From our single community beginning in October of 1977, we have evolved into a full service, accredited, and standards compliant Foundation serving Southern Berrien County, focused on Niles and Buchanan, and all of Cass County. Our mission: fostering a community of philanthropy, for good, forever.
In the beginning, four founding incorporators who understood the potential for a permanent community foundation in shaping and supporting the quality of life in a community, took the first step both organizationally and financially in starting this Foundation. They were Walter Schirmer, B. R. Desenberg, Harry Kennedy, and Phil Sexton. Gifts to the Foundation over the next 18 months totaled nearly $25,000, and the Board of Directors, led by President Miriam Hassan, announced plans to raise $1,000,000 over the following ten years to “benefit educational, scientific, and charitable projects” in the Buchanan area.
In 1980, following a process to secure the necessary tax exempt status from the IRS, the new Buchanan Area Foundation announced the granting of its very first scholarship loan. Also in 1980, a grant for $339.15 to purchase a blood specimen collection chair was made to Unity Hospital. The first partnership of any magnitude was with the Foundation and the Buchanan Fine Arts Council, and plans were made to renovate the old Tin Shop on Roe street for use as a community arts center. Originally part of the many Clark Equipment facilities in town, the City of Buchanan was the current owner of the property. Jerry Rossow chaired the Fine Arts Council, and plans were made to repair and renovate the building into a small theater, museum, and gallery and community space.
In 1982, the Buchanan Area Foundation committed $21,000 to the project, and work began. This project was the primary focus of the Foundation for the next three years. The Tin Shop Theater is still in use, providing the Buchanan area community with locally produced and staffed theater entertainment throughout the year. For the remainder of the decade, activity included scholarship loans, and grants to various community projects, such as Christmas lights for downtown, exchange tours for students at Buchanan High School, support for the Area Recreation Board, and others. In 1986, a significant event in the life of the Community Foundation occurred. Unity Hospital was sold to a for-profit organization and the assets from the sale of the property were to be endowed at the Foundation “to provide scholarship and other support with relation to medical and health related education and service.”
The Trustees of the Buchanan Area Foundation received a transfer amount of $590,000, approved at the regular meeting of the Board held October 28, 1988. By the end of the eighties, the Foundation assets had reached $750,025. In the next 10 years, the decade of the 1990’s, the Foundation experienced new benchmarks, and transformed into a more diverse, geographically broad, organization. In mid 1994, the assets of the foundation reached $1,000,000. The original goal, although a few years behind schedule, had been reached. The board adopted a new strategic plan, and a new asset target of $3,600,000 was set for the next five years. Strategic goals in Public Relations, Fund Development, and Grant Making were set and adopted.
The market investment environment was heating up, and the Foundation experienced double digit gains in their portfolio over each of the last four years of the decade. As assets grew, so too did the need to organize and provide for the necessary public accountability that comes with growth. A new Executive Director was named, Marlene Gauer, and the assistance of the Council of Michigan Foundations was enlisted. New policies, procedures and infrastructure were added to assist the growing role of the Community Foundation in Buchanan.
In 1995, discussions with leaders from the Niles community led to the expansion and change of name for the Foundation. On October 25, 1996, the Board of Directors of the Buchanan Area Foundation dissolved the corporation, and reorganized as Michigan Gateway Community Foundation. With the formation of the Niles Area Fund within Michigan Gateway Community Foundation, two component funds now existed: the Buchanan Area Fund and the Niles Area Fund. New growth and opportunities for service began.
In the next year, Cass County leaders formed a steering committee, planned for and requested status for a third component, the Cass County Community Fund within Michigan Gateway Community Foundation. This was finalized on February 20, 1997 at a special meeting of the Trustees. The combined fund balance for the three component geographic funds was $2,262,892 at the end of the 1997 fiscal year.
In 2001, Robert N. Habicht was named President/CEO, taking over for a retiring Marlene Gauer. He holds that position today.
Strong community support has steadily grown the Foundation. We now have over 135 separate funds, with new ones added every year. The largest single gift to the Foundation was transferred in 2016 from the estate of Walter E. Schirmer, Jr., son of one of the original founders of the Buchanan Area Foundation, which today is Michigan Gateway Community Foundation. In excess of $8,000,000, the gift funds the Buchanan Promise , a place-based scholarship for graduates of Buchanan High School. The Foundation doubled in size with this gift, today holding endowment assets totaling more than $20,500,000.