Elizabeth Noyce and the Alfond and King families are major charitable performers, following in the tradition of Percival Baxter, the donor of our largest state park

The news earlier this month that one of the world’s richest billionaires, Warren Buffett, is planning to add nearly $40 billion to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has sparked renewed interest in the realm of charitable giving.

Since the Omaha-based Buffett and the Seattle-based Gates are expected to continue their focus of trying to cure overseas fatal illnesses, the impact of Buffett’s remarkable gift will probably not be overwhelming here in Maine. The Gates foundation did, however, provide $l0 million to upgrade Maine high schools in 2002 and, since that time, it has also sprinkled smaller amounts – less than $1 million – for computer and Internet upgrades at 92 local public libraries throughout Maine. Announcement of the Buffett plan, which will more than double what is already by far America’s largest charity, is nevertheless a compelling occasion to take a look at philanthropy in Maine.

The titan of Maine-based philanthropy – even a decade after the death of its founder – is the Elizabeth Noyce-funded Libra Foundation. With about $l60 million in assets, it gives out over $l2 million a year in grants, all of them to Maine-based causes. Though the University of Maine and summer camp scholarship programs are ordinarily among the leading recipients – often in the neighborhood of at least $1 million per year – the Pineland Farms professional office and business center, a college like campus of brick buildings near New Gloucester, has been at the top of the list in recent years, winning $4.4 million in 2005 alone.

Libra has also been a prime sponsor for several of the state’s smaller ski and recreation areas, including those at Rumford’s Black Mountain, Aroostook County’s Mars Hill, and Pineland Farms itself. These have been awarded over $8 million in support from the Noyce foundation.

Unfortunately, the spotlight that has recently cast a harsh glare on Libra has been its pull-out from downtown Portland. This is a move that has closed down the Portland Public Market on Cumberland Avenue and has led to the sale of some of the biggest commercial properties in our state’s largest city. The foundation, spurred by a decision by Noyce in her lifetime to buy a number of key Congress Street locations, once owned fully 10 percent of the city’s office and business space, including the first Portland location of L.L. Bean. Its economic philanthropy is now directed to Pineland Farms instead.

Rivaling Libra as a fountainhead of charity is the Maine Community Foundation. Its money is pooled from a diverse array of contributors throughout Maine, sort of a United Way of foundations. Unlike Noyce’s Libra group, it is a public rather than a private foundation. This means that instead of deriving its funding from a single individual or family, it raises money from the public at large as well as smaller foundations. Its grants are similarly widespread, with hundreds of beneficiaries each year. Objects of its generosity range from environmental causes to scholarships, theatre groups to medical projects. Examples of its recent grantees include the Franco-American Heritage Center at St. Mary’s in Lewiston, the Auburn Public Library, Portland’s Center for the Prevention of Hate Violence, and the Penobscot Theatre Company in Bangor.

Besides Libra and Maine Community, another foundation in Maine that has assets of more than $l00 million is the Maine Health Access Foundation. It was set up by the Attorney General six years ago with proceeds of the controversial sale of one of the state’s largest nonprofit organizations, Blue Cross Blue Shield, to the profit-based Anthem Insurance. Helping to take some of the edge off skyrocketing health insurance premiums, its priorities include grants to help provide a safety net to the uninsured, giving out over $5 million a year for this and health care services. Though 2005 figures from IRS filings are not yet available, by far the biggest grant in 2004 was one for nearly $900,000 for the governor’s Dirigo Health initiative.

The more than 50 other annual grant winners from MHAF included an array of mental health providers, hospitals, and associations, ranging from the Waldo County-based LifeFlight to a Portland-based Alzheimer’s disease association, each winning more than $l00,000. Additionally, $200,000 awarded to Pine Tree Legal to reduce the risk to low-income children jeopardized by parental neglect is among these larger grants from the Health Access Foundation.

Foundations set up by one time Dexter Shoe kingpin Harold Alfond and his family are also among the leading givers in Maine each year, with assets that are nearly $40 million. Sports arenas at Orono, Colby, and St. Joseph’s College are the most visible emblem of their beneficence. Several New England prep school athletic facilities, including a $3 million complex at Kents Hill, a recreation program in Belgrade and grants to various hospitals in Maine, are also typical beneficiaries of the Alfond endeavors.

Befitting the day job of its founder Stephen King, one of the best known household names in America, the Bangor-based Stephen and Tabitha King Foundation focuses much of its giving on dozens of local public libraries in Maine. Though much smaller than either Libra or the Alfond foundations, it has, like them, put the University of Maine in the forefront of its giving. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that King is a 1970 alumnus.

Elizabeth Noyce, the Alfonds and the Kings are among the royal family of charitable performers of our own era, following as they do in the tradition of Percival Baxter, the donor of our largest state park. None of these, however, can match the per capita impact or flair of an 80-year-old South Bristol summer resident whose passion for funny hats was nevertheless surpassed earlier this year by one of the more stunning gifts ever bestowed on any single Maine community. It’s a human interest story so unusual as to warrant a profile of its own when this column resumes, at which time the mystery of Ann Stratton will be unveiled.

Paul H. Mills is a Farmington attorney well known for his analyses and historical understanding of Maine’s political scene. He can be reached by e-mail: [email protected]

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