Five years ago, The Belk Foundation looked very different than it does today. When I was asked to come on as the foundation’s first full-time director, the objective from the board was clear: help us connect this 80-plus-year-old foundation more fully into the community, so that we may better understand the impact of our grantmaking.
But how does one start that process? Thankfully, the foundation had some elements in its favor. A new, committed board chair brought fresh energy to take the foundation into the 21st century. Decades of investing in the community provided lessons on which to draw. And concepts such as “core values” and “key messages” were central to this multigenerational retail family. (Belk, Inc., headquartered in Charlotte, is the nation’s largest family owned and operated department store company.)
That being said, our work still felt daunting. Over its long history, the foundation did its best answering many calls in the community, but, over time, trying to be everything to everyone left few satisfied. Without a focused mission, virtually every nonprofit in the Southeast could make a good case for funding – a reason that kept the board from accepting unsolicited proposals or being vocal about its funding. At one point, I did a back-of-the-envelope calculation: If every nonprofit that qualified for funding called for a 5-minute conversation, I would be on the phone for 8 years!
The turning point came at our first board retreat.
Until lunch that day, I was hopeful the board would move from our 5 focus areas to 3, knowing how even that would feel like a big change. To my excitement, one bold board member spoke out and said, “If we’re going to do this, let’s do this.” Over the next several hours, the board made the decision to focus solely on education and with three specific outcome areas: increasing numbers of students doing grade-level work, graduating on time, and graduating with an intentional path forward. The board also decided it could have the greatest impact if it invested in three cities: Charlotte, Atlanta, and Birmingham.
Since our first efforts to focus 4.5 years ago, we’ve seen incredible benefits—so much so, we’ve refined our focus and strategies even further, informed by research and data.
What’s different with a focus?
- We know where to invest because we have time to get to know who’s doing good work in each community and build relationships with them.
- We fill a critical gap in the community by having a bird’s eye view of the field. Even city and county government call to get our sense of effective strategies and who is doing good work in the area.
- We’re developing an understanding of the field’s complexity, and are much more realistic about what we can expect for outcomes and what it will take to create change, including the importance of engaging in advocacy to address systemic issues.
- We are beginning to influence state-level policy by highlighting great grantees and what’s working. The Governor joined one of our site visits which resulted in his presenting a similar program in his budget.
- We brought together a diverse group of influential funders, which has led to the creation of a formal Collective Impact project in Charlotte.
- Our board members are deeply engaged on the issues and are serious about making an impact with our investments.
We have a long way to go to impact education in these three cities, but little by little we’re plugging away.