"This is where I was supposed to end up."
by Jess McCuan . photo by Brent Fleury
Last fall, Elizabeth Brazas took the helm of one of Asheville’s most powerful philanthropic organizations, the Community Foundation of Western North Carolina, which has about $150 million in assets and last year doled out more than $10 million in grants to area nonprofits. As if that task wasn’t tall enough for a newcomer to Asheville, Brazas, 43, will be running a charitable organization at a time when even the wealthiest among us are feeling cautious. Last December, the Chronicle of Philanthropy polled 395 charities and found that a third of them expected total donations to decline by ten percent or more in 2009. Giving among the nation’s wealthiest was in a worse slump. In January, the Chronicle found that 2009’s ten biggest donations totaled just $2.7 billion, compared with $8 billion in 2008.
But Brazas feels she’s up to the task. She did, after all, survive 2009 as chief client services officer at the Threshold Group, a Gig Harbor, Washington, wealth management firm that works with 13 ultra-high net worth families. “It was a tough year for investments,” says Brazas, a New Jersey native who has had wealth management jobs at Morgan Stanley, Deloitte & Touche and Wachovia Bank. “I spent a lot of time thinking about the psychology of investing and being philanthropic.”
After longtime Community Foundation president Pat Smith retired last year, the foundation’s board scoured the country for a replacement and thought Brazas’ credentials and background made her a good fit. She majored in English at Davidson College near Charlotte and initially thought banking was boring. Many of her friends signed up for banking jobs directly after college. She went to law school instead, and became interested in estates and trusts in her first job out of school. Brazas had never lived in Asheville before she moved here last fall. (Her husband Stephen and six-year-old son Colin are still in Gig Harbor, Washington, waiting for their house to sell.) She says she’ll spend much of 2010 settling in, getting to know Asheville and making rounds to nonprofits and other groups the Community Foundation reaches. The foundation may not be as glamorous as Morgan Stanley or Deloitte & Touche, but Brazas likes it that way. “We’re not going to be bought out. We’re not going to merge with anybody,” Brazas says of the foundation. “That’s one of the reasons I’m here…I had a very circuitous path, but this is where I was supposed to end up.”