By Mark Jurkowitz | Outer Banks Voice on February 25, 2021
After eight years at the helm of the Outer Banks Community Foundation (OBCF), its Executive Director Lorelei Costa will be departing in a few weeks to become Executive Director and CEO of the Suffolk Center for Cultural Arts in Virginia. She leaves the OBCF as a significantly stronger organization than when she arrived, essentially tripling the size of its endowment, grant making and staff.
Costa describes her decision to leave the Foundation as one closely connected to events in her “personal life,” including a relatively new relationship and her son having graduated high school. Bob Muller will act as interim director while the OBCF board launches a search for Costa’s replacement.
As she ends her tenure here, Costa talked to the Voice about a number of subjects — including Dare County, its culture of philanthropy and the health of the nonprofit sector. Questions are edited for clarity. Answers edited for length.
Q: Why does there seem to be such a large and robust nonprofit sector here on the Outer Banks. What are the factors behind it?
A: I think The Outer Banks has a very strong culture of philanthropy and giving and volunteerism and it feeds itself…For the most part, the people who are able to relocate here feel very lucky that they were able to relocate here and also aware that not all of their neighbors that are not as lucky as they are.
I think we’ve got a lot of retired folks here who come from amazing, prestigious careers who have a lot of expertise in various fields who want to contribute that expertise to making their community a better place…But you’ve also got families who have been here for generations who have seen their parents and their grandparents help each other through times of crisis — and there’s a culture to the locals who have been here for so long helping each other.
Q: Are there any particular reasons for why there seem to be so much philanthropy and giving here?
A: The biggest factor is sort of this peer pressure about giving and philanthropy. Until the [COVID] pandemic, it was a huge part of socializing on the Outer Banks, the different fundraisers…If you’re a business owner, you’re expected to be on the board of at least one nonprofit. Certain social sets were all about volunteerism and philanthropy in a lot of different neighborhoods.
Q: In your eight years, do you think it’s become easier or harder for ordinary folks to make ends meet in Dare County? Or is it about the same?
A: The gap [between those well-off and those struggling] has grown wider in 2020 because there seems to be this big mismatch between what the real estate market is doing — which drives up housing prices—and what you make for your daily living…I’m not sure that dynamic works for people who are trying to rent and people who are trying to move here, trying to buy their first home here.
Q: What about the ‘essential’ housing effort undertaken by Dare County to try and create more reasonably priced housing for the workforce here?
A: I’m thrilled that the county is taking this seriously and taking steps. I’m in the wait-and-see mode in terms of trying to judge whether that’s enough, whether that will make a difference for enough people.
Q: You mentioned that there are about 200 non-profits locally, which include those that work only on the Outer Banks and those that have a substantial presence here. Is there enough philanthropy to sustain them all?
A: There is some regular churn [in the non-profit sector] and in 2020, we saw more of that…We did have some non-profits close their doors in 2020…I think the non-profit sector across the county is worried about that dynamic due to COVID, particularly with arts organizations…Nonprofits that relied on group gatherings, on mass gatherings for their fundraising, don’t have a revenue source unless they evolve quickly.
Q: At this point, Costa was asked to bring up any issues she wanted to talk about. One was the people she worries the most about during the COVID pandemic.
A: The two groups of people who are most on my mind at his point in the pandemic are young people, who are missing all of that socialization with their peers, who are missing interacting with their teachers, who aren’t getting those positive examples from their peers in terms of social skills. And all of the older folks and people with health conditions who have been very, very careful in terms of isolating and who are lonely and sad. [There are] mental issues with both sets. I’m very worried about the old folks and the young folks.
Q: The other issue she brought up concerns race and Dare County’s connection to the rest of northeastern North Carolina.
A: To me, 2020 was a huge year from our country in terms of national politics, in terms of pandemic, but [also] in terms of just really hard moments in thinking about race and discrimination and racism in this country. And I think this is something that the Outer Banks is going to have to grapple with soon.
[The peaceful demonstration in Manteo in the wake of the George Floyd killing] was a very respectful and solemn event. I was really proud of our community at that moment. I think, though, that Dare County is a wealthy white pocket in northeastern North Carolina and we’re part of a larger region where there are people who have a lot of economic hardship and disadvantages. And many of those counties are places that are majority African American, which is in sharp contrast to Dare County.
We take care of our own in Dare County and it’s something I’ve been proud to be a part of. But we are also part of a bigger region and I would love to see our organizations start to think more about our place in northeast North Carolina, especially as we have more workers commuting in and out because of the high cost of living here…I think the non-profit sector can lead that.