PITTSFIELD — Peter Taylor originally was interested in becoming a lawyer, but after a short stint at a large civil litigation firm in Washington, he turned to higher education instead.
He spent the next eight years as associate dean of students at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, and that experience served as his entry into the nonprofit sector, first as vice president of Maine Community Foundation, then with the Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation in Sheffield, where, in 2015, he became just the fourth president in the organization's 32-year history.
Taylor, who grew up in Ohio and Connecticut, already had ties to this area. His parents have owned a home in Lenox for 30 years. We met with Taylor recently to talk about the kind of work he does, the mission that Berkshire Taconic plays in the community and his love of sailing.
Q: What do you find most satisfying about the work that you do?
A: Working with really smart, capable people. I learn so much from my staff and board colleagues, but also from the donor and nonprofit community. I think community foundations are always learning about new things. We're always gathering information and synthesizing information for making judgments. To be able to work in a region where the talent and the insight is so deep is just a wonderful opportunity for me and my colleagues.
Q: How does the Berkshire community contribute to that work?
A: This is a region where there is a strong ethos of generosity and wanting to give back, not just of resources, but of time and talent. An example of that is the deep nonprofit community that we have here in Berkshire County. Each of those organizations exists today because there are a group of people that wanted to come together around the kitchen table and say, "Look, we can do something about this issue."
Q: Berkshire Taconic has a large number of relatively small donor-based funds. And yet, the foundation also examines issues that are relevant to the community as a whole, like your 2017 study that examined the growing income inequality in Berkshire Taconic's coverage area. How would you describe what Berkshire Taconic does?
A: Community foundations are very versatile philanthropic organizations. Unlike a private or corporate foundation, our asset base and our resources for grant-making come from over 550 funds that have been set up by individuals, by families and by organizations. ... The art of community foundation work, in my view, is when the foundation, because of its capacity to research pressing issues, [can] understand issues deeply.
With our ability to bring groups together to form coalitions and to make grants, we can mobilize those relationships to focus on the most pressing issues. ... Our best work is done through partnerships when we work with and through others that care about our priorities and issues that are important to the region.
Q: Charitable giving has changed greatly over the last decade. Is is easier or harder now for Berkshire Taconic to obtain donations?
A: There's a couple of ways to look at that. One, if you look at it from our view, giving to a lot of our funds is up $5 million over last year at this time, so, by that indication, philanthropy is growing.
There were concerns and continue to be concerns that the Tax Reform Act of 2017 was going to curtail charitable giving because there was a doubling of the standard deduction and 90 percent of taxpayers utilize the standard deduction compared to itemizing. ... There was a decrease in charitable giving in 2018; [according to] the Chronicle of Philanthropy, it was down 3.4 percent.
However, if you look at [this year's] Giving Tuesday, which takes place the Tuesday after Thanksgiving, they raised over $500 million. Giving Tuesday was up more than 25 percent in 2019. It's just a data point, but if you look at 2019 as compared to 2018, it was up. So, there's a lot of reasons why people give.
Q: Do you expect a significant drop-off in charitable giving from the tax act over the long term?
A: I think the jury's still out on that. ... One of the trends that we are interested in and supporting is the interest among younger donors to crowdsource so that they are able to give both their services and their time to the projects that they care about. That is a trend that a lot of nonprofits are utilizing.
Q: What do you think you would be doing if you weren't running a community foundation?
A: I'll tell you something that's kind of fun, what I might have done if I was better at it when I was younger. This is not serious, but I think your question is mentioned in that vein.
I loved to sail. Could I have been a professional sailor? I would love to do that, but I'm not good enough to do that. Most days I'm good enough with what I do for the foundation. I'm privileged to have the job that I have, and I look forward to serving in it for many years.