By Todd Cohen
WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — Martha Pridgen, who for 33 years worked behind the scenes overseeing administrative functions for the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation in Winston-Salem, has retired – but not before making her first grant decision.
Asked by the foundation’s board to select the recipient of a $250,000 grant, Pridgen chose the Baptist Children’s Homes of North Carolina in Thomasville, where she was raised from age 8 to 18 with three of her five sisters after her parents divorced.
Pridgen, who retired Dec. 31 as director of administration, was one of two employees when she joined the $75 million-asset foundation in December 1969.
During her tenure, the foundation, which now has 13 employees and assets of $349 million, made more than 6,000 grants totaling $396.8 million.
The foundation’s assets grew from $3.9 million in 1970, when it made 48 grants, to $25.2 million in 2002, when it made 340 grants.
“I think she has been essential to the foundation managing its growth,” says Tom Lambeth, who retired in 2000 after 22 years as the foundation’s executive director.
Lambeth and Tom Ross, the current executive director, both describe Pridgen as hard-working, efficient and compassionate.
“She had all the skills but also deeply cared about the work we do, about the people being served and the impact the foundation can have,” Ross says.
Founded in 1936, the foundation had no staff until June 1967, when James H. Hilton, former president of Iowa State University and former dean of the School of Agriculture at N.C. State University, was named its first executive dircector.
Pridgen joined the foundation in December 1969 as secretary-bookkeeper, the foundation’s second, working for Hilton until June 1971, when he retired.
She then worked for Dale H. Gramley, retired president of Salem Academy and College, who served as executive director from July 1971 to June 1978; Lambeth, who served from July 1978 to December 2000; and Ross, who succeeded Lambeth in January 2001.
“She has truly been the glue that has held the foundation together for 33 years,” says Ross, a former superior court judge for Guilford County who served as interim director of the N.C. Administrative Office of the Courts.
While the foundation has grown and moved from reacting to grant request to taking the initiative in creating funding programs, Pridgen says, the problems the foundation tries to address have not changed.
“I don’t think the challenges are any different than they were 33 years ago,” she says. “For nonprofits, it’s raising money. For foundations, it’s giving away money wisely, whether $3 million or $25 million.”
The problems facing North Carolina also remain largely the same, she says.
“People’s basic needs don’t seem to change,” she says. “You’ve still got to address problems of the poor and disadvantaged.”