Babcock foundation sharpens focus

By Todd Cohen

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — After a year of assessing its impact, the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation in Winston-Salem has fine-tuned its mission and strategy to focus on helping people and communities with little wealth help themselves build assets and secure greater social and economic justice.

The $145.5 million-asset foundation has given just over $50 million over the past 10 years to 445 organizations, aiming to gear individuals, groups and communities to bridge racial and class gaps.

Now, it has decided to sharpen the focus of its giving, targeting groups and networks that work across racial, ethnic, economic and political differences to fight poverty.

It also plans to work harder cultivating young leaders, and to shift more of its assets to investments that are in sync with its mission, says Sandra Mikush, assistant director.

“What we emphasize,” she says, is “helping poor people and communities build assets and move out of poverty.”

The foundation says it will look for “clear, promising strategies” that seize opportunities to fight poverty, including systems or policy change, and that hold the greatest promise for large-scale, long-term impact.

The foundation also is looking for groups with meaningful connections with low-wealth people and communities, and with strategies rooted in connecting nonprofit, public and commercial players, and matching grassroots groups with larger institutions.

The foundation has found that the smaller, grassroots groups it tends to support have been more effective “if they were parts of bigger networks than if they were isolated,” Mikush says.

“We understood the power of networks to connect low-wealth people and grassroots organizations to mainstream institutions and systems,” she says.

The foundation also aims to “build a pipeline” of potential leaders ages 12 to 18, and to nurture promising leaders ages 18 to 30.

And it has begun investing more of its assets in “program-related investments” that better reflect its mission, Mikush says.

Based on a new policy of placing up to 3 percent of its assets at any given time into program-related investments, the foundation has begun investing $500,000 with SJF Ventures, a venture-capital firm with offices in Durham and Philadelphia that will invest the funds in companies promising to create jobs in low-wealth communities.

And after investing $500,000 in the form of non-member deposits in community-development credit unions throughout the Southeast, the foundation plans to continue making similar investments.

As part of a larger effort to shift more of its assets to investments more in line with its mission, it plans invest $5 million with CRA Fund Advisers, becoming only the second foundation to place funds with the Miami-based firm, which manages funds for banks that invest in community development in regions where they operate to comply with the federal Community Reinvestment Act.

Babcock also is looking for new investment opportunities, such as a mutual fund for small-cap equities tied to a social mission that is being developed by the New York City-based F.B. Heron Foundation, the first foundation to place funds with CRA Fund Advisers.

“They are creating the market and we are an eager participant in that and want to be on the leading edge, right behind them, so foundations can make these investments,” she says.

Babcock also is developing a policy so it can play a more active role as a shareholder, investing in companies whose business is in line with its mission, and using its proxies to influence corporate decisions.

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