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The Power of Giving: The future of philanthropy without Norfolk Southern

This article was taken from Distinction, written by Victoria Bourne

When the Norfolk Southern Corporation quietly began operating from its new downtown Norfolk headquarters in 1982, an editorial in The Virginian-Pilot lauded the company’s arrival.

A small staff of about 75 had come from Roanoke, Washington, D.C., and Atlanta, half of them principal executives expected to not only live in Norfolk, but become active participants in civic, religious, cultural and political affairs. 

And that’s just what they did. They joined boards. They volunteered. They donated money. In the ensuing decades, the company’s reach has extended to dozens of organizations across Hampton Roads devoted to human services, the arts, education and the environment. 

So late last year, when Norfolk Southern announced it would relocate to Atlanta by summer of 2021 – taking with it around 500 employees – local nonprofits got nervous.


“My heart sank,” says Thaler McCormick, CEO of ForKids. “Throughout our organization, we’re very aware of how important Norfolk Southern has been to us.”

It’s ultimately unclear what size or shape philanthropic hole will be left in Norfolk Southern’s wake, but no one seems keen to see them go. From 2012 to 2018, the company – by way of its foundation created in 1983 to oversee charitable giving – contributed nearly $14 million locally, according to a review of online annual reports. And that’s not including employee matching funds, which reached at least $157,000 last year.

“I don’t think Norfolk Southern’s philanthropy will end in Hampton Roads,” McCormick says. “It will decline. And I do think this community is strong enough to sustain it, but we need everybody stepping forward to fill the void.” 

If nonprofits are the beating heart of a community, donors the likes of Norfolk Southern are their lifeblood. And the benefit of their largesse stretches beyond good feelings and pretty statues.

In 2012, there were more than 2,000 public charity nonprofit organizations in Hampton Roads paying approximately $2.6 billion in employee wages and benefits, according to a 2015 report by Old Dominion University. 

McCormick says Norfolk Southern was a “game changer,” for ForKids, one of the largest providers for homeless families in the state. 

Last year, the nonprofit received $200,000, but McCormick estimates the company has given more than a million in the past decade. It also was the first corporation to jump on a capital campaign toward the nonprofit’s new regional headquarters, which recently broke ground in Chesapeake.

“And of course, when Norfolk Southern said, ‘We believe in this,’ … the rest of the philanthropic community followed, too,” McCormick says.

Elena Montello, director of development of the Hope House Foundation, says there are a lot of great corporations in the area, but Norfolk Southern went “above and beyond” to support her organization’s unique mission, which is to provide services to people with intellectual and developmental disabilities in their own homes.