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Belk Foundation aims for impact

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Johanna E. Anderson

Johanna E. Anderson

Todd Cohen

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The Belk Foundation has hired its first full-time director and is sharpening its focus in an effort to be more strategic and mission-driven in its giving.

The board has selected education, health and youth as its funding priorities, and in January will hold a retreat to talk about how to make its investments have the greatest impact.

“While the foundation has supported many causes, it did not have a systematic approach to addressing a key mission,” says Johanna E. Anderson, who joined the philanthropy in August as foundation director.

At its November meeting, the foundation’s board recognized that the broad categories of giving the family foundation has supported “do not really inspire us or communicate the change we want to see in the world,” she says.

The foundation grew out of a fund created in 1928 on the death of co-founder Dr. John M. Belk, whose brother William Henry Belk founded the Belk department store organization in Monroe in 1888 and later made John Belk a partner.

In 1952, the foundation took its current form on the death of William Belk.

With $55 million in assets, down because of the recession from a peak of $67 million in spring 2008, the foundation typically receives roughly $1 million a year from Belk Inc. and typically makes grants totaling $3 million a year.

The foundation, which does not accept unsolicited grant requests, has given over $35 million to over 500 organizations over the past 10 years in communities throughout the Southeast in which employees of the company’s 307 stores live and work.

With a mission of supporting educational, religious, cultural, social and human-services causes and groups for the “up-building of mankind,” the foundation in recent years has made education a key focus.

It recently gave $200,000 to Teach for America, for example, to support teachers in Charlotte, Eastern North Carolina and Atlanta, and gave $500,000 to endow the Belk Retail Management Scholarship for business students at Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte.

To make a greater impact, the board at its retreat in January will look at the kind of change it wants its grants to produce in the three priority areas it has selected, says Anderson, who previously worked as assistant vice president of client services at Foundation for the Carolinas in Charlotte, and before that as program director at the Association of Small Foundations in Washington, D.C.

Chaired by Katie B. Morris, a granddaughter of William Belk, the board also will consider the need to establish ways to measure the outcome of its grants, Anderson says, and to find “the best organizations making change” in its priority funding areas.

The shift to those new priorities will be gradual, and the board initially will set aside some fund for “exemplary exceptions” in areas it has funded in the past.

Anderson says her priorities are to increase communication with nonprofits, target the foundation’s investments to have greater impact, and better understand needs in all the communities Belk serves.

With the Belk organization “so tightly woven in southern communities,” Anderson says, she looks forward to the opportunity to “express, through the foundation, the company’s and the family’s values.”

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