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Portrait of a Giver: Betty Craven

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Beth Briggs

Betty Craven is a tall, elegant woman with sparkling eyes and a quick laugh. 

A native of Morganton, Betty graduated from Duke University and received a Masters degree from George Washington University’s School of International Affairs. 

She and her husband Michael Warner created the Warner Foundation in l996 with proceeds from the sale of Michael’s software company, Atwork Corporation.

Betty gives her time, talent and treasure.  She serves on the Triangle Community Foundation’s Leadership Council and chairs the Community Grantmaking Program. 

She is on WUNC-Public Radio’s Advisory Board and is a Fellow in the N.C. Public School Forum’s Education Policy Program.

Betty serves on the boards of the N.C. Network of Grantmakers, the N.C. Center for Public Policy Research, the N.C. Center for International Understanding and Planned Parenthood of Central North Carolina.  

Over the past decade, Betty has dedicated herself to becoming a skillful and intentional giver. 

Who shaped your understanding of giving?

Tom Lambeth, former executive director of the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation was my first mentor in the early 1990s.  Tom helped formulate my understanding and education about the world of philanthropy.

He introduced me to Z. Smith Reynolds’ Trustee Zack Smith and program officers Valeria Lee and Joe Kilpatrick, all of whom helped me overcome my intimidation about foundations’ money and power.

At the time, I could not articulate the strategic impact I wanted as a donor, but I knew giving thoughtfully was much more complicated than just writing a check. 

Giving was not just responding to needs, but strategic placement of our investments.  A good bit of my training came about through my service on the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation Advisory Committee and participation in numerous site visits.

What lessons did you learn during your service with the foundation?   

I learned about the role philanthropy plays in advancing and expanding services not covered by the state and where it was appropriate for a foundation to step in. 

I also learned that foundations need to be wary of filling in the gaps where state money should be directed.  It’s impossible, as well as inappropriate, for foundations to take on the responsibility of state government.

The Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation’s strategies taught me how to have an impact beyond providing warm coats for children.  I realized that I wanted to have long-term impact. 

I learned about the power dynamic between foundations and grantees.  Tom Lambeth was so welcoming and engaging with grantees, demonstrating a sense of partnership and collaboration.  

I learned about the importance of continued support, not just a one-time grant, and I learned lessons about success and failure from every investment. 

It was okay for a nonprofit to stumble and fail.  We all learn as much from our failures as from our successes, sometimes more.  

I saw there was value in altering a strategy to be more effective in solving a problem.

When did you create the Warner Foundation?

In l994, we created a donor-advised fund at the Triangle Community Foundation and in 1996 we created The Warner Foundation.

Tony Pipa was our philanthropic liaison at the Community Foundation and he became the Warner Foundation’s first executive director. 

Michael and I, along with the staff, spent a great deal of time evaluating the foundation’s focus and mission.  Our desire was to improve economic opportunities and circumstances for disadvantaged individuals and communities and improve race relations in North Carolina. 

We wanted to make grants statewide and needed staff to help Michael and me travel across the state making site visits and seeing what our applicants were doing in their communities. 

As a funder you learn so much more about a nonprofit by seeing what they do first hand.

Now our foundation’s mission is “Fostering Long-Term Improvements in Economic Opportunities for Low-Income North Carolinians.” 

What are some of your most memorable grants?

I really enjoyed working with several community development corporations in Eastern North Carolina. 

We partnered with the Metropolitan Community Development Corporation in Washington, N.C., and gave them funding to build affordable housing and provide training for low-income families to learn how to qualify for bank loans to purchase a home. 

We also provided funds for Metropolitan’s micro-enterprise program to move people from welfare to work. 

We made a seed grant to help an African American entrepreneur start a car washing business in Washington.  After a year he bid for and won the car washing business for the town’s police and fire departments, and as a result hired four people to help with the work.   

So in effect, our grant to one individual who had a dream of business ownership created five new jobs, all of which paid a living wage. 

In the public policy realm we funded the N.C. Center for Public Policy Research to undertake extensive research on the impact of race on a wide variety of quality-of-life issues in North Carolina, ranging from health care to the achievement gap. 

The result was a publication called “Race, Ethnicity, and Public Policy Outcomes:  From Disparity to Parity.” 

Out of this research the Center was able to get a bill passed in the state legislature to establish the Education Access Rewards North Carolina Scholars Fund (EARN) to provide grants to minority students from low-income families to help them get an education beyond high school without incurring student loans to meet their financial needs. 

We were very proud of the research and the public policy outcome.

What are some of the biggest challenges of being a donor?

It is difficult not knowing the long-term impact of your investments and there is frustration realizing that we can only do so much. 

We wanted to help close the achievement gap, evaluated a lot of proposals and were careful in analyzing the grants but never got a sense of how effective they were in the long run. 

Most of the reports back were anecdotal and made us “feel good,” but kids and parents still dropped out of the programs and we were not sure why or what happened to the kids in the long run.

What advice would you give other givers?

Take advantage of all opportunities to learn as much as you can from others. 

Develop a network of like-minded colleagues to share successes, best practices and failures and look for mentors.  

Look for opportunities to collaborate with other funders to leverage more dollars.  The N.C. Network of Grantmakers is an organization that has enabled us to meet like-minded funders and provided us with opportunities to have substantive discussions about important issues of concern in our state.

Give strategically and think about the long-term impact of your gift. 

Provide multi-year funding and capacity-building grants. Organizations cannot provide services without the ability to pay their staff.  

Volunteer and get engaged with the organizations you are thinking about funding. Give more than just money. It is a privilege to write a check but real contributions come through giving your time and ideas.

Fund advocacy and public policy initiatives in order to have an impact on the big problems. 

Visit the General Assembly and sit in committee meetings that address your areas of interest. 

Write letters to the editor of your local newspaper on issues of concern to you. 

Develop patience and make a commitment to stick with this work for the long term.

Keep abreast of emerging issues by reading the newspaper and relevant research reports from organizations such as the N.C. Center for Public Policy Research, Emerging Issues Institute and the Public School Forum, to name a few.

Giving is a lifelong learning process and you will continue to learn as you go. 

It is an exciting journey and one that I feel lucky to participate in.  I’m so grateful to all the nonprofits working in North Carolina to make our state a better place to live.


Beth Briggs is president of Creative Philanthropy in Raleigh, N.C., and works to advance the understanding, practice and development of philanthropy in the state.

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