Biddle Foundation sharpens focus

By Todd Cohen

DURHAM, N.C. — In 1956, when it was founded with stock worth just over $100,000, The Mary Duke Biddle Foundation in Durham awarded its first two grants — $204 each to Duke University and to Christ Church United Methodist in New York City.

Since then, its endowment has grown to $30 million, and it has awarded nearly $43 million in funding in North Carolina and New York.

Now, the foundation has decided to concentrate its competitive grantmaking in the Triangle, to double the size of its competitive grants, and to focus them on education and the arts.

Starting in 2018, it will provide a total of $350,000 in competitive funding — up from $82,500  this year — to nonprofits in Chatham, Durham, Orange and Wake counties to support learning and teaching in kindergarten through high school, and arts education, particularly for underserved students, and to strengthen the region’s cultural sector and artists.

It also will double the size of its competitive grants to $10,000, and may make even larger grants, possibly over multiple years. And it no longer will make competitive grants in New York City. This year, groups in New York received grants totaling $75,000.

“We are a small foundation, the total amount of our grant funding is limited, and we believe we can have a more significant impact on critical needs in education and arts in the Triangle by making fewer grants that are larger,” says Mimi O’Brien, the foundation’s executive director.

In recent years, the foundation made multi-year grants totaling $100,000 and $65,000, respectively, to the Southern Documentary Fund in Durham and to North Carolina Arts in Action in Carrboro, to help the organizations strengthen their operations and programs.

“Both those grants have been successful in helping those organizations build their own capacity, and reach more students and filmmakers,” O’Brien says.

In addition to making competitive grants, the foundation will continue to support Duke University. Under the foundation’s charter, Duke receives half its annual funding. In 2018, the Foundation’s total funding will grow to $1 million from $900,000 this year.

The foundation will continue to fund four organizations in the Triangle and one in Winston-Salem that it has supported for many years, as well as two churches in New York and one in Durham.

It also will award $40,000 a year, possibly teaming up with other funders, to help build the organizational capacity of North Carolina nonprofits, particularly in the Triangle, and to support promising initiatives.

In 2018, the  foundation plans to award $175,000 in the Triangle for education and arts education for underserved students in kindergarten through 12th grade, and $175,000 to strengthen the region’s cultural sector and develop its artistic talent. Deadlines for submitting online applications are December 15 for education grants and April 15, 2018, for arts and culture grants.

“It is important for all students, particularly the underserved, to have the sorts of educational experiences that are going to prepare them for success in the future, whatever type of work or career they do,” O’Brien says.

“Problem-solving, digital literacy, working collaboratively, project-based and experiential learning — these are the skills that are essential to being able to adapt and change in a world that is increasingly digital and requiring higher skills levels,” she says.

And the arts, she says, “are essential to strong, vibrant communities, and feed the soul.”

Education and the arts, and providing opportunities to people who otherwise might not have them, she  says, were important to Mary Duke Biddle, who was the only daughter of industrialist and philanthropist Benjamin Newton Duke and created the foundation in 1956. She died in 1960 at age 73.

Addressing those needs, she says, also was important to the late Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans, the daughter of Mrs. Biddle, and to her late husband, Dr. James H. Semans. The couple served on the Foundation’s board for nearly 50 years.

Education and the arts “are areas that Dr. and Mrs. Semans long supported,” O’Brien says. “We’re not very big. If we’re more focused, we could have greater impact.”

Organizations looking for funding from the Foundation for K-12 education or arts education should submit online letters of interest by December 15, while those looking for funding to strengthen the region’s cultural sector or artistic talent should submit online letters of interest between April 1, 2018, and April 15, 2018.

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