Williams leaving Babcock at end of 2012

Gayle Williams
Gayle Williams

Todd Cohen

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — Gayle Williams plans to retire in December 2012 as executive director of the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation after leading the $140 million-asset philanthropy for 18 years.

Under Williams, who informed the foundation’s board of directors of her plans at its regular meeting last week, the organization has focused on moving people and places in the Southeast out of poverty.

Kathy Mountcastle, board chair, says the board is working to develop a plan for the transition and soon will form a search committee to find a new executive director.

Williams has provided “outstanding leadership and service” in her 18 years as executive director, Mountcastle says in a statement.

“Gayle’s thoughtfulness, dedication and vision has helped the board craft a more strategic and cohesive approach to grantmaking,” Mountcastle says.

Early in Williams’ tenure, the foundation made a decision to significantly adjust the focus of its funding, which totals about $7 million a year.

Until 1995, the foundation had funded single-issue program areas, particularly early-childhood development, the environment and government accountability.

But starting that year, after having suspended its grantmaking for nearly a year while it developed its new strategy, the foundation decided to sharpen its focus to building “just and caring communities.”

Over time, the foundation has honed its emphasis by supporting interconnected initiatives to help individuals, organizations and communities build their own “capacity” to bridge gaps of race and class and move out of poverty.

“Both the board and the staff have threaded the needle of focus and openness in determining the foundation’s strategy,” Williams says. “We’ve held the balance, and struck that somewhere in the middle for the Babcock Foundation’s values of openness to all comers, and the board’s interest in being more strategic and more focused.”

Its approach has represented a choice the board made, and has reflected a strategy that takes a long-term perspective on making change happen, she says.

“And it has enabled the foundation to have impact in the communities on the issues surrounding poverty,” she says.

Under the leadership of its deputy director, Sandra Mikush, for example, the foundation is working in the Central Appalachia region, including Kentucky, West Virginia and Virginia, with a group of organizations and, increasingly, with funders, to help the shape the region’s transition to a new economy, Williams says.

The foundation also has been part of a philanthropic effort to help the Gulf Coast region rebuild in the wake of the devastation from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, “where our emphasis has been on the participation of residents in determining the policies and investments for rebuilding,” she says.

The foundation’s program director, Gladys Washington, now is “working in depth in the Mississippi Gulf Coast to help organizations that are rebuilding housing and the economy there for low-wealth people,” Williams says.

She says the immediate challenge for the foundation in its grantmaking in the will be the damaged economy, which she says is likely to persist for the next few years.

“The Babcock Foundation is committed to equity and fairness and opportunity for all people,” she says. “In this current economic environment, it’s a tough go in local communities where jobs have been lost and policies are not always beneficial to low-wealth people.”

The transition to a new chief executive represents an “opportunity for the organization to be reflective and to chart a future for itself with even greater creativity and impact,” Williams says. “That’s the path the Babcock Foundation board and I are committed to.”

After retiring, she says, she plans to spend roughly half her time “working in the field that I love,” working as a consultant, serving on boards and volunteering, and devoting the other half to “all those things I’ve never had time for when I was working full-time.”

She currently serves on the board of the national Center for Courage and Renewal, and says she is “especially interested in offering support for younger emerging leaders coming to the field, to give back some of the wisdom and support that was given me when I was younger and coming in.”

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