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UNITY – Bert Clifford dreams big.
Though his beginnings were humble – milking cows at dawn, driving a school bus that doubled as a chicken delivery truck – Clifford never stopped thinking about bringing good things to Unity. And when he succeeded in a big way financially, Clifford used his wealth, resources and connections to make big things happen in his hometown.
Now in his 70s, and facing health problems, no one would blame Clifford for sitting back and reflecting on his many accomplishments, both entrepreneurial and philanthropic. But according to his friends and colleagues, that’s just not how the man operates.
“I’ve got to admit, I’m a dreamer,” Clifford said Friday from the stage of the 200-seat Unity Centre for the Performing Arts, the latest infrastructure improvement his money built in the town.
Clifford, his wife Coral, and a host of central Maine community leaders had gathered there to announce the launching of the Unity Foundation. The nonprofit organization will not only be a financial angel for Unity College, Good Will-Hinckley Homes for Boys and Girls, and the Four Square Foundation, but it will blaze a new path for philanthropy by offering more than just grants.
Following a model that is being used in national charitable foundations, the Unity Foundation will use what its president, Lawrence Sterrs, referred to as “venture philanthropy.”
The idea, he explained, is to bring business skills to nonprofit organizations.
Along with announcing the start of the Unity Foundation, the Cliffords, Sterrs and Vice President Dorothy Freeman broke ground Friday for a new building to house its offices. The 9,000-square-foot, two-story, Georgian-style brick building will provide a place where those who run nonprofits, big and small, can come to learn fundraising, budgeting, planning, board governance and other skills.
“We would like to be known as the group that certifies fund-raisers,” Sterrs said, creating a consistent level of professionalism in that skill that others would recognize.
The “strategic grant-making” the foundation will undertake will be geared toward sustaining the nonprofit recipients, Sterrs said.
“We’re going to be looking for results,” he said, and rather than merely handing out checks, the foundation will work with groups to help them manage their money better so they can focus on their missions.
Foundation staff will also network with people in the business community, putting them in touch with managers of nonprofits for managerial assistance. Much of this help might come at no cost to the foundation, Sterrs said.
But like most everything Clifford commits to, Unity Foundation will not be cash-poor. The organization takes its first steps with $5 million in assets.
And though Unity Foundation steps onto the state philanthropy stage in the top 10 percent of some 300 foundations in Maine measured by the size of its assets, Clifford is not content to let it stay there.
Sterrs said he hopes to see that amount triple or quadruple in the coming years. The plan also is to have the foundation reach out to New England and then the rest of the U.S. Clifford has a track record of bold initiatives in his small hometown.
In 1965, after struggling to find the right college for his son and not finding the right fit in Maine, Clifford led a group that established Unity College in Maine, not in the nearby city of Waterville or down the road in Bangor, but in Unity, a town of about 2000, surrounded by farmland in western Waldo County.
In the 1970s, he helped build Unity Leisure Homes, a retirement complex his critics didn’t think would work. It did, and when the homes were full, Sandy Stream Village was built to accommodate the increasing demand.
After his purchase of the Unity Telephone Company evolved into Unitel, and the cellular portion was sold and became Unicel, Clifford became a very wealthy man.
That wealth spurred Clifford to become even more active in Unity in the last decade. He built Clifford Common, an imposing business park in the small downtown, and helped convince a bank to set up shop there. Clifford Common is also home to the post office and the town office. As landlord, Clifford cut sweetheart deals for the tenants which they could not refuse.
Also in the late 1990s, he purchased controlling interest in the Belfast and Moosehead Lake Railroad, and built a tourist-oriented station house off Depot Street. Remembering the days when steam locomotives ran through the village, Clifford purchased a steam engine and 10 passenger cars from Sweden, and had them shipped to Maine.
He and Coral’s interest in young people prompted them to build the Field of Dreams, a large athletic complex with baseball, softball and soccer fields, basketball and volleyball courts, and a playground on land near Lake Winnecook. The fields are open to the public.
Clifford said words that often come out of his mouth are, “Wow, I’ve got an idea,” which often causes his wife of 58-years to exclaim, “Oh, no, not again.”
Clifford said in the days when he drove his school bus to area farms delivering chicks from the hatchery, “I saw towns around me that weren’t doing very well. I would not let that happen to my town, [I wouldn’t let it] die on the vine,” he said.
As part of the announcement Friday, the Unity Foundation issued its first grants: $25,000 to Unity College to assist with its master plan – the 500-student institution is growing fast; and $25,000 to Good Will-Hinckley Homes for Boys and Girls, a school on the banks of the Kennebec River that assists needy children.
The third favored institution partnered with the Unity Foundation is the Four Square Foundation, a catchall organization that grew out of Good Will-Hinckley which makes it easy for people to donate funds to a host of philanthropies.
On Monday, Unity Foundation’s Web site – unityfoundation.net – will be accessible.