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CAPE FEAR MEMORIAL BRIDGE: Updates, resources, and context

New Hanover Community Endowment hires CEO to lead $1.25 billion non-profit organization

William Buster, the newly-hired CEO and President of the New Hanover Community Endowment.
William Buster, the newly-hired CEO and President of the New Hanover Community Endowment.

The $1.25 billion New Hanover Community Endowment has hired William Buster as its first president and CEO. Buster says he's well aware of the challenges and opportunities that lay ahead.

Formed from the sale of New Hanover Regional Medical Center, the New Hanover Community Endowment (NHCE) will start accepting grant applications this September — eventually generating up to $50 million in annual awards.

The hire of a president and CEO is an important step. According to Buster, who will formally start on March 1, his role will be to set the direction of the endowment and bring forward specific grant opportunities to the board for a final decision — not unlike the way a city or county manager brings agenda items to council or the board of commissioners.

“So early on, is going to be me and the board because there's no staff, there's me and the board. So early on, it will be us making those decisions, but I'll be bringing them to them and a structured way," he said.

Buster has worked for many years in the non-profit sector, and most recently served for just over a year as Senior Vice President for Impact at Dogwood Trust — a major new endowment born in 2018 out of the sale of Mission Health in Asheville. Buster said there were many in his field watching the sale process of NHRMC and the subsequent organization of NHCE.

Buster said one of the things that drew him to the New Hanover endowment opportunity was the board’s public listening sessions — and he said he listened to hours of community input.

“I heard things around youth development are things relative to food and that food access. I heard clearly issues around housing and housing opportunity, affordability, safety and community," he said.

One of the biggest challenges, Buster acknowledged, will be sorting through the myriad issues in the region and forging a clear direction for the endowment.

"We'll get requests about every single thing. And so helping people understand exactly what we're trying to do, at least for right now, you know, because this is going to be evolving over the next few years ... initially getting our community clear about what we're trying to do," would be a major challenge Buster said.

It's also no secret that NHCE's considerable grantmaking possibility has loomed over recent government conversations — including the New Hanover County Board of Education, Board of Commissioners, and City of Wilmington Council — about systemic issues like affordable housing, public transit, homelessness, and community violence. More than one elected official, faced with the prospect of raising taxes or dipping into 'rainy day' accounts, has suggested that NHCE would better handle an issue.

Buster said he hasn't had a chance to meet with local government officials yet, but he's familiar with the kind of dynamic that can evolve between government and philanthropic organizations.

"I haven't had the opportunity yet in New Hanover. However, I've had those kinds of those conversations. And generally what I really focus on is the role of philanthropy — the role of philanthropy helps catalyze, we can be the rapid response, we can kind of be, you know, the group that kind of helps put a spark under opportunities — but we're not the sustainers of efforts, nor should we be the drivers of efforts," Buster said.

Buster said it was important that NHCE is "communicating clearly with our elected officials that we see ourselves as essential, as a part of what happens in our community. But, we're not the bank... we shouldn't always be the first stop. And I think making sure that we all understand our roles and being clear about what our role is in communicating and communicating clearly what our role is, I think we'll get all the support that we need in the partnerships that we need."

Another issue NHCE will surely face are calls to help address Wilmington's history of racial inequity. Buster took a measured line on that question:

"I think if you can heal from things, then you can do anything moving forward into the future. So we cannot avoid those things, but we also can't be trapped by them either. So being positive, and saying that, there is a place that we all want to go and I believe like Dr. King said, you know, you know we are going to live together as brothers or die together as fools. We have to do something collectively to move this work forward," Buster said.

While Buster will be working directly with the NHCE board for the time being, he is tasked with eventually building a team to help him oversee grant applications, investments, and the day-to-day operations of the endowment. His compensation information has not yet been released but it will be made public through required IRS financial reporting in the future.

Ben Schachtman is a journalist and editor with a focus on local government accountability. He began reporting for Port City Daily in the Wilmington area in 2016 and took over as managing editor there in 2018. He’s a graduate of Rutgers College and later received his MA from NYU and his PhD from SUNY-Stony Brook, both in English Literature.