Reassessment: How Two Grantmakers Are Adapting to Uncertain Times

photo: Sarawut Aiemsinsuk/shutterstock

photo: Sarawut Aiemsinsuk/shutterstock

As any long-lasting foundation can attest, grantmaking strategies evolve. Sometimes, that means little more than a tweak to a single program area. Other times, foundations engage in a full-scale overhaul of their priorities and approach. Typically, strategic reassessments involve something in between. Whatever the case, these planning exercises often leaving grantees biting their nails and hoping they make the final cut.  

When the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation embarked on a strategic reassessment in 2016, it took a strong step: suspend grantmaking to focus on discovering what it would really take to make an impact in a rapidly changing North Carolina. To that end, the foundation’s new executive director, Maurice Green, went on a listening tour throughout the state. Around this time last year, a tentative picture of Z. Smith Reynolds’ “new emerging direction” took shape. 

And last month, the foundation made things official. In a post on the new framework, Green describes it as an effort to “provide different strategies that meet people and communities where they are, as well as to break down the silos of our traditional focus areas, allow more flexibility in our grantmaking, and provide multiple entry points for potential applicants.” 

Those goals reflect an emerging consensus among social justice-oriented funders that the way philanthropy does its work matters. To truly fund systemic change, philanthropy needs to shift its traditional top-down model toward something that flows from what communities—and community organizers—say they need. As we saw last year, systemic change on the state level is indeed one of Z. Smith Reynolds’ three new strategies, along with community-based grantmaking and an “Exploratory, Visionary Ideas Strategy” to fund unconventional or “higher-risk” ideas. 

Z. Smith Reynolds grants will resume this fall after a spring hiatus and a round of invitation-only grants in late 2017: the foundation’s final cycle reflecting its old focus areas. Meanwhile, Green expects the new framework to continue evolving for a year or more. Perhaps that’s for the best. With national and state level politics in flux, big demographic changes underway, and a rising tempo of social movement activism, responsive funders may need to reimagine strategic assessments not as a periodic undertaking, but as more of an ongoing process that involves sustained community engagement. Put another way, it feels like there's never been a more important time for funders to keep their ear to the ground.

That’s doubly the case in places like the South, where a recent boom in regional giving coincides with below-average grantmaking for structural change. More money is flowing here, but often not with enough attention to the root causes of the South's entrenched inequities. Foundations like Z. Smith Reynolds and its cousin, the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation, have a role to play as models and partners for up-and-coming local foundations, including community and health conversion foundations, both of which are playing a bigger role in the South's philanthropic ecosystem. The key will be overcoming political and cultural obstacles—and philanthropic preconceptions—that prevent money from reaching the most effective local leaders.

It’s a fairly obvious point, but race is definitely one of those obstacles, and not just in the South. A racial equity lens, Green says, will underpin Z. Smith Reynolds’ work across all three of its new strategic areas. That’s nothing new: The foundation has a history of race funding going back decades. But as racial tensions have risen over the past several years, so have equity funders’ attempts to address them. 


Travel north from Z. Smith Reynolds’ headquarters in Winston-Salem, and eventually, you’ll reach the nation’s capital, where another local funder just wrapped up its own strategic reevaluation. Like Z. Smith Reynolds, the Eugene and Agnes E. Meyer Foundation has been funding on its home turf for a while. Its total yearly grantmaking is smaller—around $7 million, to Z. Smith Reynolds’ $17 million—but its geographic focus is more compact. 

Over the past few years, writes President and CEO Nicky Goren, "we’ve been on a journey to gather input and greater context as we reframed the foundation’s role in creating positive social change in the Greater Washington region.” Above all else, Goren’s team found that economic vulnerability in the region mapped closely to race. To address racial disparities, the Meyer Foundation wants to get at “the policies, practices, programs and norms that have created or continue to perpetuate racial disparities and racialized outcomes.”

Like Z. Smith Reynolds’ Maurice Green, Goren anticipates “growing into this new way of working over time.” But the Meyer Foundation’s initial round of 2018 grants clearly reflects its revised approach. The vast majority of those grants involve general support for community-based organizations in D.C., Maryland and Northern Virginia. Racial justice is a direct focus for some, while others tackle concrete issues like housing, employment, education and asset building. Along with weaving a racial justice critique into its capacity-building grants, Meyer also plans to expand into strategies like research, advocacy and narrative change.

Washington D.C. may be the nation’s capital, but its communities of color have their own histories, isolated to a great degree from the institutions of federal power they share a city with. As in other urban areas, the legacy of slavery and mandated residential segregation continues to replicate deep disparities between white and non-white parts of town. Their coffers may be smaller than their national counterparts, but local and regional funders have the ground-level perspective to fund grantees with a real chance of bridging that divide.

The question going forward is whether more local and regional philanthropies will follow Z. Smith Reynolds and Meyer, marrying a frank racial equity lens with a systems change approach. Beyond that, does equitable grantmaking also require a reassessment of the power relations between funder and grantee? And how about internal power dynamics affecting foundation staff and boards, particularly with regard to race and gender? Progressive funders have a lot to worry about these days, but the current national environment has also thrown greater light on the need to take more seriously questions about how philanthropy itself operates.