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Babcock works to bridge gaps

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By Todd Cohen

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — Since overhauling its grantmaking seven years ago, the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation in Winston-Salem has invested more than $25 million in “building just and caring communities” in the Southeast.

While the $120 million-asset foundation has since fine-tuned that funding program, it has focused all its grants on interconnected initiatives to equip individuals, organizations and communities with the “capacity” to bridge gaps of race and class.

That’s a tough job, requiring targeted investment over time in people and communities on the margins of wealth and power, says Sandra Mikush, the foundation’s assistant director.

Boosting poor communities, she says, depends on “strong organizations, strong grassroots leaders and strong relationships between grassroots leaders and mainstream leaders working across race and class lines to solve problems.”

The foundation, which makes grants totaling about $5 million a year in the Carolinas and 10 other states, previously had funded single-issue program areas, particularly early-childhood development, the environment and government accountability.

Then, after suspending grantmaking for nearly a year, Babcock launched its new funding program in 1995, focusing initially on helping grass-roots groups strengthen their internal operations and work with other groups on community problems.

It added grants two years later to boost entrepreneurialism and assets in poor communities and, in 1998, to help grass-roots leaders improve their skills and policy-making clout.

A foundation review two years ago found grant recipients had strengthened their staffs, boards and finances; developed strategic plans; improved services and programs; worked more closely with constituents; increased their public-policy role; focused more on raising money they needed instead of tailoring grant requests to available dollars; learned from other nonprofits through emerging networks; and improved their work by assessing its impact.

And on learning that tiny nonprofits needed some funding just to support operations in addition to improving them, the foundation began offering such grants.

Roughly 25 percent to 30 percent of the foundation’s grants support groups in North Carolina, down from roughly half before it revamped its grantmaking in 1995, Mikush says.

The foundation, for example, continues to back efforts by The Winston-Salem Foundation to strengthen neighborhood leadership throughout the city, and by a coalition of Greensboro groups to give poor neighborhoods a greater voice in government decisions that affect them.

It also has invested in efforts to support entrepreneurs by the Mountain Microenterprise Fund in Asheville and by Good Work, a Durham group that in partnership with El Centro Hispano works with Latinos.

Now, Babcock is turning its attention to helping equip Alabama, South Carolina and rural Georgia with regional systems supporting nonprofits and community economic development, and to helping its grantees learn from one another.

“These are not isolated programs but fit together within an institutional philosophy of building capacity,” Mikush says. “We’re a regional funder. We come and go. But we want to leave in place lasting capacity for the things we care about.”

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