Seeking a successor – Lambeth retirement tests ZSR

By Todd Cohen

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. – Applicants are lining up for one of the most prized jobs in Tar Heel philanthropy.

The job has been held for 22 years by Tom Lambeth, who last fall announced he will retire July 1 as executive director of the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation.

As a result of letters sent to 175 North Carolinians asking for recommendations and suggestions, a board nominating committee has begun talking to potential candidates, with the full board scheduled to meet candidates in early April.

Lambeth’s departure creates a big challenge for the foundation’s trustees to take stock of an organization that has been instrumental in spurring North Carolina’s growth and progress.

“They are an important entity in the public life of this state,” says Gayle Dorman, executive director of the Winston-Salem-based Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation, which shares Reynolds’ tobacco roots.

“If I were sitting on that board,” she says, “I would be thinking very carefully about the role the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation has played in North Carolina and doing some evaluation about that role and thinking toward the future.”

Raleigh consultant Beth Briggs is coordinating the search by the Reynolds trustees for Lambeth’s successor.

Reynolds, with more than $450 million in assets, is the largest general-purpose foundation in the state that contributes only to North Carolina nonprofit groups. In 2000, the foundation will make grants totaling more than $20 million.

Under Lambeth, who has been its executive director since 1978, the foundation has continually refined its focus, which for the past decade has been on pre-collegiate education, the environment, community economic development and issues affecting minorities and women.

And while Reynolds also makes grants for a wide range of other purposes to nonprofits groups and government agencies, it also played the critical role of helping get new initiatives started.

The foundation, for example, was instrumental in creating the Public School Forum of North Carolina, as well as the statewide initiative to generate public and private support for community development corporations throughout the state.

“We have clearly inspired the creation of institutions and organizations,” Lambeth said.

Babcock’s Dorman said Lambeth has played two critical roles –championing diversity within the philanthropic community and helping to define “the role of the nonprofit sector and philanthropy in relationship to the public sector.”

Under his leadership, she said, Reynolds has been “willing and aggressive about supporting community-based activity of just plain folks, hardworking folks, who have a passion about their communities all over the state.”

The foundation also has helped the state “face some tough issues at the policy level and at the public opinion level,” she said.

As a result, she said, the Reynolds trustees now face two tasks — assessing the role the foundation has carved for itself, and finding an executive director “who comes in understanding both the possibilities and limitations of that role and is willing to be a leader in playing the role the board wants the foundation to play.”

Lambeth, a leader in North Carolina philanthropy and politics for four decades, said Reynolds and the foundation world generally face a big challenge in maintaining their independence responsibly.

“We have power because we have money, and to abuse it would be reprehensible,” he said. “To fail to use it would, I think, be almost as bad.”

Lambeth has been a strong advocate for foundations to support public activities, get involved in public policy and be a partner with government – roles that he says require balance.

“I think it’s a challenge to know how to play that role and at the same time not destroy our special character as private institutions with a public trust and responsibility,” he said.

Equally challenging, he said, is for foundations to be responsive to nonprofit groups that receive grants without falling prey to their demands.

“I think it’s possible to be sensitive to the needs of grantee organizations without letting them define our character,” he said. “There are arguments that we need greater equity between grantseeker and grantmaker, and there’s no way that ever can be equitable. We have the money and we have the accountability.”

Lambeth has been a major player in the state since serving as chief of staff to Gov. Terry Sanford, who was elected in 1960. He then worked for four years on the staff of the Smith Richardson Foundation in Greensboro and for 10 years as administrative assistant to U.S. Rep. Richardson Preyer before joining Reynolds.

He has served on numerous statewide commissions and boards. He was chairman, for example, of the board of trustees of the University of North Carolina and currently is on the Rural Prosperity Task Force created by Gov. Jim Hunt.

He also has been a national leader in the foundation world. He is chair of the Committee on Family Philanthropy of the national Council on Foundations, and is chair of the board of directors of the National Center for Family Philanthropy.

Lambeth’s retirement plans come in the wake of recent departures by some of the deans of Tar Heel philanthropy. William Friday and William Spencer both retired this year as the heads, respectively, of the William R. Kenan Jr. Charitable Trust in Chapel Hill and the Foundation for the Carolinas in Charlotte. And in 1997, Henry Carter retired as executive director of the Winston-Salem Foundation.

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