Pete Cooper’s revolutionized the Community Foundation. So he’s moving on.
What do the 21st Century Waterfront and a recent college graduate have in common? Each makes Chattanooga a better place and each received funding from the Greater Chattanooga Community Foundation. In fact, the Foundation has had a hand in bringing about many of the best changes in Chattanooga over the last quarter century—even though the Foundation was chartered 50 years ago.
The first board meeting was held in 1964. But, somehow, the Foundation never seemed to catch on and was dormant until around 1990. That’s when Pete Cooper was brought in to see if it was even a viable entity. At the time, Cooper was the senior vice president at Suntrust Bank in charge of the charitable trust department. He was ready for a new challenge, and accepted the Foundation’s offer. Cooper says his first year at the foundation involved some fundraising, but mostly included explaining what a Community Foundation was.
The idea has been around for a hundred years, but didn’t catch on in the South until the ’60s. Community Foundations are clearing houses for charitable giving. They facilitate making connections between philanthropists and causes. They also provide education to nonprofits in how to make the best use of the resources they receive.
That first year, The Greater Chattanooga Community Foundation had assets of around $27,000. In other words, very much the same as the previous 27 years. “We didn’t have an office, a computer or a wastebasket,” admits Cooper. “This year we’ll give away a little more than $16 million in grants.”
The money goes toward everything from funding the city’s arts projects to sending disadvantaged students to college. The impact of both cannot be overstated in how they affect the livability of the Scenic City.
Currently there are some 400 low-income students attending classes in colleges and universities all over the country because of Cooper and the Foundation. “That’s the long-term solution to many of our problems,” he explains. “In a family that is taken out of poverty…a family that’s living in public housing where the child or children end up with bachelor’s degrees.”
Cooper explains that by helping that child get a college degree, you’re not just helping that child. You’re helping his immediate family and his future family by expanding their earning potential. You’re helping the community by creating a citizen who is a positive contributor to the economy. And you’re helping his neighborhood by providing an example that it is possible to break the chain of dependence.
One of Cooper’s favorite success stories revolves around a young person who was put through college using Foundation grants. That student went on to earn higher degrees on his own, eventually becoming an attorney. That young attorney came back to Chattanooga, has been very successful at his profession and now mentors youth from his old neighborhood. Cooper says, quietly proud, “I think it’s the most impactful thing we do.”
There are many foundations and institutions that provide scholarships, but the students who get their money from the Greater Chattanooga Community Foundation seem to do better. Of all at-risk youths who receive scholarships, only about one in four reach graduation. “These kids don’t have support systems like you and I think about,” says Cooper. “So we provide not just cold scholarship checks, we provide a support system in the person of Rebecca Suttles, who’s our scholarship administrator.”
Cooper says Suttles keeps in touch with all the students going to college on Foundation money. She’ll arrange for someone to drive them to the campus or buy clothes for the new semester—even talk to them when they break up with their significant others. Whatever it takes to keep the student focused on the goal: graduation.
With the help of Suttles and others, the graduation rate for Foundation-funded scholars is triple that of others. More than 70 percent of GCCF students get the degree they seek. Then these students, almost all of whom are the first in their families to attend, much less graduate, college, come back to give back. “When you can spread hope through a low-income population,” Cooper says, “you’ve really done something.”
The Foundation is far more than a big ATM. The business of charity is complicated and involves many people and processes. Cooper says he and his associates handle the charitable giving of more than 130 area families and businesses. “We’ve got some spectacularly generous donors in town,” Cooper says with a sparkle in his eye. “We always hear how philanthropy is big in this county. People have no idea. We have people that give away more money than they could possibly deduct.” And he says they do it year after year after year.
Most of the donors wish to remain anonymous, which is another reason the Foundation exists. It provides a way for benefactors to enrich the lives of others without receiving “embarrassing” accolades. It also provides necessary accounting for the funds as well. Cooper uses the example of a group of young entrepreneurs who wanted to start a fund to help start-ups with small amounts of money. Each member of this group would donate $100 a month and each month the group would choose a deserving person or project to fund or help fund with the money.
But the amount involved was less than $2,000 each month. For this enterprising group to do this right, they’d have to create a complicated matrix involving IRS paperwork, endless forms and specific accounting procedures. Or they could go talk to Pete Cooper.
Cooper spends about half his time consulting with donors and nonprofits explaining the “business” of charitable giving. He teaches them how to rise funds, file the paperwork, manage their assets—even if they never get a cent from the Foundation. Cooper says he works with neighborhood associations, public schools, small businesses and large corporations, handling charitable monies that theese groups simply don’t have the mechanism to properly deal with.
The Greater Chattanooga Community Foundation currently handles more than 360 separate funds disbursing millions of dollars a year to fund a wide variety of projects. What some may find amazing is that Cooper does all this relying very little on their endowment. The Foundation’s assets currently stand at more than $115 million. Yet each year, they take in and process more than $10 million in donations from more than 3,000 donors. For example, this year they’ve collected some $13.4 million and will write more than 4,000 checks worth in excess of $16 million. There are hundreds of millions of dollars in expectancies as well. These are funds promised but not yet available because they are tied to donated 401(k)s, insurance policies, estates, etc.
Pete Cooper says he probably has the best job in the city. And to see the light in his eyes and the lilt in his voice, you’d have to agree. So why is he leaving? That’s right. The man with the best job in the city is calling it quits. “I told the Board six years ago that I was going to retire in seven years,” Cooper explains. At 66 years old, who can blame the man for wanting a rest? But it’s more than just rest he seeks. “I want to leave while people are asking why I’m leaving rather than why I’m still here.” So the search is on.
The Board of the Foundation now has one year to find someone to fill Cooper’s big shoes. “We have a search process beginning,” Cooper says. “I will not control that process. In fact, I will probably not have a lot of input in that process.” He wants the Board to find a replacement while there’s time for him to ease control over to the new person. An orderly passing of the reins, so to speak. He’s sure there will be changes coming. There may be new marketing strategies, things may work a little differently. But one thing he is sure of. The core mission of the GCCF will not change, will not falter.
As for Cooper’s next adventure? Even he’s not sure. “There are some other things I want to do,” he says. Cooper has already been approached by two individuals with ideas of where and how he should spend his “retirement.” And somehow it’s unlikely either of them involves a sunny beach or tented cocktails.