Since coming to the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, I have been so proud and honored to work for an institution that has a long and rich history of bold, forward-thinking vision and action, working to improve the quality of life for all North Carolinians. The Foundation always has strived to respond to the changing needs of the state. And while it has adopted different approaches over the years, its mission and values always have remained consistent with what the founding Trustees set in motion 80 years ago – to move all of North Carolina forward.
When the Foundation announced its plans, in May 2016, to embark on a yearlong strategic assessment and planning process, we once again set out to learn more about the changing needs of the state as well as to evaluate our current approach to grantmaking and broader work. We also committed to sharing our new direction with you in a year.
Today, we are pleased to provide you with an update on what we are calling our “emerging direction” that will continue to evolve over the coming 12 to 18 months as we further design and develop each of its components.
The Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation’s emerging direction is to improve the quality of life for all North Carolinians, now and for generations to come, via three major strategies:
- A state-level strategy that will continue to support structural and systemic changes at the state level.
- A community-based strategy that will primarily support collaborative problem-solving efforts in local communities.
- An exploratory, visionary ideas strategy that will allow the Foundation to invest in unconventional, singular or higher-risk ideas that have transformative potential, but may require different or more flexible philanthropic approaches.
Across the strategies we have laid out as part of the Foundation’s emerging direction, we seek to be adaptive to a changing North Carolina, to facilitate greater connection among grantees and issues, and to employ a racial equity lens. This emerging direction will allow ZSR to continue some of the great work that already has been accomplished across the state, while experimenting with new ideas. Each of our strategies also will provide new opportunities to partner with people from across the state so that, together, we can improve the quality of life for all North Carolinians.
Trustees also have committed to seek ways to augment ZSR’s participation in the life of its hometown of Winston-Salem/Forsyth County. We also remain committed to being a learning organization.
Our emerging direction has developed from our long and rich history of investments in North Carolina and our commitment to responding to the state’s changes, the yearlong strategic assessment and planning process we embarked on to understand North Carolina’s changing landscape, and what we heard from North Carolinians throughout this journey.
As you will recall, as part of our assessment process, we launched a statewide listening and learning tour called Mo Wants To Know, where we had the incredible opportunity to hear from so many North Carolinians, not only about the trends and challenges they are facing in their communities, but also the opportunities that lie ahead.
We met with community leaders, business leaders, nonprofit leaders, government officials, faith leaders, educational leaders, entrepreneurs, members of the military, young people, and more. We traveled to urban and rural communities and met with people as far east as Perquimans and Onslow Counties and as far west as the Qualla Boundary. In addition, we studied the philanthropic landscape of North Carolina, examined how the external environment of North Carolina has changed in recent years, convened a group of data experts for two days, and engaged our grantees and Community Leadership Council members at various points along the way.
We were inspired by the commitment that many individuals had for improving the quality of life for future generations and the determination they had for making their community a thriving place to live and work. We also heard countless stories of people who have deep pride for the place they call home.
What we heard also has informed, and will continue to shape, the Foundation’s path forward.
The Foundation always has served North Carolina as a statewide funder, working at both the state level and in communities. Throughout ZSR’s yearlong strategic assessment and planning process, the input we received from people across the state confirmed the need for the Foundation to continue playing a role at both levels.
In addition, what we heard in many places is that people are yearning for interpersonal connection. While technology is connecting people more easily and faster than ever before, people are craving a deeper, more personal connection within their communities – one that fosters greater understanding and belonging. People are sensing a world that is becoming increasingly polarized and they want to find avenues to be in relationship with others in more meaningful ways.
We also heard the desire for the Foundation to continue playing a leadership role in promoting racial equity. Equity is a longstanding value of the Foundation. The strategic assessment and planning process confirmed the need for ZSR to find additional ways to support individuals, communities, and institutions engaged in the vital, yet challenging, task of making our state a more equitable place to live and work.
As we reviewed data, traveled across the state, and heard stories about how communities are changing, we became keenly aware of how important it is for a statewide foundation not to take a “one size fits all” approach to investing in communities. While we are one state, the needs, challenges, and opportunities of each community are unique.
Furthermore, a theme that we heard over the year was that people feel a profound sense of uncertainty about the future. Rapid and sometimes volatile changes in technology, demographics, growth, economics, politics and public education, just to name a few, are causing many North Carolinians to feel unsure about what’s next for their families, their communities and the state. We heard that, in times of great uncertainty, remaining adaptive and flexible is key.
In addition, there were a multitude of other themes and issues that surfaced as we traveled across the state, including:
- Broadband, communications and access to information are key, and often lacking
- County lines are posing regional challenges
- There is a mismatch between available jobs and available workers
- Health and human service needs (especially affordable housing, mental health and substance abuse recovery) are not being met sufficiently in all parts of the state
- Structural racism and internalized oppression still persist
- Population shifts (decline, growth and demographics) are having differentiated impacts on communities
- Dynamic local leadership matters deeply to local outcomes
- Public education is vital, but also must continue to evolve
- Political leadership is not reflective of changes in demographics
- New strategies to connect urban and non-urban economic development are needed
- Small town economic development and downtown revitalization are critical to retaining people, including youth
As the Foundation seeks to be flexible and adaptive moving forward, we will remain attuned to these and other changes that are happening in communities across the state.
As a result, we recognized that a “strategic plan” would be too static and that what we need, instead, is a “direction” – one that is aligned with our mission to improve the quality of life for all North Carolinians.
As part of this emerging direction, some parts of our work will remain the same. The Foundation will remain steadfast in its mission and core values. Our work is deeply embedded in a set of enduring core values that have guided us for decades and will continue to lead us into the future.
We will continue to invest at both the state and local levels, employ a mix of proactive and responsive grantmaking approaches, focus on systemic change, serve as a convener and connector and promote racial equity. While the official listening and learning tour has ended, the Foundation will continue to listen and learn from individuals, groups, and communities in order to co-create positive change for the entire state. Our work has been, and will be, successful only through being in partnership with the people of North Carolina.
However, some of our work will change. For example, our emerging direction moves us away from having all of our work guided by our current five focus area descriptions. As the new strategies are further developed, there may be areas of emphasis that guide part of our work, but they will not apply across all three strategies. In particular, our community-based funding will not be driven by a set of focus areas, but rather by local voices seeking to find collaborative solutions to local problems.
Furthermore, our exploratory, visionary ideas strategy will provide an intentional avenue for experimentation and flexibility, which we believe is fundamental to being adaptive.
The Foundation is intent on ensuring that our continued development of each of these strategies is thoughtful and deliberate. We will spend 12 to 18 months transitioning into the three strategies named above. The development and implementation of the three strategies will be on individual timelines, so each strategy is likely to roll out at a different point over the course of 2018.
As we develop more details around each of these strategies, we will keep you informed. Please know that the design and implementation of each strategy will be guided by our core values, with a continued and intentional focus on racial equity.
Given that ZSR’s emerging direction will take 12 to 18 months to be fully developed and implemented, our upcoming fall 2017 grant cycle will mark the beginning of the Foundation’s transition and will be the last grant cycle based on our current focus area descriptions. Therefore, ZSR Trustees have made the decision that the Foundation’s fall 2017 grant cycle will be closed and by invitation-only. We will not have a traditional spring 2018 grant cycle in order to focus on the design and implementation of ZSR’s emerging direction.
We encourage you to visit www.zsr.org, which will link you to a microsite that contains much more information about the Foundation’s emerging direction.
While change is never easy, it is often necessary.
This has been an incredible journey so far, and one that we will continue, alongside you.
North Carolina is a state of tremendous promise. Building on the timeless values we share, we can all move our state forward. We will do it together – for ourselves, our families, our communities – and all for NC.
Maurice “Mo” Green
Executive Director, Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation