Michael Whalton, executive director of the Eastern West Virginia Community Foundation
By Mike Lewis
MARTINSBURG, W.Va. — In one way or another, Michael Whalton has been helping charitable organizations raise money for decades.
Since May 2012, he been doing it as executive director of the Eastern West Virginia Community Foundation.
“I have just always loved working with nonprofit organizations,” said Whalton, 64.
Whalton is originally from Key West, Fla. In the 1980s, he was the general manager of Sloppy Joe’s Bar. He also found a fondness for events. He founded the Hemingway Days Festival and worked on Fantasy Fest, which he described as “a 10-day adult Halloween party in Key West.”
He left Sloppy Joe’s in 1985 and launched Key West Festivals Inc., an event planning company. He wound up organizing everything from festivals to fishing tournaments. In many instances, those events helped raise money for nonprofit organizations in one way or another.
“We had fun. We did. It was a great time,” Whalton said.
Whalton’s wife, Susan, has relatives in the region, and family ties drew him northward.
“We just loved the area, and we had just adopted two children” ages 6 and 10.
Being impressed with the local schools, they settled in the Hedgesville area.
But Whalton didn’t settle down. He was making trips to Key West for the festivals, and he went to college. He earned an undergraduate degree from Shepherd University in Shepherdstown, W.Va., in 2005 and an MBA in 2008.
“I really didn’t think it would ever help me get a job,” he said.
An acquaintance also was introducing him to the world of community foundations, and he sat on the foundation’s board from 2002 to 2012.
“I just got to know and really love community foundations,” he said.
He wound up working part-time at a community foundation in Virginia and in 2012 was chosen to succeed Amy Owen as executive director of the Eastern West Virginia Community Foundation.
Foundation donors, he said, “have the long view” of helping their favorite nonprofits. A $250,000 endowment “will provide about $10,000 or $12,000 a year in grants to a charity forever,” he said.
The foundation has about $27 million in total assets and awards about $1 million a year in grants and scholarships. It works with six local institutions that have trust departments, so the investments are diversified.
“We gather, we grow and we grant,” Whalton said.
On a break, do you reach for coffee, tea, soda, water … ?
Dark coffee with raw sugar and almond milk in the morning and water in the afternoon.
An average day for you includes … ?
We live in the country and before work I do the barn chores — feed the horse and donkey, chickens, let out the dogs. My wife Susan works with a dog rescue so there is always an extra dog to greet me in the morning. I have a beautiful commute into town and listen to NPR. Once in the office, I look at my email to see what fires need to be put out, review investment reports, speak to a board member or meet with a potential donor, take a brisk walk around downtown Martinsburg, and work on ways to better serve nonprofit organizations in the Eastern Panhandle. We have a great team at the Community Foundation and I will often sit down with Karin, Felicia and Amy to discuss our grant funded programs, review our budgets, and do some long-range planning. When I get home, Susan has done the evening barn chores and feedings and we compare notes on our day. Our favorite evenings are the ones we get to spend at home — making dinner, walking the dogs along Tilhance Creek, and talking with family in Florida (my mom is a very young 97).
What’s most rewarding about your work?
Being able to help donors create endowed funds to support their favorite nonprofit organizations and charitable causes. This is satisfying beyond belief in its own right. What has been especially rewarding to me is the ongoing opportunity to learn to listen sensitively and find the right questions to ask to understand best what is nearest to a donor’s heart.
Can you share some examples?
About four years ago Bill and Bonnie Stubblefield established the “Campaign Against Litter Fund” at the Community Foundation to address the litter problem in Berkeley County. Since then the Stubblefields have been working with Berkeley County agencies, and in 2020 the fund will begin awarding sizable grants to nonprofit organizations that will actually be responsible for picking up litter in the area. We can already see the impact of this fund, and how it is raising the consciousness of the citizens in our county.
Looking out five years or so, what will be some of the biggest challenges and opportunities for the foundation?
We want to be able to address the most pressing needs in the five counties we serve (Jefferson, Berkeley, Morgan, Hampshire, and Hardy) by having the capacity to award grants to nonprofit organizations that are doing critically important work. In order to do this, we need to build a sizable unrestricted endowment or attract a wide variety of field of interest funds. In our efforts to be sustainable, we must look to immediate need, and also remember to look down the road 10, 20, even 100 years. We try to imagine what might make our community look back with appreciation on the work we are doing now.
Outside of work, what are your ambitions and aspirations?
Susan and I traveled a good bit in the 1980s and 90s but have been tied to the farm for the past 25 years, so we hope to get back to Europe, visit Cuba, and take a road trip to Canada in the next few years. When I retire I’d like to study yoga and share what I learn with others. And, in a perfect world, bike across America.