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Philanthropy in Action

Philanthropy in Action

Since its inception, the Noble Foundation's philanthropic activities have supported worthy organizations and changed lives

Adam Calaway
By J. Adam Calaway
Posted Dec. 20, 2013

Tom Riley is talking, but his words aren't really audible.

The bass-thumping, sitar-laced techno music from the adjacent aerobics class gobbles up any sound the second it leaves the mouth of the Ardmore YMCA's executive director.

After 12 years of sharing a wall with high-decibel workouts, Riley doesn't realize he's become an unknowing mime until his eyes fix on his visitor's puzzled face. "You get used to it," he said, increasing his volume. "Sometimes it's quite enjoyable. I'll be on the phone and dance along a little."

The 68-year-old Riley starts to wiggle and jive in his chair, chuckling at his own anemic moves. Soon Riley is up to lead an impromptu tour of the facility. He winds through (somewhat) quieter halls, basketball courts, yoga studios and weight rooms, detailing a schedule of activities that would make an Olympic organizer faint.

Ardmore's YMCA hosts the city's entire schedule of Little League baseball and basketball, an indoor soccer team, flag football, youth day camps, 66 aerobics classes per month, and a swim team, along with free child care and the usual slew of workout options. All told, more than 11,000 people benefit from the local recreational facility.

Ardmore YMCAAubrey and Jack Maxey play basketball at the Ardmore YMCA, a Noble Foundation grant recipient.

Despite his earlier joking and dancing, Riley carries the same burden most nonprofit leaders shoulder - finding resources to help his organization survive in an ever-evolving economic climate. The task is certainly daunting.

"It takes a lot to keep this place open," he said. "There is always a financial struggle to keep going and keep growing. However, we don't turn anyone away from a membership or activity because of inability to pay. We offer scholarships so everyone can participate. That's where the Noble Foundation comes in."

Beginning in 1969, the Noble Foundation has provided more than $1.3 million for the Ardmore YMCA, including $25,000 for operating expenses in 2013, funds that keep the scholarship program available.

The Noble Foundation has offered charitable grants to worthy nonprofit organizations since 1946 when it made a small grant to the University of Oklahoma for scientific instrumentation. Since then, Oklahoma's largest, private, nonprofit foundation has issued more than $317 million in grants and scholarships to local, state and national organizations mainly focused on health research and delivery systems, capital funding for higher education, and social services projects.

The Noble Foundation's grantmaking activities, however, branch from a larger philanthropic platform that includes a deep commitment to the local community, two scholarship programs and employee volunteer activities.

No matter the activity, all Noble Foundation philanthropy is rooted in the legacy of founder Lloyd Noble, who said, "that the only true happiness must come from not only understanding your own needs, but an understanding and willingness to secure the same things for your fellow man."

Bottom line: Noble wanted philanthropy in action.

Words of Wisdom

Sitting in her office on the second floor of the Noble Foundation's Administration Building, Mary Kate Wilson is the model of professionalism - organized, efficient and kind.

Few know more about regional philanthropy than Wilson (though if one made that statement in her presence, she'd wave off the notion). She has spent 16 years at the Noble Foundation, earning four advancements before finally taking the reins of the department in January 2010. Her portfolio expanded yet again this year, and today she serves as director of philanthropy, engagement and project management.

Wilson acts as the liaison between the countless grant seekers and the Noble Foundation's Board of Trustees who closely direct the organization's grantmaking, following a simple philosophy - be good stewards of the resources entrusted by Lloyd Noble.

Of course, Noble set up a unique "foundation" that comes with additional challenges. In lieu of only a traditional granting program, he established an organization that conducts a no-cost consultation program, educational activities, and plant science and agricultural research. The scale of this dual research-granting institution does not exist anywhere else in the United States.

"People are often surprised by the scope of our operations," Wilson said. "We are completely unique in terms of a private foundation."

That uniqueness of operating an agricultural and research institution comes with financial obligations that sometimes impact grants. However, this year Noble leadership established a spending policy to better ensure the availability of a granting budget.

"The spending policy will allow us to maintain consistency in our grantmaking by providing a baseline," Wilson said. "The most difficult aspect of granting moratoriums is the irregularity of funding for entities that have historically received consistent support."

Even with a steady granting stream, Wilson knows the number is never enough to satisfy an ever-growing need. With such great demand, the process of securing any grant from any institution becomes a gauntlet of competition and expectations.

Wilson has experienced the ebbs and flows of the industry, and offered a few words of wisdom (see sidebar for full details) for grant seekers, beginning with diversification. Gone are the days when nonprofits could depend solely on a few large donors for decades on end.

"Diversification is essential as markets fluctuate, as board members change, as wealth transitions generations, as priorities shift," she said. "There are so many variables that donors consider, and those often change."

Equal to diversification is demonstrating impact. The Giving USA 2013 Report, the annual state-of-the-union for philanthropy, showed that donors increasingly require recipients to have a plan with specific objectives and tangible outcomes. "Everyone is taking a more critical look," Wilson said. "You want to place your dollars where they will have the most impact."

Wilson sees this trend continuing to grow as generations shift on governing boards across the country. "The generation coming up wants to effect change more quickly," she said. "They have grown up with information at their fingertips, and they're adept at responding quickly. I anticipate they expect a quick, tangible return on their philanthropic dollars."

Granting officers like Wilson have responded to the challenges of the granting process by going beyond facilitation and becoming counselors and intermediaries. Wilson has often provided introductions between other organizations and donors, facilitating the building of new revenue or knowledge sources.

Likewise, the Noble Foundation and other grant makers are helping connect groups with similar missions or overlapping commonalities. This process of nonprofit partnering is a growing (and highly successful) trend. "Donors are always looking at a group's outcome for a community or the problem it is trying to address," Wilson said "Finding organizations with similar focuses, but different constituencies, then bringing them together makes the overall effort stronger."

And strengthening communities is the overall goal of the Noble Foundation's philanthropy. Through almost seven decades and hundreds of millions of dollars, the Noble Foundation's impact radiates from Ardmore, Okla., then spreads through its home state and across the nation.

A legacy of support

Resting on 147 acres of tranquil Chesapeake Bay shoreline is Ashley (Father Martin's Ashley), a private, nonprofit, inpatient alcohol and drug addiction treatment center that incorporates multiple disciplines (medical, psychiatric, psychological, scientific and spiritual) into a comprehensive program.

"Our philosophy of treatment differentiates us from everyone else," said Father Mark Hushen, who has served as president and CEO for seven years. "We focus on the dignity of the human person and supporting the family unit. We're a treatment center with a soul."

The Noble Foundation and Ashley have built a legacy of interaction, dating back more than 30 years. Longtime Board of Trustee member Sam Noble (son of Lloyd Noble) met Ashley's cofounders Father Joseph Martin and May Abraham during the pair's initial effort to found the treatment center in 1979. Martin and Abraham sought Noble's expertise in business and development. The relationship grew, and the Noble Foundation provided seed money for Ashley.

Through the decades, Sam Noble, Mary Jane Noble (Sam's wife) and Rusty Noble (their son) have all served as board members. "There is a true relationship here," Father Mark said. "The Noble family has shared their knowledge, wisdom, time and resources with us for generations. The Noble Foundation and the family care about people, and they are committed to assisting us as we help people heal."

Ashley joins several health research and delivery organizations, such as Dean McGee Eye Institute, Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation (OMRF) and the OU Cancer Center, as premier medical institutes able to expand their physical campuses and services as the result of one or more Noble grants.

The Noble Foundation has provided more than $2.6 million in support to Ashley through the decades, including $150,000 this year for a capital campaign to construct a new 42,000-square-foot building that will house patient rooms, admissions, a wellness center and a chronic pain management program. The new facility will expand the institution's reach, which has already helped 37,000 patients and 12,000 family members.

"Noble made an investment in us, and 30 years later there is a huge return," Father Mark said. "There is a deep level of gratitude for that support. The legacy of the Noble Foundation and Ashley is tied together. We're guardians of that legacy."

Davin Miles and Gavin Atwell, Cities in Schools programDavin Miles (left) helps Gavin Atwell with his homework as part of the Cities in Schools program, a Noble Foundation grant recipient.

Education in action

Beyond the capital campaigns of health organizations, the Noble Foundation's philanthropic focus lies mainly within the educational arena. A portion of the annual granting budget is dedicated each year to advance educational programs, such as Oklahoma State University's Oklahoma Ag Leadership Program, and provide life-changing scholarships.

The Professional Oklahoma Educators Foundation works to support education by providing Oklahoma teachers' educational training and services. The organization conducts an annual Leadership Training Conference, as well as workshops and seminars on everything from "reading your pay stub" to professionalism. The organization also recognizes outstanding educators through its Excellence in Education Awards Banquet.

"Those who are honored have said it is the highlight of their career," said Ginger Tinney, executive director. "That's our goal: recognize the best educators, support all our teachers and provide world-class education for all Oklahoma students."

The Professional Oklahoma Educators Foundation is one of a handful of entities who receives a grant for general operating expenses. For this educational foundation, the $20,000 (which is not used for administrative costs) is essential.

"It's life," Tinney said. "If you do not have this type of support, you don't know from one year to the next if you're going to make it. I don't want to cry ...," she paused, holding back tears. "But we would not be in business without the Noble Foundation. I will be forever indebted and grateful to the Noble Foundation."

Tinney said there was an additional bonus to receiving a Noble Foundation grant. Other grantors see the Noble name on donor lists and it provides instant credibility. "People understand that Noble only associates with excellence and vets organizations thoroughly," she said. "It is like a stamp of approval."

The Noble Foundation's pursuit of educational philanthropy extends beyond granting and into two scholarship programs. The Noble Educational Fund provides $200,000 annually for children of employees working at Noble-related companies, and the Sam Noble Scholarship Program provides $150,000 for scholarships for Oklahoma students studying agriculture and technology. Since 1999, the Noble Foundation has awarded more than $2.1 million in Sam Noble Scholarships to almost 170 students.

"Lloyd Noble always believed education was the key to improving one's life," Wilson said. "His desire to provide these life-changing scholarships has continued through his family and our Board of Trustees. Because of this belief, hundreds of students have jump-started their careers and set their life course."

Mary Kate WilsonMary Kate Wilson, director of philanthropy, engagement and project management, for the Noble Foundation, reads to children at Cities in Schools.

TEAM NOBLE

While the Noble Foundation's philanthropy funds state and national projects, the organization remains dedicated to its hometown and south-central Oklahoma neighbors. Each year, community grants support organizations like the local Boy Scout Council, nonprofit medical and family services clinics, and child care centers. As witnessed at Riley's YMCA, these grants serve as the lifeblood.

This community dedication extends beyond the organizational commitment. Noble Foundation employees embody the giving spirit of their founder through an annual schedule of events dedicated to building a stronger community.

The Noble Foundation's Employee Team launched a program called "Noble in the Community," whereby employees volunteer time, money and energy toward worthy activities. One weekend, employees may help clean the shoreline of a nearby lake or teach children about agriculture; the next, they may be serving their local school district or operating a water stop for a regional marathon that supports cancer treatment.

"We're proud to be a part of Team Noble and support our neighbors in whatever way we can," said Lori Heman, chair of the Employee Team. "We are a reflection of the organization, and it is a reflection of us. What better way to live than to serve others."

Each year, Noble employees donate almost $350,000 for educational matching grants and various campaigns, such as the United Way, March of Dimes and Toys for Tots. These efforts are supported by the Noble Foundation, which matches every donation dollar-for-dollar.

From traditional grantmaking to employee volunteering, the Noble Foundation's philanthropic endeavors have impacted countless individuals and families, providing necessary resources and offering hope, and built stronger communities.

"Most people will never know how much the Noble Foundation and its employees give," Wilson said. "I'm confident, though, that lives have been forever changed and that's what Lloyd Noble wanted - philanthropy in action."

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