More than a year later, more than $1 billion from the sale of New Hanover Hospital has yet to be invested, but those managing the funds say they are making progress.
New Hanover County sold New Hanover Regional Medical Center to private provider Novant Health in February 2020 for $1.5 billion. Proceeds from the sale were divided into three categories: a $50 million mental and behavioral health fund, a $300 million income stabilization fund, and a $1.25 billion community endowment.
Since then, the endowment has organized itself as a non-profit organization, adopted bylaws, established a guiding mission statement, and most recently welcomed a new president and CEO. William Buster started with the foundation on March 1.
Earlier this year Buster moved from Asheville to Wilmington and worked to get to know the town, its people and its needs. Since his arrival, he has had one-on-one interviews with more than 30 community leaders and members, Buster said.
A native of North Carolina, Buster has a long track record in the field of strategic philanthropy – primarily helping donors maximize charitable donations to nonprofit organizations.
He has held leadership positions at the Dogwood Health Trust in Asheville and a range of health foundation philanthropic efforts in Mississippi, New Orleans. Additionally, he was a White House adviser on race relations and studied negotiation skills at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.
While in Wilmington, he also met biweekly with the foundation’s 11-member board and worked to establish a staffing structure for the endowment.
Buster said he saw a need for at least three additional positions, including his own number 2 who would focus staffing strategy, an employee focused on working with the foundation’s chief financial officer, and an executive assistant.
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It’s unclear when the staffing will hire for these jobs.
The foundation is closing in on hiring a company to manage the $1.25 billion investment. Once the company is hired, Buster will work with them and the board’s investment committee to determine an investment strategy that will hopefully grow the pot of money for future generations.
Buster hopes to have the investment strategy in place this summer. “We’re not trying to rush that aspect,” he said.
Currently, the money is managed cautiously by the board’s investment committee, Buster said.
“We’ve been sitting it in funds that earn virtually no interest,” he said. “It’s a safe way to hold the money until we decide exactly what strategies we’re going to use to deploy the investments.”
Eventually, this money will be infused into the community with grants. Buster said grant applications are set to go live Sept. 1.
Currently, the foundation is recruiting up to 15 people for its Community Advisory Board. The committee won’t choose who gets the grants — that job is up to the endowment board, Buster said. Instead, the Community Committee will advise the council by helping it understand the needs of communities in New Hanover County.
“One of the things that I often think of as a disconnect is…I may know exactly what the problem is based on the data, but maybe that’s not the way we need to approach it in the community” , did he declare.
To some, it may seem like it took New Hanover County too long to use the hospital’s profits, but Buster said there’s a lot of philanthropic work going on “behind the scenes” to establish a framework for the organization.
Before the foundation starts donating money, Buster said it’s important to understand the problems community members want to solve with the money.
“We want to be strategic,” he said. “We have enough resources, we will be able to deploy enough resources to really dig deeper into the substantive issues in our community.”
This is why the foundation took time to establish its structure, to find a leader and to plan for more personnel.
“All of those things should be in place before our first dollars are spent,” Buster added. “It’s not a random way to deploy resources.”
In conversations with community leaders and residents, Buster said he heard support for more investments in education and job training, economic opportunity, equity and affordable housing, among others.
Reporter Emma Dill can be reached at 910-343-2096 or [email protected]