By Todd Cohen
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Since the late 1990s, The Duke Endowment has tested modest new approaches to its philanthropy, slowly moving beyond funding mainly construction and programs for beneficiaries designated by its founder.
Now, the $2.5 billion-asset foundation, North Carolina’s largest, is building on those small steps by launching its most ambitious initiative ever – a $10 million effort to address rural needs in the Carolinas.
“We are adapting to new circumstances,” says Charlotte lawyer Russell M. Robinson II, the foundation’s trustee chair.
Industrialist James B. Duke formed the foundation in 1924 to support four colleges and universities, nonprofit hospitals and orphanages in the Carolinas, and rural United Methodist churches and retired United Methodist ministers in North Carolina.
In recent years, however, the foundation started funding broader community programs in which its designated beneficiaries were partners.
And four years ago, it launched a multi-million-dollar initiative to fund collaborative efforts in local communities in the two states to improve the lives of children and families.
That initiative integrated, for the first time, the work of all four of the foundation’s grantmaking divisions, which are akin to separate mini-foundations, each handling a separate program area.
The new rural program reflects the foundation’s emerging focus on collaboration in the projects it funds and in its internal operations.
Teaming with Chapel Hill think-tank MDC Inc., the foundation has selected coalitions in 23 communities to support.
This summer and fall, MDC will help those coalitions – all led by churches or hospitals — develop their tentative plans into specific projects, and help groups in each coalition build their leadership skills and work together.
In Western North Carolina, for example, United Methodist and Roman Catholic groups in Clay County are working with business leaders to promote tourism tied to the region’s history and natural beauty.
In Stokes County north of Winston-Salem, Snow Hill United Methodist Church is leading an effort to expand a growers’ co-op and provide mental health counseling for farmers and displaced workers in a region facing high suicide rates.
And in Asheboro, Randolph Hospital is heading a coalition of business, government and education leaders to help hatch small businesses and provide basic education and job-skills training.
The 23 communities are at a “pivot point,” faced with managing decline or creating change, says Leslie Boney, a senior associate at MDC and former staff director for the N.C. Rural Prosperity Task Force.
The foundation’s rural initiative grew partly out of the work of the task force, which was chaired by Charlotte investment banker Erskine Bowles, who later served on the foundation’s board before resigning to seek the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate.
The coalitions, says David Roberson, project administrator for foundation’s rural program, “have the people and knowledge and expertise to figure out their strengths, and the areas they want to concentrate on, and to come up with ideas to address the most important issues in their communities.”