CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Nonprofit board meetings are generally dull affairs, but twice lately at the quarterly Clay Center board meetings, someone has wondered out loud who will be the next generation of civic-minded volunteers who will step forward to lead.
It is a question without a simple answer.
In the mid-1980s, the Thomas family sold a coal business and the Clay brothers sold the family's newspaper business, events that ushered in a golden quarter-century of Charleston civic leadership and philanthropy.
When the Thomases sold Carbon Fuel Co. in 1985, Jim and Newton Thomas had more time to serve on nonprofit boards and ask people they knew to make big charitable gifts. When Lyell and Buckner Clay sold the Charleston Daily Mail, the Beckley Register-Herald and a few TV stations in 1987, they established the Clay Foundation, which quickly became the biggest charitable giver in Charleston.
Newton Thomas once led the Clay Center board, Jim Thomas was an active board member, and Nancy Thomas, Newton's wife, once led the board of Sunrise Museum, later folded into the Clay Center. They were all regulars at Clay Center board meetings. Today, the Clay Center board is without a Thomas.
The Clay Foundation closed its doors in 2010, having spent down much of its funds over 23 years, then quickly committing the rest over a final few months.
John McClaugherty, who had envisioned the Clay Center and worked tirelessly to make it happen, died in 2003 a few months before it opened. Thad Epps, the former Union Carbide spokesman who had spent retirement calling on friends and asking them to donate money, died the same year.
Who has replaced these giants?
"They are fewer and farther between," said Becky Ceperley, CEO of the Greater Kanawha Valley Foundation.
The name that comes up most often is Tom Heywood, 56 and a law partner at Bowles Rice. Heywood sits on the Clay Center board and is chairman of both the Kanawha Valley Council on Philanthropy and the Library Foundation of Kanawha County, the group raising money for a planned new downtown library.
"Tom is very generous with his time," Ceperley said. "But he needs help. It can't all rest on one individual. If a community is going to thrive, it needs many more people to step up."
Civic generosity hasn't vanished, but it has changed, Ceperley said. "The next generation thinks about it differently. They tend to want to make a difference in their lifetime. They're not as focused on leaving a legacy. In the past it was, 'This area has been good to me.'"
Civic gratitude has remained the motivation for Betty Schoenbaum, widow of Shoney's founder Alex Schoenbaum, Ceperley said. "Mrs. Schoenbaum tells people how fortunate she is to be able to make these contributions and give back to a community that has meant so much to her and her family."
Heywood said he grew up and came of age professionally into a world where civic giving was the norm. "If you've seen it at home, it comes natural to you. To the extent I do this and enjoy it, it's because I see others around me doing it," Heywood said.
A pipeline of people continues to give time and money, Heywood said.
But Charleston was once a larger city with more such people, Heywood said. The corporate base that generated so much talent, energy and money has dwindled. Union Carbide shrank, sold to Dow, and then shrank some more, especially in the number of research chemists and chemical engineers who worked at Carbide's vast Technical Center.
"They were the stalwarts," Heywood said. "They provided funding and a base of volunteers."
People continue to accumulate philanthropic wealth, but it's hard to predict where or when someone might establish a major foundation like the Clays did, Heywood said. It might come from anywhere, perhaps eventually from a group of people now in their 20s and 30s who have joined the group Generation Charleston, which has dedicated itself to making Charleston a better place to live and has focused on, among things, bringing more housing to the downtown.
"Where's that next generation?" Heywood said, repeating a question. "Here's a group that has self-identified themselves."
Kyle Mork spent four years in Charleston when he was a boy and his father, John Mork, was running Eastern American Energy. His father went back to Colorado in 1991 and continues to run the privately held company, now called Energy Corporation of America. By 2004, when Kyle Mork returned to Charleston, he had an engineering degree from Cornell University. He leads the company's oil and gas exploration efforts in West Virginia and Pennsylvania, where the company drills deep wells in the Marcellus Shale.
In much of the 20th century, the wealthiest West Virginians often made their money in coal. They lived in Southern West Virginia, often in the big cities of Huntington and Charleston.
Now, the coal industry has hit a rough patch, Mork said. But the Marcellus Shale is generating new fortunes, much of it in the northern part of the state. His company has its own philanthropic foundation. "I've been asked to work on all sorts of things," said the younger Mork, 33, referring to his civic and philanthropic work. "My problem is finding the time."
"Every nonprofit wants to bring aboard the next generation," said Judy Wellington, Clay Center president and CEO. "But they're the ones building their careers, so they don't have enough time."
All nonprofits face challenges, but the Clay Center also faces a unique one because it absorbed the former Sunrise Museum three years after it opened, Wellington said. Because of the merger, leaders reconstituted the board, put board members on three-year terms, staggered the terms, and restarted the clock for all board members. Three three-year terms is the limit.
"They're all starting to term out," Wellington said. "Twenty of our 42 members will term out over the next three years." They can sit out a year and return, but often they do not, and leaders have to find new blood, either among Heywood's generation, where those who have time to give have already made their commitments, or the next one down, where those who have the urge to give are still building careers and family.
Wellington said that when she arrived in Charleston to run Sunrise in 2000, Newton and Jim Thomas were dominant players in the nonprofit world. "They were devoted to community service, and they had more disposable time. Kyle Mork and his wife just had a baby," Wellington said. "So you can see the difference."
Former Gazette reporter Bob Schwarz continues to occasionally report from his home in Phoenix.