You could say she virtually introduced the word ‘philanthropy’ into Queenstowners’ vocabulary. Arrowtowner Jennifer Belmont launched the Wakatipu Community Foundation five years ago last month, after founding one back home in the United States. PHILIP CHANDLER talks to her about what she loves about philanthropy, and what’s the cause closest to her heart
Queenstown’s in debt to an American who’s turbo-charged philanthropy in the resort.
Wakatipu Community Foundation (WCF) — launched five years ago — is the idea of Jennifer Belmont, who’s also been CEO since day one.
In this time, it’s granted $2.5 million-plus to community initiatives and raised $30m in wills-based endowments this area will largely benefit from.
Belmont, who passes all the credit onto the generosity of the local community — ‘‘I just kind of was able to provide a vehicle for this’’ — has volunteered all her adult life.
‘‘I think you meet the best people, volunteering.’’
Raised in Maine, in the US, her family, who were in the hotel business, can trace their roots to the Mayflower’s voyage from England in 1620.
Her first fundraiser was at grad school for African famine relief, via Red Cross.
Her motivation, she says, was ‘‘just trying to make a difference’’.
‘‘I can’t stand injustices — I don’t want to say what my politics are, but I can say I’m the most liberal in my family.’’
Her first job was administering a law firm in Los Angeles.
While in California, she helped start a foundation at a school her sons James and Christian attended.
‘‘Then we moved to Utah and I helped start a community foundation there.’’
As Christian was a ski racer, Belmont decided to move to New Zealand so he could get some off-season training, specifically choosing Queenstown as Coronet Peak had a sealed road, with guard rails, so it’d be safer than other ski areas.
Like many other immigrants, however, they decided to stay — Wakatipu High’s Branches Camp, which Christian loved, was the determinant, she says.
The immigration process, however, was ‘‘really difficult — we just got permanent residency last year’’.
After Christian broke both feet, she recalls being in Lakes District Hospital thinking, ‘‘this is like a Third World hospital, someone must be building a hospital, I’ll go help them — surely there’s a community foundation, they will know’’.
There wasn’t one, but Belmont did discover the Wakatipu High School Foundation had just started, so then spent the next three years as its CEO.
In the back of her mind, though, she wanted to start a community foundation.
She even undertook, partly online, a programme at the US’s Harvard University, for part of which she did a case study ‘‘that then was the basis for a community foundation here’’.
Belmont initially roped in charity queen Kaye Parker, investor/philanthropist, the late Sir Eion Edgar, and investor Mark Taylor as ambassadors, and, with help from Community Foundations of NZ and the Tindall Foundation, launched WCF in 2018.
She admits progress was slow at first — such foundations had been around in the US for 100-plus years but were ‘‘very nascent’’ in NZ.
A lot of Kiwis didn’t like the word ‘philanthropy’, she found.
‘‘They thought it was too grand of a word, but when you break it down, ‘phil’ means ‘to love’, ‘anthropy’ means ‘each other’, so it’s my favourite word.’’
In 2019, she also inspired Wakatipu High to start its ‘Generation Give’ programme, through Youth Philanthropy NZ, which Christian and two friends got underway.
She says the breakthrough came when Parker set up WCF’s ‘Greatest Needs Fund’ when Covid struck, to help vulnerable migrants, in particular.
That fund raised $1.2m, which Belmont intends spinning off as a legacy fund.
She says the Impact100 programme also saw many local women get onto ‘‘the philanthropy bandwagon’’.
Latterly, WCF’s got involved in helping many local organisations and fundraisers like the newly-launched Love Queenstown and Love Wānaka funding platforms.
Belmont says the arts are one cause special to her.
‘‘I’m a moderately-bad classical pianist, and I think it has helped me through many, many difficult days.
‘‘And I can see, just talking to artists, how it’s very cathartic for them to create these pieces.’’
Belmont’s proud WCF’s one of NZ’s fastest-growing community foundations, and loves the model whereby, once $25m is under management, it’s self-sufficient in terms of admin costs.
She’s keen to continue fostering philanthropy because there’s so much need, and says even if you’re not rich, you can contribute, for example by cooking for someone in need.
‘‘I’ll probably die doing this.
‘‘I was talking to Sir Eion, before he passed away, and he said it was one of his greatest joy — same for me, and some salvation, too.’’