By Todd Cohen
WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — Tom Ross is getting the best of both worlds.
On Jan. 2, when he becomes executive director of the $500 million-asset Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation in Winston-Salem, Ross will take over an organization that is well-built, smooth-running and indispensable to the state.
But Ross, a Greensboro Superior Court judge and director of the state Administrative Office of the Courts, also will have a chance to make his mark quickly on North Carolina’s most influential philanthropic group.
“It’s a well-oiled machine,” says Beth Briggs, a donor adviser in Raleigh who helped the Reynolds trustees find a successor to Tom Lambeth, the retiring executive director. “There is a real advantage to coming into an organization where everything is in place.”
Because of the departure this year of Lambeth and three other senior executives, the program officer with the most seniority at the foundation when Ross reports for work will be Joy Vermillion, a 1998 graduate of Wake Forest University.
Ross “can immediately have a real personal impact on what the foundation looks like and how it operates,” says Lambeth, who has headed the foundation for 22 years.
“Clearly the selection of people is one of the real ways that you develop the character of an institution,” he says, adding that Ross will be able to build the staff “much more quickly and without any pain”
Under Lambeth, who previously was a top aide to the late Gov. Terry Sanford and to former U.S. Rep. Richardson Preyer, the foundation has become a major policy voice and force for progress in the state.
Diverse in its grantmaking, the foundation funds grass-roots groups and established institutions alike. It fosters risk-taking and new initiatives that challenge the status quo or seek to fill unmet needs. And it takes on tough issues, such as poverty, race relations, public education and the environment.
In the process, the foundation has woven itself into the fabric of the state. Not overtly ideological, it is innately political, having created a deep and broad network of grantees, advisors, partners and former board members and fellows.
“The Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation is political in the best sense,” says Lambeth. “We have built credibility based on the perception that we know about all 100 counties.”
Under his watch, he says, the foundation has aimed to “stay relevant”, a challenge that he says will continue.
The foundation strives to stay in tune with people, events and emerging leaders, he says, and to anticipate emerging issues and not be “caught by surprise.”
That strategy is critical, he says, in a state deeply divided along geographic, economic and political lines.
And because the foundation by itself may not be able to make big changes happen, he says, “maybe the best we can do is not change anything but create an environment in which others can change things.”
Briggs, president of Raleigh donor consultant Creative Philanthropy, says that Ross will benefit from working with an unusually “strong, visionary board, a board that really does assume leadership for the organization.”
She says she expects Ross and the trustees to set their own strategy and direction, adding some “interesting new developments.”
Lambeth and his two long-time program officers — Joe Kilpatrick, who resigned to work full-time with an all-volunteer group, and Valeria Lee, who will head the new Golden Leaf Foundation — “are the key philanthropists in the state,” Briggs says.
“It is a change and change is always frightening,” she says, “but I think it’s very exciting because we’re spreading that talent into other organizations throughout the state.”