ZSR taking stock – Limit on grant requests

By Todd Cohen

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — Change is in the works at the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation in Winston-Salem, but don’t expect it until the second half of 2001 — after the foundation’s trustees and incoming executive director take a hard look at its operations, impact and focus.

“Part of the reason the board hired me is because they want someone to be a change agent, to find different ways of doing business,” says Tom Ross, who in January will succeed Tom Lambeth as executive director of the $515 million-asset foundation, North Carolina’s largest all-purpose foundation.

While any big changes won’t take place until later next year, however, some nonprofits planning to submit grant applications to the foundation by its next deadline on Feb. 1, 2001, may have to wait until Aug. 1.

For the February deadline, the foundation’s trustees have decided to consider applications only from a limited number of groups, although they haven’t yet identified eligible groups.

That decision aims to ease the initial workload for Ross, outgoing director of the state Administrative Office of the Courts and – until he resigned Nov. 13 – a Superior Court judge from Greensboro.

Ross, who will succeed an executive director who has served for 22 years, faces a staff depleted by the departure of three program officers, two of whom clocked a total of 35 years.

With the exception of preparing to fill a junior program officer post for which the foundation recently advertised, Ross says he will move slowly to hire new staff.

That will give the trustees time to carry out their current plan of assessing the impact of the foundation’s biggest grants.

The foundation generally makes smaller grants to support a cross-section of nonprofit needs and issues, but also from time to time makes larger grants to support big initiatives, such as expansion of a pilot after-school program for poor youngsters.

That approach has been “pretty successful, worked pretty well, made a difference,” Ross says. “But is it having as much impact as the board would like?”

Once the board has assessed its big grants, Ross says, he hopes to work with the trustees at a retreat, and possibly with the help of a consultant, to figure out “where they want to go and be.”

While the focus of the retreat next year hasn’t been set, it likely will include a look at the future direction of the foundation’s grantmaking.

Foundations typically either make grants across a broad range of issues, or in larger amounts directed at specific initiatives.

Operations also will be getting some scrutiny. The foundation, for example, might review the staff’s practice of visiting grant applicants’ offices.

And Ross hopes to make better use of computers and the Web to distribute grant materials and communicate with the board, staff and grant applicants and recipients.

Decisions on grantmaking and operations, in turn, will help determine the type of staff the foundation needs – ranging from generalists familiar with a cross-section of issues to experts on specific issues.

Decisions on reducing paperwork and how to handle site visits also could affect staff needs.

Whatever the outcome of deliberations by the board and staff, Ross says, the foundation will continue to break new ground.

He hopes, for example, that foundations from throughout the state can convene and talk about ways to work together more closely. A possible topic would be finding ways to make it easier for nonprofits to apply for grants.

“It’s important for the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation to be in front of the philanthropic movement in North Carolina,” he says. “It always has been and always should be.”

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