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The Dive: William Buster's abrupt exit from the New Hanover Community Endowment

Former New Hanover Community Endowment president and CEO William Buster. A tall, broad-shouldered Black man, he's wearing a tan blazer and yellow dress shirt, looking into the distance while standing with his back to the Cape Fear River. The iconic Cape Fear Memorial Bridge appears in the background.
Andrew Craft - The Assembly
Former New Hanover Community Endowment president and CEO William Buster.

Every week, WHQR's Ben Schachtman sits down with The Assembly's Johanna Still to talk about our joint newsletter, The Dive. This week, a surprising exit from the president of the New Hanover Community Endowment.

For The Dive, Benjamin Schachtman dug in the Endowment's silence, and what's behind it, in the wake of William Buster's abrupt exit: Out With the New

The Dive is a free weekly newsletter offering insight, context, and perspectives on Wilmington and the Cape Fear region. It's co-produced by WHQR and The Assembly, a digital magazine covering power and place in North Carolina. You can subscribe here.

Ben Schachtman: All right, Johanna, we're here this week to talk about a major shakeup at the New Hanover County endowment.

Johanna Still: The President and CEO William Buster abruptly resigned, which was very surprising news to a lot of people in the nonprofit community. Of course, the Endowment sits on over a billion dollars that was generated from the sale of the once-county-owned hospital. And what you broke down for us is a little bit of an insight into how and why he left. And I know that a lot of this reporting is based on some off-the-record conversations. So there's not a ton that you can say publicly, out loud. But I would love to just get a little bit of a sense of what can you absolutely confirm from all of those conversations that you've had?

BS: Sure. So, one thing I can confirm is that William Buster was pushed out of the New Hanover Community Endowment. And there's some evidence for that in the public record. For example, many times, you know, people leave in endowments all the time, William Buster left the Dogwood Trust in Asheville, after about two years to come here to the New Hanover Community Endowment. But Buster hasn't announced any new positions. There also hasn't been any single catastrophic misstep that Buster has made, at least not publicly that we've been aware of, that would lead the board to say, you know, we've got to, we've got to get rid of him. And this is compounded by the fact that the endowment has offered absolutely no explanation for what's going on here and pretty much refused to engage with the press on this issue at all.

JS: I mean, I think that they spent half a year searching for just the right person to lead. And so in a lot of ways, when you think about how he and others talked about what the Endowment planned to do, it felt like he had really just gotten started.

BS: That was his most frequent response to criticisms. And over here at WHQR and in The Assembly, we had written some pieces, looking at where the Endowment was maybe struggling to connect with the community, struggling to figure out the right grant proposals to tackle some of the issues that they were looking at — most notably affordable housing and homelessness. And one of the things William Buster would always say was, you know, we're a very young organization, you know, give us time. And I do think that's fair. I think if you look at many major philanthropic organizations, it takes them 5-10 years to really become part of the community.

JS: And so you say he was pushed out, and that's what we know. That's what we can confirm. Can you share any other context into, you know, what was that philosophical discord?

BS: Sure. So I think it's important to note here that the New Hanover County Community Endowment's board has become Whiter and more conservative over the last year with the appointment of former Republican county commissioners, Woody White and Pat Kusak, and the removal of Hannah Gage, and Dr. Virginia Adams, who was a Black woman, the only Black appointee by the county. And so I've heard a lot, especially from the Black community that pushing William Buster out looked racially motivated. I can't say I've seen any evidence for that. What I can say is that, over the last few years, we've seen Buster's, big picture vision, some of these big swings that he wanted to take at social problems here in New Hanover County, as maybe not even in disagreement with the county wanted, but it was it seemed that the Endowment was independent, and that Buster was calling the shots and leading the charge. And that the Endowment, from the point of view of the county and the county commissioners who created it, always imagined this as an organization that was much more closely tied to the county and the county strategic plan, and in many ways, acting almost like an auxiliary part of the county government.

JS: And that particular point you're making is really interesting, because the actual genesis of the Endowment kind of dealt with how independent can this organization be? How independent must it be to prevent it from being politicized. And so that's a really interesting point that this is still coming up still. It's still bubbling.

BS: I know that you and I will probably end up doing a lot more reporting on that tension. The Endowment will be around in perpetuity. We won't, but in the short term, I think we will probably be looking at this issue quite a bit. But for now, Johanna, thanks for joining us.

JS: Thanks, Ben.

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. He loves spending time with his wife and playing rock'n'roll very loudly. You can reach him at BSchachtman@whqr.org and find him on Twitter @Ben_Schachtman.