How Foundation For The Carolinas Has Expanded Influence And Reached $2 Billion In Assets

Jun 18, 2017

The Foundation for the Carolinas has become a driving force in the Charlotte region on issues like the environment, education, social services and the arts. It's also helping transform uptown, including a project just begun - the $100 million Carolina Theatre renovation and hotel development on North Tryon Street.

That expanding influence has accompanied rapid growth in the foundation’s assets in recent years, under CEO Michael Marsicano. He announced the latest milestone before 1,500 people at the group’s annual meeting in March:

“Well, my friends, with your generosity and our investment strategies, it took only four years to grow from $1 billion in assets to a record $2 billion,” Mariscano said.

Foundation for the Carolinas growth can be measured by assets (blue), new assets acquired and grants made. (SOURCE: Foundation for the Carolinas annual reports)

That’s a long way from the foundation’s beginnings. The foundation started in 1958 with a $3,000 grant from the United Way. The idea was to grow a permanent endowment to pay for community needs.

For years it grew slowly, hitting $1 million in 1976. It took another three and a half decades to reach $1 billion, in 2012.

As Marsicano said, the next billion took only four years.

When he took over as CEO in 1999, it ranked 35th among U.S. community foundations, by total assets. In 2015, it was No. 8, according to annual rankings compiled by the Columbus Foundation. (Marsicano’s own informal survey puts the foundation No. 6 as of 2016.)  


The Foundation for the Carolinas is not a single pot of money, but a collection of more than 2,500 local charitable funds, Marsicano said in a recent interview with WFAE.

“Some of those are individuals and families who place dollars into funds in their name, and then over time they make grants out of those funds to the causes they care about,” he said.

Others are corporate foundations and nonprofit endowments, which use the foundation’s services.

Those services include investment management, record-keeping, and advice where to donate. Think of it as a sort of nonprofit bank - with a focus on charitable giving in the 13-county Charlotte region.   

Clients pay annual fees - typically less than 1 percent of the assets - a lot like the fee you pay to a mutual fund or whoever manages your retirement account.


Marsicano said the foundation's growth parallels the region's prosperity - at least among a segment of the population.

“Folks are coming into considerable amounts of wealth that they have accumulated over time. And they're of an age that they are beginning to look at their assets from not just their own personal needs, but for what they can do to help the community,” Marsicano said.

But there are other reasons for the growth, too.

  • The rising stock market has boosted fund values and spurred new donations.
  • More nonprofits have picked the foundation to manage their endowments.
  • And the foundation has come up with new ways to give, like a fund where you can donate shares or interests in a business.

Architect's drawing of the planned InterContinental Hotel, above a renovated Carolina Theatre at Sixth and Tryon streets in Charlotte.
Credit Foundation for the Carolinas

The growth comes as fundraising stays flat or falls at other local charities, such as the United Way and the Arts & Science Council. Nationwide, charities like those are losing popularity with wealthy donors, says Stacy Palmer, editor of the Chronicle of Philanthropy.

“[A] community foundation probably gives the donor more choices and more freedom to feel like they can put their money in different places, where the United Way, depending on how they give away money, it's still a little bit ... seems on the restrictive side to some donors,” Palmer said.  

The United Way is no longer the largest target for charitable donations in the U.S. That title now goes to an investment company - the charitable fund of mutual fund giant Fidelity Investments.


The foundation’s setup allows people to get a tax deduction today, and decide where the money goes later, said Jennifer Muckley, a wealth planner with Abbot Downing, part of Wells Fargo. And Muckley says the arrangement has other attractions for her clients.

“The unique thing of the Foundation for the Carolinas is that they can shoulder that administrative work and allow clients to still continue to see their money do good, and be good stewards of their wealth at the same time,” Muckley said. “They don't have to learn new skill sets trying to administer a foundation.”

The foundation’s clients include some of the Charlotte region's most prominent families. These are people who built businesses - names like Levine, Belk and Blumenthal.  

It’s the focus on Charlotte that appealed to Peter Keane. He got rich running his own capital management firm. About 10 years ago, he thought about setting up his own foundation, but didn't know where to start. Friends steered him to the Foundation for the Carolinas.

“This is a new world to me, and I think it is for a lot of entrepreneurs in Charlotte. They have their head down, they're doing whatever they do that they're passionate about. Then one day if they're fortunate, they wake up and they realize that have the capacity to give back, but not necessarily the knowledge to give back intelligently,” Keane said.


The foundation and its clients gave away $312 million in 2016, to causes in the environment, arts, education, human services, and health, among others.

Also on the list – population control and immigration restrictions. The foundation received criticism earlier this year after a Los Angeles Times report on grants that one foundation client gave to those causes.

Ashley Park Elementary is among the schools getting extra resources through the foundation's Project LIFT.
Credit Lisa Worf / WFAE

Marsicano said sometimes clients support causes others don’t like.

“We’re a big tent,” he said. “There are folks, fund holders, who are quite conservative, and folks who are fund holders who are quite liberal. And sometimes those fund holders actually contradict each other with the grants that they make. And that's what community is all about.”

The foundation itself is becoming a key donor – to causes chosen not by donors, but by its own community advisers. These are projects like the recent Charlotte Economic Opportunity Task Force study in Charlotte, Project Lift in Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools, and the Carolina Theatre redevelopment.

The foundation’s own donations last year totaled about $10 million.

“And the larger we get and the more discretionary dollars we have over time I think you'll see us continuing to add layers of those civic initiatives that we do,” Marsicano said.

The foundation uses its own dollars to spur giving by others. Project Lift is a good example. It’s a $55 million program aimed at improving graduation rates by working with West Charlotte High School and the elementary and middle schools that feed it.

“We put $2.5 million in that, of our discretionary dollars, but leveraged another $52.5 million from multiple donors to make it happen,” Marsicano said.

Organizers chose West Charlotte because it had the lowest graduation rate in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools – 51 percent. As of last year, it had improved to 86 percent – just short of Project Lift’s 90 percent target.  

Other foundation initiatives have included the Carolina Thread Trail, which is being pieced together in 15 counties around Charlotte; and the THRIVE Fund, led by former Bank of America chief Hugh McColl to support the city’s major arts organizations.  

As the foundation has grown, so have staff and expenses – nearly $10 million last year. That includes salaries - Marsicano's is over $500,000 a year.

Still, the foundation gets good marks for its finances – three out of four stars from the nonprofit rating service Charity Navigator.

Michael Marsicano came to Charlotte in 1989 to run the Arts & Science Council. He has been CEO at the Foundation for the Carolinas since 1999. He's a New York native with bachelor's, master's and PhD degrees from Duke University.
Credit Foundation for the Carolinas


The foundation’s growing influence has boosted Marsicano’s reputation, too. In February, Charlotte Magazine put him Number 1 on its list of Charlotte’s 50 most powerful people.

Hugh McColl says Marsicano deserves the notice.

“I think the Foundation for the Carolinas has been a brilliant idea that has blossomed into one of the most important things in Charlotte,” McColl said. “What Michael Marsicano has been able to do is to raise sufficient funds to invest in good ideas in our city and help be the incubator for new ideas that help make this a better city,” McColl said. 

A lot has changed since Marsicano came to Charlotte in 1989, to lead the Arts & Science Council. Then, big civic initiatives happened around what Marsicano describes as “one big table,” which expanded as new people arrived. Now he says it’s more challenging, with many groups all working on the same issues.

“It’s messier, it takes more time to get things done, but maybe in the end, the things that get done are fairer and more well thought through,” he said.  

The Carolina Theatre opened in 1927 and hosted films, Vaudeville shows and music until the 1970s. The Foundation for the Carolinas plans to restore the facade and interior and build a hotel above, with developers' help.
Credit Foundation for the Carolinas


One initiative has been improving its own neighborhood along North Tryon Street.

Two years ago, the foundation led a community planning process to spur redevelopment, called the “North Tryon Vision Plan.” Developed with the city of Charlotte, Charlotte Center City Partners and other groups, offered ideas to turn the area into a mixed-use neighborhood of housing, offices, parks and shops.   

Meanwhile, the foundation itself acquired the old Carolina Theater next to its North Tryon Street headquarters.

Work began last month on the project, which calls for renovating the theater and – with development partners – constructing a 20-story hotel above it.

“We will take it back to the elegance of the 1920s. And Charlotte has very few historic buildings, so this will be an ambassador building," Marsicano said. 

The theater and hotel – to be called the InterContinental - could open as early as 2019.


Foundation for the Carolinas,

Feb. 1, 2017, Charlotte Magazine, “The Visionary: Michael Marsicano: The CEO of Foundation for the Carolinas is No. 1 on our list of 50 Most Powerful People in Charlotte”

July 22, 2016, The Columbus Foundation, “Top 100 Community Foundations by Assets”

Project LIFT website,

Carolina Thread Trail,

Carolina Theater project website,

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Economic Opportunity Task Force,

Restoration of the interior of the Carolina Theatre has begun, first with tasks including lead-paint removal.
Credit Foundation for the Carolinas

Work has begun on the Carolina Theatre site at North Tryon and Sixth streets. A small park at the corner is being removed and lead paint removal is beginning inside. A 20-story hotel will be built atop the old theater.
Credit David Boraks / WFAE