This past Saturday, adults and children lined up at the Williamstown Youth Center for the ninth annual Fun Run. Participants had the choice of a 5k Run or a mile-long Kid’s Run and Family Walk. Both routes ran past the numerous volunteer-run refreshment stations that were temporarily set up around the town. The body responsible for this annual affair is the Williamstown Community Chest (WCC), which uses the Fun Run as a fundraising event for the many charities it supports. The 89-year-old Chest is one of the few community chests remaining in the U.S.
The WCC supports 16 Berkshire agencies, including the Brien Center for Mental Health & Substance Abuse Services, the Elizabeth Freeman Center and United Cerebral Palsy. Each organization goes through a selection process that includes an application and a review by a selection board. In an attempt to include programs that cover a wide spectrum of community need, the board checks for certain criteria of efficiency and usefulness, considers whether similar services already exist in other agencies the WCC supports and analyzes its ability to support the organization. Once an agency gets funding from the WCC, it goes under review periodically to ensure that donations are being used effectively. According to Anne Singleton, who has served as executive director for the past 21 years, the agencies are passionate about their work and resourceful with every dollar allocated by the WCC.
A new fundraising campaign begins in early October each year, when volunteers begin sending out over 1000 letters to households in Williamstown to ask for donations. As part of its campaign, the WCC also hosts the Penny Social on the first Saturday in December, when people gather at Lasell Gym to bid on prizes donated by local businesses. The Social and Fun Run don’t just raise money. They also bring the community together and get the WCC’s message out to the public.
“The money comes from the donors definitely,” Singleton said. “Some donate every year, and I love how, no matter what the size of the contribution and no matter who made the contribution, it all comes together to make a difference. We always hope to gain more participants.”
While these raffles and fundraisers are exciting, they aren’t the only way that the WCC raises money; most of the donated funds come in the form of checks in the mail.
One of the big obstacles the WCC has faced recently is the effect that technology has had on the way people give. Today, anyone can donate to any charity anywhere in the world, simply by entering a credit card number, so the interest in a community chest is not what it once was. At one point, giving to a community chest meant that a donor knew those funds would be distributed among many different worthy charities according to need. The WCC created a website with a donation option in an effort to keep up with current technological and philanthropic trends, but the strength of the organization lies largely in the importance that it has as a community keystone. Singleton affirmed that contributions have gone up during her time there, with more donations being made online each year. The 2015-16 campaign aimed to raise $260,000, and, as of the Fun Run, the WCC was only about $9000 short of this goal. Additionally, because its endowment covers the overhead costs, every penny raised goes directly to supporting the organizations.
“Everyone needs help and [the WCC] creates a lot of opportunity for growth. It’s important that our community get to know one another,” Singleton said, adding that people’s capacity to create personal connections and work together constitutes, a “hope for our world. I once heard Williamstown described as an isolated mountain hamlet, and I’ve never felt that way,” she said. “But there are challenges. That’s why different points of view are so important; people need to come together to solve them.”
The WCC’s social events and huge volunteer efforts bring the community members together and introduce a discourse on the issues in Williamstown and the Berkshires. This exchange creates a thrumming web of support and interest beneath the surface of what outsiders might easily mistake as a rural town with little connection to the outside world.
So what is Singleton’s message for the College? Mostly, a thank you. The faculty and retirees of the College donate about a third of the WCC’s total contributions, and the College matches 50 percent of donations. The students also play a big part through the volunteering they do, not only with the WCC’s member agencies, but also within the community at large.