McGregor gets sabbatical

By Rick McDaniel

ASHEVILLE, N.C. — After more than 25 years of working with grassroots organizations to help the rural poor, Alan McGregor is finally getting his own chicken house.

That’s one of the projects McGregor, 55, will be taking on during the four-month sabbatical he was awarded recently by the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation.

The Winston-Salem based funder, which created the sabbatical program 17 years ago to provide rejuvenation for nonprofit executives, awarded four similar $25,000 grants in the state this year.

“I travel a lot, and I’m going to use the time off to remodel my kitchen, build a deck and a chicken house,” says McGregor, director of philanthropic programs at the Southern Rural Development Initiative. “I’m exercising, relaxing and recharging.”

Based in Raleigh, with an office in Asheville, SRDI has been a force for change in the rural South since its inception in 1994, working to improve the lives of people in some of the region’s poorest areas.

The group helps local organizations learn how to help themselves by partnering with local and national philanthropies to raise capital to improve their community’s quality of life.

McGregor found his life’s work almost by accident, he says.

While waiting to apply to law school, he found a job in the nonprofit sector, working for the Prison and Jail Project of North Carolina.

“I applied to law school, got accepted, and decided I needed more time to work with the nonprofit,” he says.  “I never reapplied to law school.”

McGregor spent the next several years working for community-action and advocacy groups in North Carolina, and having a philanthropic epiphany.

“I kept running into the same people from North Carolina in New York at the foundations where we were trying to raise money,” McGregor says.  “We always had trouble raising money for the type of advocacy we were doing, so we started thinking about ways to develop our own funding in the South.”

Alan McGregor

Job: Director of Philanthropic Programs, Southern Rural Development Initiative

Born: 1951, Pensacola, Fla.; raised in rural Georgia

Education: B.A., political science, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Family: Divorced; son Emmett, age 16, student at Asheville School,; girlfriend Maggie Clancy

Hobby: Gardening, “Mostly flowers, vegetables are too much work.”

If I couldn’t do what I do now, I would be: “An engineer working on energy efficiency.”

Favorite Book: “Pedagogy of the Oppressed,” by Paulo Freire

When I was a kid, I wanted to be: “A preacher.”

Hero: Cornelia Bailey, “She lives on Sapelo Island and works to preserve the Gullah culture. She’s an incredible leader in her community.”

That brainstorming led to the creation in 1981 of the Fund for Southern Communities, which emphasizes partnerships between donors and community leaders.McGregor served as the group’s first executive director for seven years.After a stint with the Sapelo Foundation in Brunswick, Ga., working on environmental issues, rural development and civil rights, McGregor co-chaired the committee that created SRDI, a regional, 12-state initiative to bring more capital into the rural South.

McGregor was hired to start SRDI’s philanthropy program seven years ago.

Now he trains local nonprofit leaders, does advocacy work for rural philanthropy, and tries to show local leaders that capital is available to improve their communities.

Through its Philanthropy Index, a tool that allows local communities to determine their ability to create a permanent charitable fund to support community life, SRDI has helped more than 60 counties develop philanthropic partnerships to raise capital.

After his sabbatical, McGregor plans to work on building a network of rural community foundations to encourage peer learning and support.

“We cover 12 Southern states, but we’re particularly interested in North Carolina right now,” he says. “We want to build a larger network and expand it into other states.”

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