Spokane Journal of Business

Court win bolsters Avista Foundation

$6.5 million endowment brings total to $10 million

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-—Avista Corp.
Avista employees help out at this year’s Spokane County United Way’s Day of Caring. They gave $216,000 to United Way in 2013.
-—Judith Spitzer
Dennis Vermillion, Avista Utilities president, and Karen Terpak, coordinator of Avista Corp.'s United Way employee campaign, present a check for $97,000 to Tim Henkel, executive director of Spokane County United Way.

Avista Corp.’s recent contribution of $6.5 million to the Avista Foundation brings the total endowment to about $10 million, which is enabling the organization to perpetuate its mission of helping to sustain the community through its focus on education, reducing poverty, and enhancing economic vitality, says Foundation spokeswoman Kristine Meyer. 

 “Avista created the foundation so that it will always have a legacy of giving to the community. The $10 million will allow us to keep the foundation in place for many more years,” she says. 

The Avista Foundation, a separate, nonprofit organization established by Avista Corp., was created in 2002 as a way to maintain philanthropy in a sustainable fashion that wasn’t at the mercy of fluctuating revenues, Meyer says. 

 “The foundation was initially endowed with funds from the sale of the last of the Itron Inc. stock the company held,” she says. Itron is a former Avista subsidiary that was spun off into a separate company. 

The foundation was established with about $2.2 million and through investments had grown to about $3.5 million. The $6.5 million contribution came from a litigation settlement that was related to prices paid in the California spot markets during 2000 and 2001, for which Avista received $15 million in net settlement proceeds. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission approved the settlement last June.

Founded in 1889 as Washington Water Power Co., Avista is an investor-owned utility with annual revenues of more than $1.6 billion. It provides electric and natural gas service to about 680,000 customers in a service area of more than 30,000 square miles in Eastern Washington, Idaho and Oregon. The company is headquartered in Spokane and employs nearly 1,700 people, including about 1,180 in the Spokane area.

Since being launched, the Avista Foundation has awarded grants totaling more than $3 million, Meyer says. It’s required legally to make donations of at least 5 percent of the total endowment each year, but it typically donates much more than that, she says, with its grants this year expected to total more than $600,000, she says.

The range of grants is typically $2,500 to $10,000, although it makes much larger grants to United Way of Spokane County and some others. 

The foundation’s education grants include K-12 education as well as higher education scholarships. It recently joined a collaboration of local funders headed by the Spokane-based Inland Northwest Community Foundation that awarded a $400,000 grant to Gonzaga University, Spokane Public Schools, the Boys and Girls Club of Spokane County, and Communities in Schools of Spokane County, a dropout prevention group. 

The foundation donated $50,000 of the total grant, Meyers says. The grant will provide the group, which already identities at-risk students entering Garry and Shaw middle schools each fall, with funding to enhance and expand services available to students and families. 

The two middle schools feed John R. Rogers High School in northeast Spokane. Long term, the project is expected to increase graduation rates at Rogers and to boost the number of graduates there enrolling in post-secondary education. 

Its grants also support projects that help revitalize communities and help them grow, such as its funding of artwork and signage along Spokane’s Centennial Trail near the Spokane Convention Center and grants to KSPS Friends of Seven as well as to the Spokane Arts Fund.

Its annual donations to United Way organizations in Avista’s service area typically exceed $125,000. This year, the United Way organization here received $97,000 from the foundation, which in turn will be used to support various organizations in Spokane County.    

Additionally, the foundation assists vulnerable and limited-income populations and initiatives to reduce poverty with funding to St. Vincent de Paul of North Idaho and donations to United Way organizations in other counties. 

The foundation makes grants to about 36 food banks in Avista’s service area and those amounts are typically about $400 each, Meyer says, although a couple of grants go to community action agencies that distribute funds to food banks in their areas, she says. 

The annual budget for food bank donations typically totals around $33,000, she says.

The foundation focuses its giving on grants that strengthen communities and enhance the quality of life of people within the geographic areas served by Avista, Meyer adds.  

In its first of two grant distributions for 2014, it made awards to the Martin Luther King Family Outreach Center’s Summer Youth Academy and to Ronald McDonald House to upgrade kitchen and living space at Providence Sacred Heart Children’s Hospital. It also provided assistance to set up a Running Start program for high school students at the Spokane Tribal College in Wellpinit, Wash., among others donations, she says. 

It will announce its second round of grants for 2014 in November.

Jessie Wuerst, Avista communications manager, says fewer large corporations now are based in Spokane than in the past, which means fewer philanthropic dollars are going to organizations that need funding. 

“The dollars have shrunk while the need has not,” she says.

Meanwhile, Wuerst says, corporate philanthropy has shifted to more focused areas of giving. 

“We are looking at what’s of benefit to the community, but these days it also needs to relate more to the corporation as well. It needs to benefit us as a corporation,” she says. In benefiting the community, the company also prospers, she says. 

Meyer agrees that a shift in consciousness dictates that philanthropy now needs to benefit the business as well as community needs. She says there is a heightened strategy of not just giving for the sake of giving but of focusing on outcomes and the idea of making an investment in the community rather than simply making a donation. 

Avista also has focused on increasing the impact of employee contributions with its matching gifts program, Meyer says. Through the program, each employee may donate to a nonprofit organization they choose and all eligible gifts are matched by the foundation up to $200 each year.

“Employees can donate to any organization they care about (so long as it’s an eligible nonprofit), and our employees give support to all kinds of things, whatever they’re passionate about,” she says. She says the intent behind the message to employees is that Avista cares about what its employees care about. 

Avista employees also contribute volunteer hours to nonprofit organizations, primarily in Eastern Washington and Idaho. In 2013, that volunteerism amounted to nearly 50,000 hours. This fall, for the second year, 90-plus Avista employees partnered with the Salvation Army in Spokane to make sure students in need had school supplies and backpacks they needed. 

Grant applications submitted to the foundation are reviewed twice annually, and deadlines for submission are April 30 and Oct. 31, says Wuerst.

Judith  Spitzer
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Reporter Judith Spitzer covers technology, mining, agriculture, and wood products for the Journal. A vintage-obsessed antique collector in her off hours, Judith worked as a journalist in Colorado and Oregon before joining the Journal.

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