m in charge of all competitive grantmaking programming (site visits, applicant review, committee management and more) for the Beaufort Fund, one of CCF’s largest funds that serves the southern Lowcountry counties of Beaufort, Colleton, Hampton and Jasper and has awarded more than $8.5 million in its 20 years, this year granting a total of $578,450 to 52 nonprofits. I also manage the grantmaking cycles and capacity training for the N.E.W. (Neighborhoods Energized to Win) Fund for Charleston and Colleton counties, and the Winthrop Family Fund which grants in Allendale and Colleton counties.
How did you begin your career?
I had just graduated from Clemson and moved to Charlotte in the early 90s. I started out in radio promotions, but when the telecommunications bill was passed in the mid-90s and changed the whole landscape of radio and tv, I decided I didn’t want to move for a big corporate takeover.
Then, a friend asked me one day, “What’s your passion? If money were no object what would you do for free?”
I thought about it and realized I’ve always done community work. I’ve always been active in the community because my parents and grandmothers were informal community leaders. I realized that community work is what I like to do, although I had always approached it more as a responsibility than a possible career choice.
From that epiphany, I decided to go into development in the nonprofit world, as that was most easily transferable from my career in media promotion and marketing.
Tell us more about your family’s involvement in community work.
The seed of civic engagement was planted in me by my father’s mother, who was certainly an informal community leader. Her house sat in the center of town and she owned a few small businesses, so she knew everything about everybody: who was sick, who was down on their luck, who was having a birthday, who just had a baby. People would come to her house to pass the time of day.
I would shop with her—from the age of 5 or 6 all the way through high school—for items for people’s homes, food, and then we would come home and prepare all the food, and I’d literally take items and plates door-to-door wherever she told me people needed it. The one thing I never forgot is that she would always instruct me when I would go to the door to give people these plates of food, bags of clothes or shoes or whatever they needed, I was always to look around and see if they needed anything else, because she felt people were often too proud to ask for help. And she would tell me, “Never make them feel like this is charity.”
I still bring that memory and that lesson into my work today. You can’t forget the humanity of the people you are serving.
Add to this, that other members of my family, would take people to the nearest town [Conway, SC – 12 miles from their rural location] in a church van or other loaned van so they could pay bills, shop, go to social services offices and doctors’ appointments, take care of legal matters, all those kinds of things. A number of these people were 70, 80, even 90 years old. This was in the 1970’s and 1980’s and some of the elderly could not read or write. We would go to doctor’s appointments with them to explain to them what they were signing. Back in that day, there were still people who would go to stores and pay their bills from a handwritten accounting ledger. We would go and make sure they were getting the right change back, and having their payments logged correctly. Unfortunately, people were not always dealing with them honestly.
This is how I had almost always spent my weekends and summers. It was just so much a part of my life, I didn’t even realize you could get paid to do it.
How did you transition from nonprofit work to foundation work?
My trajectory to philanthropy was long and circuitous. In my late 20s I decided I wanted to work for a foundation, because I saw that’s where strategy was being put in place. I’m a cerebral, big picture, strategic thinker. I decided, “that’s a table I want to sit at.” I recognized there was a voice that was missing. And the face of that missing voice looks a lot like the people who are getting the help, and that just didn’t seem right to me.
I worked in a series of nonprofit jobs never figuring out how to get to philanthropy. I didn’t know anybody who worked at a foundation. I didn’t know anybody who knew anything about institutional philanthropy. I just knew I wanted to get there. I found it hard. I found philanthropy to be an impenetrable sector to get into. It seemed like a very closed club.
I moved to Durham after leaving a job at the Red Cross because the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina was a watershed moment for me [regarding needs versus assistance, and red tape.] I decided to get my masters at North Carolina Central University and I worked there as I established their athletic fundraising program.
My very last semester in graduate school, in a class on nonprofit leadership, our faculty member announced one day, “Triangle Community Foundation is hiring and they’re looking for a donor engagement officer.” He told us, “I worked there for a little while and I’m willing to forward your name if anyone is interested.” My entire cohort all turned and looked at me at once.
The whole class got quiet, it was an “E.F. Hutton moment.” He forwarded my resume. I interviewed. I had so many interviews! I have never interviewed more times in my life for any job, before or since. That’s how I got into the foundation world.
Once you broke into that “insiders club,” what did you discover? Tell us a little bit about your career in philanthropy prior to coming to Charleston.
When I got to the Foundation one of the many things that was part of my job was working with giving circles. And at that time the Foundation had only giving circles of color, interestingly enough: five of them. I didn’t know until then that there was anything specifically called “Black Philanthropy.”
After I was introduced to that concept, I remembered that very early in my career in Charlotte, I was a part of group of African American professionals in our 20s and 30s who got together, pooled our creative capital and relationship capital, and did a yearly summer event for the black community in Charlotte. Ten years straight and with little to no money, we had thousands of people in the park over the course of two days. That was collective giving. We didn’t know it was Black Philanthropy, we were just doing it. We were exemplifying what we had seen all our lives. Seeing a need in the community and meeting it. Which is essentially what philanthropy is.
When I was introduced to the concept of Black Philanthropy, I also recognized that the narrative needed to be changed, about who is a philanthropist and what philanthropy really is. Probably the most significant part was lifting up that people of color, and in my instance Black people, are not always on the “demand” side of philanthropy. In fact, we have always been on the supply side. Just in a different way. It’s not Rockefeller or Carnegie or Mellon, but it doesn’t mean it isn’t philanthropy.
It embodied my ideals of pride in self, and culture, and community, and giving back. I knew that my culture and any progress we’ve enjoyed was built on collective giving and collective impact. All those things that were important to me that I had seen in my community my entire life were embodied and I was drawn to it.
I discovered some people of color were making amazing strides in philanthropy during their day jobs, at some of the biggest foundations in the country, but also as people of color we recognized that we had a responsibility to shift this narrative.
My primary role at that time was in stewardship and grantmaking. I absolutely enjoyed working with donors, because I enjoy working with people so I loved it, loved it, loved it. But this particular piece of the conversation around people of color in philanthropy—it resonated with me personally. I want to make sure the next generation knows the power it has and has always had—I have a passion about talking to young people about careers in philanthropy, too.
Why did you come back to South Carolina?
Significant family health issues brought me back here, but I’m about as South Carolina as it gets.
Because I had so much going on personally I did some real soul searching about what I wanted my career in philanthropy to look like going forward. The passion behind my choice to do this work is so incredibly strong. People’s lives are on the line. I realized I wanted to be in a space that was more intentional about the work.
I spent some time learning the landscape back here in South Carolina, doing consulting work, and by chance found out about the position at Coastal Community Foundation.
I decided the Lowcountry was a community where I wanted to practice philanthropy by watching CCF from a distance as it responded to the shooting at Mother Emanuel. I know philanthropy has the power to affect change, and it can be a leader in change when it’s done with courage and intentionality. Philanthropy can lead. I believe it comes with a civic responsibility.
Organizations I saw adapting to that change are the ones I felt would be the best place for me, because it means they’re paying attention to their communities. They’re not doing their work in a vacuum.
And again, just seeing how this Foundation responded to Mother Emanuel, I thought what they said was honest and I was drawn to that. It had a feeling of, “Now isn’t the time to just sit here. We can grieve but also we have to check ourselves. There’s something else. This has shown us there are some big gaps in this community. This has exposed some things.”
Watching CCF go through the changes of trying to address these issues, I saw something bold. It’s not easy to change an organization’s direction, and it’s not comfortable. But any organization that even has the courage to try and go out there and address systemic issues is bold. That shooting really touched the core and heart of the community. CCF had to decide “how are we going to respond” because it would dictate a lot of what we say our ideals are and give us a chance to embody them.
I watched it from a distance and when this opportunity came up I thought, I want to learn more about this place and see what they’re doing. I liked what I heard, apparently they liked what they heard, and that’s what brought me to Charleston!
South Carolina is home, and there are some systemic issues here around race, and around economic opportunity which transcends race. But I saw watershed moments—major industries coming here, the flag coming down, the response to Mother Emanuel by the entire state—and I thought, this is my opportunity to be a part of the change of the state that I love, my home state. I love it!
What has been the most surprising thing you’ve encountered since starting here?
I don’t think there’s been any big surprises. I understand those counties (southern Lowcountry) are very rural like most in the state. Most of the things you see there, a lot of the disparities, are what you see in rural communities across South Carolina, so it’s not surprising.
I think it’s been more sad than surprising for me, as a daughter of SC, to continue to see the kind of poverty in those rural areas. It’s still so acute. I’m not surprised but I’m saddened by it, that the gaps are still so incredibly wide between rural and urban in this state.
What do you like best about the programs you work with?
I work most notably with the Beaufort Fund which grants to nonprofits in Beaufort, Colleton, Hampton and Jasper counties. I really like this fund because there are so many gaps in access to money and capacity building for rural nonprofits. They don’t always have the same base of donors to pull from as you might have in urban areas where there’s high density of people, or money. There are so many wonderful nonprofits doing great work. It’s exciting to see people get the resources they need to help others and improve their communities.
I also work with the N.E.W. Fund which is really exciting because it’s a Coastal Community Foundation program for low to moderate income communities. It’s totally about asset-based philanthropy. It is not dictated by us what the programs are. The people who live in the communities get to decide and create and execute—that’s part of the parameters to even receive funding—it has to be in the community, for the community, by the community. You don’t have to be a nonprofit, either. You just need to have a great idea and the ability to pull it off. I feel like that’s philanthropy in its purest form. They are literally people who see a need in their community and say, “I can do this.”
How many N.E.W. Fund Grantees do you have each year?
We average around 10 or 12. It’s really exciting when you meet with the potential grantees. I always have them go around the room and explain the projects they’re thinking of doing and by the end of it you’re in awe of these people and you’re inspired. This is pure philanthropy. Sitting amidst these people from these communities gives me the strength to move mountains.
Give us an example of an organization that has impressed you this year.
I will tell you about one that has struck me recently and gives me goosebumps: Mr. Black at Camp Wildwood in the southern Lowcountry. This is a man that is about as humble as they come.
Many years ago, there was an alarming rate of drownings in the community, especially children. Mr. Black decided to do something about it. He leased a swimming pool and started teaching kids to swim. It’s just that simple.
He does everything. He’s a mechanic by training. He got certified in pool maintenance to keep up the pool. They don’t have to pay anybody to do it because he can do it. He goes every month, 12 months a year, and keeps the chemicals at the right level himself. He keeps the insurance on it. He leases it from a church. He raised the money to get it refurbished. His wife cooks all the food for free.
Talking to him, he has pure joy, his face lights up (almost literally) when he talks about the kids that attend his camp. He now has children coming to his camp whose parents used to attend. They swim and do activities. He’s the only pool in a tri-county area. He allows other groups to bring their summer campers there to use the pool.
I was encouraging him “you should share your story, so people can know what you’ve done” and he doesn’t even want to share his story. He maintains “it’s not about me.” He has said it a million times, “it’s not about me.”
But when he talks about the kids, and dancing with them, and putting them on his shoulders to play horsey his face lights up. You talk about him? Nope. What’s better than that? I mean seriously what’s better than that.
He’s a Beaufort Fund grantee. He has the spirit of pure philanthropy that lifts me up. He didn’t sit down and write a business plan. He said, “There are kids drowning. I can do something.”
What are your thoughts on moving back home?
I’m southern. I like those things that are southern. I like a lot of our traditions. But when I say to you I am daughter of SC I mean it. My roots are in the Lowcountry as both sides of my family have been here since we were enslaved. It’s like this is Ground Zero for me. And it does pull you back.
South Carolina has some of the most salt-of-the-earth people. Differences aside, some of the most salt-of-the-earth, hardworking, just good folks. After the shooting at Mother Emanuel I said I have to go home. Which is something I hadn’t said since the day I left. But I said it for the first time. There’s work that needs to be done.
What do you think about our Community Conversations and Civic Engagement work?
You know, I like it. And I’ll tell you why. Not a lot of community foundations will even do it. I’m really big on intentionality. I don’t like “philanthropy with a ten-foot pole.” If you cannot get proximate, then why are you doing it?
You said you wanted to practice philanthropy with intention at your next job. How are we (CCF) doing so far on your report card?
We’ve taken the first step. I’m a believer in asset-based philanthropy. You build your community on what it has, not what you think it has. You have to ask your community “what do you see as our strengths and weaknesses” and you build on that. Buy-in comes easier when you do that.
I don’t think you can lead a community with data alone. Data should inform your decisions but not dictate them. Every piece of data begins with an assumption. Data can be quite biased based on incorrect assumptions. That’s why marrying data with actual community wisdom is a good idea. I feel that’s where most of the time the work gets practiced wrong.
Coastal Community Foundation has taken a step back to say, “Let’s check our assumptions.” Because if that’s not right, how is anything else going to come out right? It’s going to be my opinion from my perspective, yours from your experiences, it has nothing to do with what the people in Jasper County want [for instance]. Or the people in Georgetown County want. So I feel we’re taking a solid step back in order to move forward into the next era of our evolution. You must set the baseline. You have to ask, “Where are we?”
In philanthropy as a whole I feel like there’s a real space to be filled in the future at the intersection of philanthropy, government, and community economic development. Because our issues have become such that no one entity is going to have all the answers, if you’re going to be most effective you need to be working in lock step. I don’t think that always happening. Also, their needs to be a common understanding around social justice implications that will impact and improve the work we do.