By Todd Cohen
Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans, the North Carolina philanthropist who died Jan. 25, less than a month shy of her 92nd birthday, epitomized what is best about philanthropy.
Wealthy but modest, she was caring, thoughtful, considerate, curious, genuine, and graced with charm and wit.
And while true to the roots of the philanthropic wealth she helped oversee, and the values and vision of the family that created it, she also was open to change.
Her willingness to listen to and embrace new ideas about how philanthropy should operate and the way it should support causes it cares about represents a role model for organized philanthropy.
Born two years after the end of World War I, Mary Semans lived to see the blooming of the digital age.
She was born and raised in New York City, and arrived at Duke University at age 15, then spent most of her life in North Carolina.
She saw sweeping social, economic and demographic change, along with revolutionary advances in technology that have transformed the way we live, work and play, and that provide powerful tools for helping to address the urgent and escalating social and global problems we face.
As long-time board chair of The Duke Endowment in Charlotte, the largest charitable foundation in the Southeast, she oversaw distribution of the philanthropic wealth created by the family that built American Tobacco Co. and Duke Power Co., now Duke Energy, into industrial powers and engines for economic growth.
That same family used its wealth to build modest Trinity College in Durham, N.C., into Duke University, one of the great institutions of higher education in the U.S.
And Mary Semans’ great uncle, James B. Duke, created The Duke Endowment in 1924.
In the document he used to set up the foundation, Duke limited its grantmaking to four broad causes in the Carolinas.
Those included Duke and three other universities, as well as hospitals, orphans, and religion, specifically rural Methodist churches and retired Methodist ministers.
Over the years, however, after heavily investing in “bricks-and-mortar” projects for many of those institutions, Mary Semans “led the foundation into considering there are greater and higher needs than simply building buildings,” says Gene Cochrane, the foundation’s president.
So, under her steady hand, the foundation began to look for ways to adapt the particular focus of its grants while staying true to the broad intent of its founder.
Mary Semans approached those changes with “supportive caution,” Cochrane says.
And she adapted easily.
She “seemed to be perfectly comfortable in every decade,” Cochrane says. “She had a wonderful curiosity about what’s next.”
As a result of its flexibility, The Duke Endowment has been an effective, influential and highly-respected force for change.
Instead of just investing in hospital construction, for example, it has invested in a broad range of health-care programs associated with hospitals, such as obesity and patient safety.
And instead of treating its four funding priorities of education, health, children and religion as separate and distinct from one another, it has looked for ways to address needs that overlap two or more of those priority areas, such as nursing support for first-time, at-risk mothers.
It also has looked for ways to pool its funds with those of other foundations, such as the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust in Winston-Salem, to better address urgent needs, such as child abuse and neglect.
The Duke Endowment is not alone in its willingness to change, although far too many foundations are stuck in the model for foundations that was developed roughly 100 years ago as the philanthropic vehicle for industrial giants like John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie and James B. Duke.
A new report by Grantmakers for Effective Organizations, a group that promotes improvements in the way foundations work, cites some progress but says broad-scale change has eluded foundations, a group that accounted for 14 percent of the nearly $291 billion in charitable giving in the U.S. in 2010.
Whether small, family foundations with little or no staff, or larger bureaucratic organizations, far too many foundations are resistant to changing the way they operate.
That is not true of The Duke Endowment or the Durham-based Mary Duke Biddle Foundation, a much smaller foundation created by Mary Semans’ mother that supports arts, educational and charitable causes in New York City and North Carolina.
Mary Semans made a big difference in the lives of North Carolinians and others by keeping faith with the vision of James B. Duke while recognizing that, by adapting to changing needs, the philanthropy she helped oversee would honor and help realize that vision.