Connecting people

New Duke Endowment chief values community ties.

By Todd Cohen

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Reared in the 1950s on a dairy farm that was part of a small, tightly-knit farming community near Charlotte, Gene Cochrane observed first-hand the sense of mutual responsibility that binds neighbors to one another.

“I’m not sure I realized it at the time,” he says, “but looking back, there was a very strong connection among those farm families.”

Now, as the new president of The Duke Endowment, where he has worked since 1980 after serving as a hospital administrator, Cochrane says the value of community connections will continue to shape the foundation’s work in the Carolinas.

Created in 1924 with $40 million by James B. Duke, the $2.5 billion-asset foundation is North Carolina’s largest and last year awarded more than $105 million in grants, bringing its total grantmaking to more than $2 billion.

Under Duke’s instructions, the foundation makes grants to Duke University and three other schools, and supports health care, child care and rural United Methodist churches.

In the nearly 25 years Cochrane has worked at the foundation, the focus of its giving in each of those areas has evolved, as has the process for making grants.

The foundation has shifted from support for “bricks-and-mortar” to support for programs, begun to use “requests for proposals” to address needs it identifies, and funded projects calling for two or more of its four divisions to work together.

Gene Cochrane

Job: President, The Duke Endowment, Charlotte, N.C.

Born: Sept. 24, 1948, Mecklenburg County, N.C.

Family: wife, Jean, executive director, Bioethics Resource Group; two daughters

Education: B.A., history, Erskine College; M.A., business and economics, Appalachian State University; hospital residency program, Charlotte Memorial Hospital (Now Carolinas Medical Center)

Career: Associate administrator, Charlotte Memorial Hospital, 1974-80; Duke Endowment, 1980 to present

Hobbies: Hiking and whitewater canoeing in mountains

Favorite Movies: Epics like Out of Africa

Just read: “Two Souls Indivisible”, by James S. Hirsch

Little-known fact: “My attachment to the farm. I still enjoy being part of that.”

Moving away from its past support for institutions that house orphans, for example, the foundation now also supports community programs that serve needy children.

And with hospitals now borrowing money and selling bonds for construction projects, the foundation has shifted its hospital funding to community outreach programs in which hospitals take part.

Last year, the share of health grants for capital projects fell to less than 10 percent, down from more than 80 percent roughly 20 years ago.

The foundation also has tracked unsolicited grant requests, and the impact of grants, looking for effective initiatives it can replicate through requests for proposals.

Its health-care division, for example, had funded separate unsolicited proposals from two hospitals to improve their services for domestic-violence victims.

When both programs showed positive results, Cochrane says, the foundation granted $8.7 million to 40 hospitals through a request for proposals.

And after a handful of grants handled by two or more of its four divisions, the foundation in 2001 solicited proposals to spur rural economic development, a $10 million initiative that is the foundation’s biggest ever.

“We knew the organizations we support were only going to be successful and thrive if their communities thrive,” Cochrane says.

The foundation plans to watch its grant recipients closely to see how quickly they grow as the economy improves, he says.

To help do that, it will support the development and use of tools such as a system the hospital associations in both states use to track quarterly data from individual hospitals.

Priority needs the foundation has begun to address include patient safety, church and lay Methodist leadership, the root causes of child abuse, and the affordability of higher education.

“We will continue to support the organizations that Mr. Duke selected,” Cochrane says, “and we will do what we can to be sure they are strong organizations and what they do in their communities is also strong and of good quality.”

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