Z. Smith Reynolds focusing on change

Leslie Winner
Leslie Winner

Todd Cohen

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — In an ongoing effort that began before the downturn in the economy and capital markets, the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation is fine-tuning its processes and focus.

The foundation is taking a look at the way it funds needs and policy work on issues ranging from immigration and affordable housing to education and the environment.

It also is revising the way it handles grants and looking for ways to address the continuing and changing needs of nonprofits while generating more impact from the grants it makes.

Still, the economy has taken its toll: Since it peaked at $470 million in November 2007, the value of the foundation’s two trusts has dropped roughly 30 percent, says Leslie Winner, the foundation’s executive director.

“I do think we will have fewer assets to spend going forward in the next unknown number of years, and that will mean we will have to be more careful and we won’t be able to support everybody we want to support,” she says.

“That will be hard,” she says. “To some extent, we will try to respond to that by being careful about our own administrative costs, but it’s fair to say we’re going to have to be more cautious.”

She also says nonprofits should not panic.

“We have enough assets to meet all the obligations we have made, are not planning to cancel our grant cycles and will try to continue to support the nonprofit sector in our state to the best of our ability,” she says. “We will continue to be here to support that portion of the nonprofit sector that we’ve traditionally supported.”

Since joining the foundation in January, Winner says, she has logged 27,000 miles on her car, nearly all of them work-related, and has learned a lot about the state and about philanthropy.

“While there are many challenges out there economically and in the environment and in communities, there’s an incredible number of dedicated people who are chipping away at these problems in a way that is smart and persistent and determined,” she says.

And despite a temporary pause in the state’s growth, she says, that growth has changed the state’s ethnic and demographic diversity, creating challenges and opportunities for tapping that diversity to address the challenges facing the state’s communities.

Specifically, she says, the foundation is looking for “new models for civic engagement.”

It will focus on energy, water and growth in its environmental funding, and will look for ways to have greater impact “with a relatively modest amount of money” in its education funding, including a new initiative likely to be announced in a few months.

The foundation will continue to focus on issues involving immigration and race and on strengthening and developing public policy, and will reexamine its community economic development funding and its strategies for helping people move into the middle class, including through the development of affordable housing.

The foundation also is adjusting how it makes grants.

At its meeting in November, for example, the foundation’s board approved fewer multi-year grants “because we were not sure what the trust level would be in future years,” Winner says. “So we were rather more conservative about multi-year grants.” The board also made fewer grants requiring that nonprofits match them “because we were concerned organizations would have a harder time raising money and might not be able to meet the matches,” she says.

The foundation has simplified its application and reporting requirements for grants totaling $35,000 or less, and Winner says a personal goal is to find a way to better measure and share the impact of grants, including results that are less tangible and tougher to quantify.

And despite the decline in the value of its assets, the foundation will continue to give support both for operations and projects.

This year, the foundation granted roughly $18 million overall, including 60 percent for operations and 40 percent for projects, plus nearly $2 million for Wake Forest University.

“I think that people outside the nonprofit world generally undervalue the very important contribution that the nonprofit world makes to this state,” Winner says. “We should all, in ways we can, consistent with our resources, be supporting them with our time and our financial resources.”

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