One morning in late March, Michael Marsicano stood in the grand hall on the bottom floor of the bank that birthed modern-day Charlotte, and he looked into a crowd of hundreds of the city’s biggest philanthropists and fundraising professionals.
“In the 30 years I’ve lived in Charlotte, a question has been repeated over and over in many forms, but it always goes unanswered,” Marsicano said in Founders Hall of the Bank of America tower. “What does Charlotte stand for? What defines the city of Charlotte? What is Charlotte’s soul?”
Over the past decade, the organization Marsicano leads, Foundation For the Carolinas, has positioned itself to be the lead author of that definition.
FFTC is the sixth-largest community foundation in the United States, now managing $2.6 billion in charitable assets. It’s the administrative turnstile for money from wealthy Charlotte residents who want to invest and channel their dollars to nonprofit organizations doing good.
Last year alone, the Foundation delivered $315 million across 20,000 grants.
It’s also taken the lead on the biggest issues facing Charlotte. Since 2014, when researchers from Harvard and Cal-Berkeley ranked Charlotte last among major U.S. cities in terms of upward mobility — meaning it’s more difficult for a child to move out of poverty here than in any other city in the country — the Foundation has shepherded the city’s mission to fund and find solutions.
It convened a task force to produce an economic mobility study, which led to a 62-page report in 2017. Marsicano calls it the city’s version of the Marshall Plan, which helped rebuild Europe after World War II.
The city followed the report’s recommendations as if they were commandments. Civic leaders dog-eared pages and we all watched as policies and initiatives spilled out of it. Among them, universal pre-K from the county, a $50 million affordable-housing bond from the city, and a $50 million match from the private sector.
FFTC’s reputation — Marsicano’s, in particular — soared. In 2016, he received a Center City Partners Vision Award. In 2017, Charlotte magazine, where I was editor at the time, named him the city’s most powerful person. In a place that’s run through mayors and managers and superintendents, Marsicano and FFTC have become the most consistent and influential institutions around.
Which is why the Charlotte earth moved a little this week as a recurring sore showed up again. National and local media outlets detailed how one or more of the Foundation’s “donor advised funds” have bankrolled groups like the Center for Immigration Studies, which works to limit immigration and control the population.
It isn’t new news. The Los Angeles Times reported on it in 2017, and POLITICO ran a piece in August. (A left-leaning advocacy group America’s Voice had also been hoping to land the story locally around the same time.)
But this week, when the outlet Sludge delivered a headline that read “Major Charity Finances Immigrant Hate Group Tied to Stephen Miller,” referring to the White House senior adviser, the story zoomed down halls and up elevators in Uptown.
The Observer released a months-long investigation Wednesday that said between 2006 and 2018 FFTC funneled nearly $21 million in donor-advised funds to nine organizations that campaign for immigration limits.
The Foundation responded initially by saying it stands by its policy on “donor-advised funds,” which says it will administer the funds to any nonprofit the donor chooses, so long as that nonprofit has IRS accreditation.
Of the $2.6 billion in charitable assets, about 94 percent is in donor-advised funds. The remaining 6 percent or so is available to the Foundation for discretionary grant-making. None of the discretionary money goes to the groups in question, Marsicano says.
The Foundation acts essentially as a bank for the donor-advised funds, taking and sending as the giver wishes.
But for an organization like FFTC, which has a web page that reads, “Supporting the Needs of Immigrants,” the headlines rattled people.
When questions came flying into his office this week, Marsicano said there’s not much he could do. He cited not just the policy but freedom of speech.
“Where does one draw the line in what should be funded and what should not be funded?” he asked me on Thursday.
Over the past few days, I’ve talked to leaders from organizations across Charlotte, trying to understand where that line is for each of them. Some are wrestling with the question Marsicano posed; some think the answer is clear. Everyone mentioned all the work the Foundation has done, but some said they couldn’t understand how it could move money toward pro-immigration groups and anti-immigration groups in the same year.
Marsicano and FFTC are considering similar questions. At the end of our conversation yesterday, he said, “I hope … that you can see the pain in me.”
Honestly, the older I get the less I seem to know about what I see. But in him it was apparent that he’d had a difficult week. I could also see a slight discord between the defenses he put up and what he probably believed.
Regardless of his challenges and my increasing doubts about trying to read people, this was, we recognized, a more difficult week for people other than the two Michaels in the room.
Perhaps the most consistent criticism of the Foundation is that while it invests money in causes and missions, the organization itself operates in a different universe from the people it’s helping. Its lobby is a spectacular art gallery in the heart of Uptown. And its influence is so vast and well-known that when nonprofit leaders ask for money and don’t get it, they wonder if they’re shut out of Charlotte altogether.
For all the outreach the Foundation’s done in recent years, there’s still a disconnect between the most powerful organization in the region and the communities it helps serve, such as the immigrant neighborhoods along Central Avenue or the impoverished areas off of Beatties Ford Road and Sugar Creek Road.
You see a different kind of pain out there than in here.
Sil Ganzó looked down and asked a group of kids what word they were spelling on Thursday afternoon. Big, wooden letters spread out on the table, with children painting and decorating them.
“Diverst,” one kid said.
“Diser,” he tried again before laughing and saying he didn’t know.
The kids are second- and third-graders at OurBRIDGE, an after-school program on Shamrock Drive for child refugees and immigrants who’ve recently moved to the United States. Some of the students arrived within the past two weeks. More than 150 children are dropped off here each day by bus from four area elementary and middle schools, and they represent 22 countries.
They’re smiling and laughing and many of them are exactly the people organizations like CIS wish weren’t here.
In the five years since she founded the center, Ganzó has turned it into one of Charlotte’s most recognized immigrant-focused nonprofits. She’s well aware that success would be minimal without Foundation For the Carolinas.
This year alone, Ganzó says, FFTC will contribute more than $100,000 from grants and two of its donor-advised funds.
She’s had a difficult time this week, balancing the two. An immigrant from Argentina, she says she’s confused that the foundation she depends on is sending money to groups that would like her to leave.
“I cannot overstate how great and consistent Foundation For The Carolinas’ support has been to OurBRIDGE from the beginning,” she said. “However, I am an immigrant, my entire family belongs to the immigrant community, and I personally believe that supporting the proliferation of any anti-immigrant group is dangerous and counter to everything we are, everything we do, and everything we believe in as a community.
“I find the (FFTC’s) position of neutrality highly problematic as it puts our neighbors and families at risk.”
A few blocks away, Manolo Betancur, the bakery owner we profiled earlier this month, was delivering food to a bilingual school Thursday. He said he’d heard a radio report that morning that included quotes from Marsicano saying there was little he could do.
“He should be condemning this,” Manolo said.
I asked Manolo if he worried that speaking might lead to him being cut off from Charlotte’s richest philanthropic organization, and he didn’t pause.
“Someone has to,” he said. “The executives of our (Latino) organizations are so afraid to talk to the rich people in this town because they feel like if they talk from the heart, what they believe, to just express themselves, their organizations aren’t going to receive money.”
It’s been a stressful year for Charlotte’s immigrants and refugees. In February, Immigrations and Custom Enforcement made its presence known, saying it would only ratchet up work in the face of sheriff Garry McFadden’s decision to eliminate 287(g), the program that requires sheriff departments to work with I.C.E. The kids in Ganzó’s classes have watched friends and family be picked up and hauled away with no warning.
Ganzó remembers the afternoons she watched kids run off the bus and straight to the office to wait in line to call home to see if their parents were still there.
As Ganzó walked around the school Thursday, she told me she wanted the Foundation to know how she feels, regardless of the outcome. She says she’s friends with Brian Collier, the FFTC’s executive vice president, and hopes to talk to the organization soon.
Back in that second- and third-grade classroom, a teacher finally helps the little boy who was trying to tell Ganzó what they were spelling.
“Remember?” the teacher said and then she spelled it.
In September 1958, the United Community Foundation (FFTC’s original name) launched, and the Observer published an editorial that read, “Gifts to the UCF may be designated for a particular cause, so long as the cause may exist.”
Seven years later, Lyndon Johnson signed the 1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act, which eliminated the national origins quotas that had constrained immigration to European countries since 1920.
A little more than a decade after the law passed, in 1979, a Michigan ophthalmologist named John Tanton founded the Federation for American Immigration Reform. Tanton became known widely as a white supremacist and the founder of today’s anti-immigration movement. Reports show some donor-directed funds pass through FFTC to FAIR.
In 2015, on the 50th anniversary of the Immigration Act, another organization with Tanton ties, CIS, held a panel discussion to mark the occasion. They said it would be the “skunk at the garden party” of all the other 50th anniversary events. In one moment during the discussion, a panelist noted that in the 1950s, 90 percent of immigrants came from Europe. But because of the Immigration Act, he said, the number was just 10 percent by the 1980s.
“Going from 90 percent European to 10 percent European was not what people had in mind,” the panelist said of the law.
“You can’t be politically correct and morally wrong,” recently elected city council member Malcolm Graham told me.
Graham’s sister was one of nine people murdered by a white supremacist at Mother Emanuel church in Charleston in 2015. He, like everyone I talked to, says he loves the Foundation and its work, but on the matter of racism and hate, he doesn’t leave wiggle room.
Part of FFTC’s hesitation to defund the groups that limit immigration, Marsicano says, is that they don’t have a reliable source for what makes a hate group. The Southern Poverty Law Center explicitly says that CIS is a hate group. But the SPLC fired its co-founder this past March amid allegations of discriminating against women and people of color.
In another twist, the Foundation For the Carolinas has actually distributed $120,225 in grants to the SPLC over the past five years.
“You have an organization called SPLC that is claiming to be the arbiter of which nonprofits are hate groups. And it has declared these groups as hate groups. Well, other groups have declared SPLC as a hate group,” Marsicano says. “Are these groups limited-immigration organizations? They absolutely are. Is that a voice that has been in America since the beginning of time? It absolutely has. Now, that’s not my personal belief. Personally I mean to grow immigration. And this agency with its discretionary funds has funded pro-immigration grants. But who decides if a hate group is a hate group?”
Two years ago, at one of the first meetings of the Leading on Opportunity Council, a few members voiced concerns about the Foundation’s role in funding the groups that limit immigration.
Marsicano remembers that a handful had worries. But he doesn’t think the board voted to ask him and FFTC to stop funding the CIS.
“I don’t recall that,” he said.
One theme that keeps emerging in stories about Charlotte these days is leadership. Specifically, how do we grow it here and keep it here?
Police chief Kerr Putney is retiring after four years on the job. We’ve had six mayors, five school superintendents, and four city managers this decade.
Marsicano, though, has led the Foundation since 1999.
Until this, any criticism he received was for being too liberal.
He was the head of the Arts and Science Council in 1996 when a controversy erupted over Angels in America, a Pulitzer-winning play with gay characters and themes. Religious leaders in the city protested, but Marsicano defended the ASC’s decision to fund it, even as the county commission stripped the organization of millions.
In 2015, the Civitas Institute, a conservative think tank in Raleigh, put out a “Mapping of the Left” database which lists each FFTC staff member as part of the “shadowy network” of “people and funders that make up the radical liberal left in North Carolina.”
For decades, a small group of men — Bank of America CEO Hugh McColl, First Union CEO Ed Crutchfield, Belk president and former mayor John Belk, Duke Power CEO Bill Lee, and Observer publisher Rolfe Neill — made just about every major decision for the city. But after they retired, the question swirled around Charlotte: Who would replace them?
With Marsicano leading the way, the Foundation has filled a large part of that void. He’s had detractors, absolutely. And there are plenty of arguments that having less-affluent people relying on donations from wealthy people is not the way to break down systems that create economic inequality. But there’s no arguing that the Foundation’s money has benefited the people of Charlotte.
“I would like to think that the balance of the good work of the Foundation will be what most people will come down on,” Marsicano said. “Even if you disagree with some things, there is so much other good that you can believe in, you can believe in the Foundation.”
On the walls at OurBRIDGE are signs and chalkboards with the acronym “LERD” – Love, Education, Respect, Diversity.
The Foundation helped with decorations like that through its funding. Ganzó says again that she couldn’t live without them right now.
When I pulled into the OurBRIDGE lot, kids were running from the bus to the door. Ganzó and I went from classroom to classroom then sat and talked.
Where is the line, Marsicano had asked. And now Ganzó had questions about lines, too. For instance, what’s the distance between the Foundation’s policies and its values?
Kids flung the office door open, then flung it shut when they saw us sitting there talking about grown-up things. There were chicken tenders to be eaten.
This has been the year of the “Send Her Back!” chant, the year when Charlotte’s immigrant families went hiding in their homes for days because I.C.E. wanted to send a message to the sheriff, the year when children line up to use the phone after school to make sure their parents are OK.
At the end of a week like this in a year like that, Ganzó says, she’s still hoping for an answer from the Foundation she loves and depends on, but this time it doesn’t involve putting dollars in her charity’s bank account.
“Where do you stand?” she asked.