Babcock Foundation takes long view

By Todd Cohen

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — Recognizing it will require patience and multiple strategies to help low-wealth individuals and communities lift themselves out of poverty, the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation in Winston-Salem has set long-term metrics and timetables for making a difference.

“Unless we see that the impact of our grants over a long period of time is really adding up to moving people and places out of poverty, then we’re not accomplishing our goal,” says Sandra Mikush, the foundation’s assistant director.

In 1994, Babcock set the goal of addressing racism and poverty in the South by investing in building the “capacity” of organizations and communities focusing on those issues.

After spending $42 million in the first 10 years of its “Building Just and Caring Communities” initiative, launched in 1995, plus another $6.2 million in 2006, Babcock now expects to spend $8 million to $9 million a year on the effort over the next five to 10 years, and has adjusted how it will measure its impact.

Using a range of metrics, Babcock will track “outcomes” that show increases in the income and economic assets of individuals and families, and in the assets of low-wealth communities.

For individuals and families, using data from its grantees, the foundation will track metrics like ownership of homes and small businesses, savings and job advancement.

For communities, it will track metrics like public and private investment and support for small businesses, good schools, fair-lending practices and access to capital.

In addition to investing in grassroots groups working directly on building income and assets, Mikush says, Babcock will support groups working to help low-wealth people shape their own lives, will connect those groups with one another and mainstream institutions, and will help them work to shape public policies and systems affecting poverty and wealth creation.

“Grassroots organizations can only do so much by themselves,” Mikush says, “but in partnership with others they can have a larger-scale impact by changing policies and systems.”

Babcock, for example, has invested in the Center for Participatory Change in Asheville and in Resourceful Communities, a program of the North Carolina office of the Conservation Fund.

Both groups provide small grassroots nonprofits with technical assistance for strategic planning, board development and other needs, and connect nonprofits they support with one another and help them understand broader issues affecting them and their constituents.

Babcock also made a grant to the Asset Development Collaborative, a network of groups working with low-wealth people to create “individual development accounts” to help them save money.

North Carolina is one of two states working in a pilot project with the Center for Social Development at Washington University in St. Louis to change government policies and create a public-private system to promote savings by low-wealth people.

The effort, which could expand to other states, illustrates a tiny example of the myriad and often modest initiatives that are required, in combination, to fight poverty, and the hard work and patience needed to make them succeed, Mikush says.

The challenge, she says, is figuring out how to “help grassroots organizations have meaningful relationships with some of the institution’s we’re trying to change.”

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