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Shift at ZSR – Aiming for impact

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By Todd Cohen

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — The Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, North Carolina’s biggest general-purpose philanthropy, is making sweeping changes in its grant making.

Starting with grant requests due Aug. 1 – and not affecting those just submitted for its Feb. 1 deadline – the foundation will target five broad issue areas, particularly through projects aiming to spur systemic or statewide change, boost poor regions or tap community-based innovation.

The $410 million-asset foundation, which is based in Winston-Salem and paid $20 million in grants last year, also will help build the internal operations of nonprofits addressing the five issue areas — community-building, the environment, civic life, pre-collegiate education and social justice.

The foundation believes backing groups tackling those issues will help it more effectively pursue its newly defined goals of promoting social, economic and environmental justice; strengthening democracy; boosting nonprofit innovation and excellence; backing progressive public policy and social change; helping different racial, ethnic and socio-economic groups live and work together; and building strong communities.

“We want to be a change agent in the state,” says Tom Ross, the foundation’s executive director.

The foundation for the first time in recent memory is spelling out projects it either won’t fund or will treat as low priorities.

It no longer will support health-care, construction, endowments, payment of debts or purchase of equipment or furniture, for example, and will give low priority to the arts, capital campaigns, crime-intervention, food banks, historic preservation, substance-abuse treatment, purchases of computer hardware and software, and conferences, seminars or symposiums.

The new strategy, which aims to be flexible enough to support “new practices and ideas” and “respond to other challenges or opportunities,” reflects a philanthropic practice known as “strategic grant making.”

“One way you focus your grant making,” Ross says, “is to be sure that the organizations with which you work are in fact trying to accomplish outcomes that will affect the goals of the foundation.”

The foundation, for example, will favor nonprofits that involve people of different backgrounds and perspectives in their work and decision-making.

To tackle the most critical issues it believes face the state, Ross says, the foundation has expanded its focus on some deeply rooted and interconnected social problems.

In addition to backing community economic development, for example, the foundation now believes that building strong communities also depends on “strengthening leadership and encouraging the full participation of everyone,” and on improving race relations, Ross says.

The foundation also still will work to strengthen the role of women, girls and racial minorities to achieve social justice, he says, but it also will tackle the big challenges of poverty, low wages and the disproportionate number of minorities and poor people in the state’s corrections and courts systems.

And to boost civic life, he says, the foundation will work to help North Carolinians better understand and take part in government, and to help government better understand and account for itself.

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