Party with a Purpose

Philanthropy at the Oregon Country Fair

The Oregon Country Fair has incubated a sense of community ever since the first Fair in 1969 raised funds for a children’s school.

Those early efforts fit the simpler times. Throughout the 1970s, Fair co-coordinators Bill and Cynthia Wooten would call all the crew coordinators together after each Fair for a meeting. There, they would decide by consensus which area nonprofit would get a slice of that year’s Fair proceeds. Coordinators funded programs that reflected Fair values, including the Whiteaker community Thanksgiving Dinner and the WOW Hall community performing arts center.

Starting in 1982 after the organization purchased the flood zone along the Long Tom River where the Fair had been held each summer, organizers prioritized paying off the mortgage for the property. Formal donations dwindled for a decade, although the board approved a couple of loans to the WOW Hall during the 1980s that were subsequently repaid. 

The Fair’s philanthropic mission gained new focus in the 1990s after the original mortgage got paid off. In August 1990, a mortgage-burning ceremony was held at the Main Stage meadow during the annual volunteer appreciation Teddy Bears’ Picnic.

The Fair had always supported a unique three-day arts and cultural festival, but the organization has blossomed over the last few decades into a successful nonprofit that now donates thousands of dollars annually to community nonprofits. As of 2019, the Fair has donated well over a million dollars.

Throughout the year, the Oregon Country Fair board donates money from a dedicated fund. The board grants support a wide range of organizations whose missions resonate with Fair volunteers and Fairgoers such as the Earth Day planning, Eugene Peace Choir, Community Alliance of Lane County peace scholarships, the WOW Hall, Whiteaker Community Dinners and Skipping Stones magazine.

The Fair has two annual grant programs as well. In 1992, the board established the Oregon Country Fair Endowment Fund. It was renamed the OCF Bill Wooten Endowment Fund to honor Fair co-founder and visionary Bill Wooten after he died in January 1995.

Each year, the board puts a percentage of the Fair’s proceeds into the endowment, which supports art education as well as after-school and summer programs for youths in west Lane County. When Oregon’s Measure 5 caused budget cuts and local schools trimmed extracurricular activities, the Fair’s endowment program helped bridge the gap for Fern Ridge School District arts programs. Fern Ridge schools have received grants for arts programs — which often combine the arts with exploration of cultural diversity or environmental themes — nearly every year since.

Other endowment grant projects include the art tile mural found at the Fern Ridge Library, student-generated art projects at the Skatepark in Veneta, and ropes courses at Camp Wilani, to name a few. Since it began, the Fair’s endowment fund has donated more than half a million dollars to promote arts education in the Fern Ridge community.

In 1996, the board authorized a volunteer-driven effort to create the Jill Heiman Vision Fund, which honors the attorney who helped the Country Fair find its legal footing. Jill helped the Fair obtain its status as a recognized nonprofit, she protected the Fair with a successful lawsuit against Lane County and she facilitated the Fair’s land purchase. 

After Heiman died in 1991, her friends persuaded the board to create the fund to honor Heiman’s legacy of giving to the community. After graduating from the University of Oregon Law School, Heiman and Gretchen Miller, another UO grad, had opened the first women-owned law firm in Eugene. Heiman & Miller specialized in advising worker-owned cooperatives, and Heiman was also widely known as an affordable and effective attorney for nonprofit groups.

Fittingly, grantees of the Jill Heiman Vision Fund have included FOOD for Lane County, White Bird Clinic, the Northwest Coalition for Alternative to Pesticides, the Relief Nursery, WomenSpace, Egan Warming Center, Mid-Lane Cares, Florence Food Share, Lane Senior Support Center, and dozens of other nonprofits.

Every year volunteers set up boxes at Fair information booths to accept donations to the Jill Heiman Vision Fund. The Fair board meets the challenge by matching individual donations with Fair proceeds. Many food booths donate tips or profits each year. Over the years, the board has raised its matching grants. Now the board gives $2 for every $1 donated to the fund, with an annual cap of $25,000. As of 2018, the Jill Heiman Vision Fund has donated more than $550,000 to nonprofits in Lane County. For the Fair’s 50th anniversary, volunteers for the fund have set a goal of raising $50,000.

In 2001, the Fair sponsored the first Culture Jam, a weeklong camp for teens held on a parcel of the Fair’s property known as Alice’s Wonderland. The youth empowerment camp features arts-based workshops designed to help teens discover their creative potential and sense of purpose. Youths are offered opportunities to interact and learn from artists, nature educators and activists on topics as diverse as circus arts, writing, singing, spoken word, painting, drumming and nature appreciation.

Almost 300 youths have participated in Culture Jam, calling it “enlightening… life-changing.” There’s a waiting list every year.