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Philanthropy Journal of North Carolina – Change agents – Focused funding

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By Todd Cohen

Philanthropy in North Carolina is changing — for the better.

The shift by a small but growing number of foundations to more focused and hands-on grantmaking is bound to upset nonprofits that have counted on being able to turn to those foundations to support most types of charitable activity.

But these foundations’ new approach also promises to make nonprofits stronger and improve our communities.

While many of our bigger foundations continue to welcome grant requests to fund a host of needs, some funders are targeting their grantmaking to achieve particular goals.

Faced with a complex set of tough, seemingly interconnected social problems facing our state and communities, these foundations are taking a more aggressive role in trying to shape long-term fixes.

For grants due Aug. 1, for example, the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation in Winston-Salem has dramatically revamped its funding priorities.

Defining what it believes to be the most critical issues in the state, it has decided to award grants only to groups it believes are most likely to make a big impact in trying to tackle those issues.

With $410 million in assets, the Reynolds Foundation is the biggest general-purpose foundation in North Carolina. And while it generally has supported progressive work — aiming in particular to improve social and economic justice, promote democracy and protect the environment — the foundation also has been willing to support basic needs, fund projects in diverse fields of interest and take chances on gutsy new ventures.

Its new strategy does not alter its commitment to civil decency, civic responsibility or risk-taking. But in view of the grim problems we face, the foundation want to direct its resources squarely at fighting those problems.

Making progress can mean having to make tough decisions: Reynolds has spelled out – for the first time – the types of needs and projects it either won’t fund or will treat as low priorities.

Tom Ross, the foundation’s executive director, also is helping to spearhead creation of a statewide network to help foundations work more closely together – a job that can be tough because of their fierce independence.

That, too, is changing.

A pioneering partnership in Greensboro underscores the impact that foundations can have when they team up.

Concerned about that region’s sinking economy, six foundations joined forces to create Action Greensboro, an initiative to revive the local schools and economy.

And the Joseph M. Bryan, Cemala and Weaver foundations have agreed to contribute $22 million to the initiative over the next three years.

All these efforts reflect an emerging form of “strategic” grantmaking: By targeting and even pooling their assets to attack tough problems at their roots, these foundations are not simply writing checks in passive response to funding requests they receive.

Instead, they are thinking hard about how to attack the toughest problems we face– and helping to boost groups focused on those problems.

That is leadership.

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