By Todd Cohen
WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — When Donna Rader joined it in January 1987, The Winston-Salem Foundation was poised for change.
Rader was hired to design a grants program for drug-and-alcohol education and prevention with funds raised by the Crosby golf tournament, representing the foundation’s first step ever to move beyond simply reacting to requests from donors and nonprofits.
That initiative marked the start of an effort, still ongoing, in which the $270 million-asset foundation has transformed itself into a catalyst for change through efforts like its ongoing initiative to build “social capital” by strengthening civic connectedness in the community.
“We now see ourselves as having a responsibility to be a much bolder community leader on behalf of social change,” says Rader, who is leaving the foundation in mid-March to become executive vice president for philanthropic services at the Vermont Community Foundation.
As vice president of grants and initiatives, Rader has played a key role in changes the board and staff continue to make in the focus and strategy of The Winston-Salem Foundation, and in the community role it plays.
Building on the Crosby program, the foundation was looking to launch an even more proactive funding project to celebrate its 75th anniversary in 1994.
Deciding to focus that effort on race relations, economic development in the African-American community, and nurturing children, the foundation sought proposals to address those issues – and learned that race relations “were improved the most when people worked on a common task together,” Rader says.
Building on that effort, the foundation sought funding from a national program of the Michigan-based Charles Stewart Mott Foundation that aimed to help community foundations build partnerships with neighborhoods.
While the Winston-Salem Foundation did not receive funds, it was invited to join a “learning network” of groups Mott did fund.
And as a result of its participation in that network, which was advised by John McKnight, a Northwestern University professor who pioneered the concept of “asset-based community development” – focusing on the “assets” of individuals and organizations in a community, rather than their weaknesses – the foundation launched two new initiatives.
One invests in assets of disenfranchised neighborhoods to strengthen them, while the other provides leadership training and workshops for neighborhood leaders.
Then, in 1999, the foundation launched its five-year, $2.5 million ECHO Fund grants program to strengthen social capital, and in 2000 participated in a national survey to assess social capital in 40 U.S. communities, as well as a follow-up survey in 2006.
The results have included formation of an ECHO Council to build a more diverse and inclusive group of community leaders; a leadership summit two years ago; “conversation groups” that for two years have been meeting once a month.
And now, plans are emerging for volunteer center and a “social capital center,” located downtown, that will serve as a community hub; house the foundation, volunteer center and nonprofits; and include public space for community gatherings and flex-space for meetings.
Through its work over the 20 years, the foundation has learned that “the community was looking for us to do more,” Rader says. “Community foundations are uniquely positioned to be a hub for a community in many ways other organizations are not.”