By Todd Cohen
WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — With $440 million in assets, the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation is the largest statewide foundation in North Carolina that has the broad purpose of improving the quality of life of people in the state.
But the role the foundation plays and the influence it exercises reflect far more than its assets: It is widely considered North Carolina’s most influential philanthropy, leading the charge to shape public policy and chart the state’s future.
“It is the major force for social change in North Carolina,” says Billy Ray Hall, president of the North Carolina Rural Center in Raleigh. “Its ability to affect organizations and groups that are about social change is unparalleled.”
And with Tom Ross’s announcement that he will step down June 30 to become president of Davidson College, the foundation is searching for a new executive director.
Filling the position, considered by many the most prized philanthropic job in North Carolina, will require finding a leader rooted in the state, steeped in its issues, institutions and networks, and equipped with a set of extraordinary leadership and management skills, nonprofit and philanthropic leaders say.
That leader, they say, will need expertise in public-policy issues, strategic thinking, engaging and connecting the nonprofit, for-profit and public sectors, and managing the foundation and working with its hands-on, strong-willed board.
“A real challenge for somebody being the leader at the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation is that it is a foundation in which the board has been very much involved, and that is different from a lot of foundations,” says Tom Lambeth, who preceded Ross and retired in January 2001 after nearly 23 years as executive director.
And with its website saying it “reserves the right to decline [funding] proposals from organizations of which the board and staff do not reflect the diversity of the communities they serve,” the foundation for the first time likely could pick someone other than a white male for the job, people close to the foundation say.
The Reynolds board ultimately will fill the job based on candidates identified by a search committee working with consultant Beth Briggs of Creative Philanthropy in Raleigh.
Briggs says the committee still is developing criteria for the search and aims to fill the job by early fall.
Joe Crocker, director of operations, says the board has indicated the foundation’s senior managers will oversee day-to-day operations from the time Ross steps down until his successor begins work.
With candidates already voicing interest in the job, a key requirement likely will be the willingness to work virtually around the clock and to sacrifice big chunks of personal time.
“It’s not a normal job,” says someone close to the foundation who spoke on condition of anonymity. “It’s got to be somebody who’s willing to sacrifice everything.”
“It’s 24/7,” he says. “You have to sacrifice.”
Finding the kind of candidate the foundation wants could be tough: While it paid Ross compensation totaling $202,050 and benefits totaling $52,061 in 2005, according to the most recent tax return it filed with the IRS, the salary range for his successor is likely to total no more than $125,000 to $150,000, says someone close to the foundation.
The job will require someone who is politically-savvy, nonprofit leaders say, although the person who fills it may not need the experience working in government and politics that Lambeth and Ross both brought to the position.
“It may be someone more aware of the nonprofit world, and the changes in technology and trends in our state,” says Sylvia Oberle, executive director of Habitat for Humanity of Forsyth County and a former member of the foundation’s state advisory panel.
Lambeth says the foundation is likely to continue to play the critical role of welcoming and fostering a broad range of ideas to improve the quality of life in the state, and to play an increasingly active role in shaping public policy.
And Hall says the new executive director “has to have an established track record in moving public debate.”
That includes understanding the “ins and outs” of the state legislature, business sector, public universities and public finance, he says.
The influence of the foundation, he says, stems not only from its own grantmaking but also from the funding that its engagement in a project can attract from other organizations, including big national foundations.
Oberle agrees the role of change agent is critical for the foundation and its executive director.
“They’ve always been a catalyst and need to continue doing this, she says, “and they need a leader to help them continue doing that.”