Carol Wolfe considers herself a professional beggar, turning each year to OceanFirst Foundation for money to keep Dottie's House afloat.
The Brick-based program houses 17 women and their children, who survive domestic violence. It teaches the women skills they need to be independent. And it has existed thanks in part to $471,000 from the foundation during the past 20 years.
"It's essential," Wolfe said of the foundation.
OceanFirst Foundation is celebrating its 20th year and has emerged as the place at the Shore to turn for nonprofit executives such as Wolfe. During the past two decades, it has given $28 million to more than 650 organizations — money that's gone to colleges, theaters, cancer support groups, museums, mentor groups and volunteer firefighters.
It has given its officers a unique perspective on the struggles the Shore's residents face. There are perennial issues of domestic abuse, affordable housing and education. And there are new issues brought on by superstorm Sandy and the opioid epidemic.
Meantime, OceanFirst Foundation in its 20th year is facing its own crossroads. Its sole patron, OceanFirst Financial Corp., recently acquired two banks in Southern New Jersey — Ocean City Home Bank and Cape Bank — the first major acquisitions in the bank's 114-year history. As the bank learns about its new customers, the foundation needs to learn about the community's social problems as well.
"The issues you see in all of Central and Southern New Jersey are all the same," said Christopher Maher, OceanFirst's president and chief executive officer, who is on the foundation's board of directors. "It's housing security, food security, youth education. We’re seeing the same things in all those areas. So it's more work. It’s a little wider area to cover. But we’ve got more resources."
Over 6,000 grants
OceanFirst Foundation has made more than 6,000 grants. Dottie's House isn't alone. Big Brothers Big Sisters of Ocean County also was founded 20 years ago. It received money from OceanFirst Foundation to hire its first case manager. And it has gotten about $317,000 since then, helping the program grow big enough to mentor more than 500 children today, said Sue Sedivec, the group's chief executive officer.
And The Center for Holocaust, Human Rights & Genocide Education received a $10,000 grant from OceanFirst Foundation to help it build what will be a permanent exhibit on the Brookdale Community College campus in Middletown. The exhibit will include stories about the Armenian genocide, the Holocaust and the Rwandan genocide through the eyes of local families, said Dale Daniels, the executive director.
"The most important difference, which makes it so specific and wonderful for our community, is that we teach telling the human story and its the human story of our community," Daniels said.
They are the type of programs that the foundation's founders no doubt had in mind.
It started when OceanFirst converted from a mutual bank that was owned by its depositors to a bank owned by shareholders. The company's then-CEO, John Garbarino, and its current chief financial officer, Michael Fitzpatrick, decided to form the foundation using 8 percent of the proceeds from the company's initial public offering.
It was unique, causing the IPO to be delayed by several months. But when it was finally completed, the foundation had $13 million. It didn't need to take outside donations. And its endowment has grown with OceanFirst's stock price, including a 45 percent spike since the Nov. 8 presidential election.
A one-stock portfolio likely would distress financial planners who urge consumers to have a diversity of investments, but the idea has been used by other banks. Investors Bancorp, based in Short Hills, started Investors Bank Foundation in 2005 by setting aside shares from its public offering. Its foundation donates up to $5 million a year in New Jersey and New York, said Kevin Cummings, Investors' chief executive officer.
"It was a great idea," Cummings said of OceanFirst's plan. "It's a great vehicle in order to allow companies to be great corporate citizens."
OceanFirst Foundation is led by Katherine Durante, the executive director, and the grants are competitive. Last year, it selected 35 projects out of 130 letters of interest. The goal: to get the biggest impact for the dollar, so the foundation wants to make sure the charity is established and doesn't overlap with an existing project.
It means there are more "nos" than "yeses." But Durante said she works with the groups and encourages them to fine-tune their requests. It has won her praise from the nonprofit community for providing clear guidelines and targeting money to the community's specific needs.
"They don’t operate in a vacuum, and I think that’s a good thing," said Heather Keefe, a grant writer and nonprofit consultant in Point Pleasant.
Case in point: After Sandy hit in 2012, the foundation quickly gave $50,000 to The FoodBank of Monmouth and Ocean Counties in Neptune, St. Francis Center in Brant Beach, and Catholic Charities, Diocese of Trenton's Emergency Services.
Executives said the foundation helped OceanFirst Financial allay concerns in new communities it is moving into. It has acquired two community banks in southern New Jersey this year. Both had foundations. And OceanFirst reached out to nonprofits there to assure them they would continue the previous banks' charitable donations, officials said.
"That was a really key component, or one of the components" of the merger, said Steven Brady, the former CEO of Ocean City Home Bank, who now sits on OceanFirst Foundation's board. "Obviously, the stockholders are No. 1, but (OceanFirst's philanthropy) really enhanced the stock transaction for us."
As OceanFirst expands its geographic reach, it raises a question: Will it lose sight of its home base?
Foundation officials don't think so. Instead, they said, they plan to take the model they have used in Monmouth and Ocean counties and expand it to Southern New Jersey. Sadly, they said, there is no shortage of needs.
"I think we just continue to look at what the community needs are, to listen to what the partners say is going on that they are seeing," Durante said. "Whether it's ongoing needs or new things. We want to make sure we’re doing the kinds of things that are going to make people want to come to live and enjoy the communities we serve."
Michael L. Diamond; 732-643-4038; firstname.lastname@example.org
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