Giving with a big heart

By Todd Cohen

[Note: This was written for Triangle Community Foundation.]

MORRISVILLE, N.C. — As a child growing up in Houston, Tex., Bob Johnston learned the importance of going beyond one’s means to help people in need. His father, a firefighter and then a long-time employee of the U.S. Post Office, and his mother, a bookkeeper, were devout Southern Baptists who took seriously the Biblical prescription for tithing and never failed to give 10 percent of their income to charity.

“They did that even when they definitely needed the money,” Johnston says. “That came off the top for them. As I grew older and realized the sacrifices they made to help people who were less well off than themselves, I asked, ‘How does a person who’s financially secure shows their kids this principle without the example of sacrificing?'”

As a teenager, Johnston promised himself that if he ever had children, he would create a pool of funds and involve his children in deciding which charities to support with that money.

Then, in the late 1990s, after co-founding AlphaVax, a vaccine-maker in Durham, and serving as its CEO and chairman, Johnston talked to Triangle Community Foundation and learned he could create a donor advised fund that would make it “possible for people of ordinary means” to create the type of family philanthropy he envisioned.

So he created the Howard Allen Johnston Fund, named for his brother who was killed at age 20 in an automobile accident.

Johnston and his four daughters, ages 22 to 46, have focused their giving from the fund on agencies in the Triangle that serve homeless people, and on local food banks.

“Food, shelter and clothing,” says Johnston, who is founder and executive director of Global Vaccines, a nonprofit in Morrisville. “They’re pretty basic. There are many people in our society who lack one or more of those.”

How things work

Johnston hails from four or five generations of Texans. His parents attended the same Houston high school where Lyndon B. Johnson, the future U.S. president, was teaching, although they were not in any of his classes. And while neither of Johnston’s parents went to college, they both taught him a lot about life and how to live it, he says.

“My mother had a pretty tough life growing up,” he says. “She was a very smart and very tough woman.”

His father was “a little more easy going, more athletic type, with a great sense of humor,” he says. “Hardly a day goes by I don’t quote him.”

From an early age, Johnston says, he was curious about “what made things work,” a fascination that led him to major in biology at Rice University and get a Ph.D. in microbiology at the University of Texas.

Having been raised in a religious home, he says, “I learned that giving to other people, doing something for other people, was about the highest calling you could have.”

So from the time he was a teenager, he “always hoped that at some point I could do something in biology that would help the world or some small part of it.”

Academia and research

In 1976, Ph.D. in hand, Johnston got a job as an assistant professor of microbiology at North Carolina State University, where he rose through the ranks to became a professor and also an adjunct professor at what is now the College of Veterinary Medicine at N.C. State. And in 1989, he moved to the School of Medicine at UNC-Chapel Hill as a professor of microbiology and immunology.

Then, in 1997, he co-founded AlphaVax, which initially worked on a vaccine for HIV but later switched its focus to making vaccines for viruses related to herpes — a shift Johnston did not favor.

“The biotech road is littered with with companies that tried to make vaccines for herpes-type viruses,” he says.

Vaccines for poor countries

In 2002, Johnston founded Global Vaccines “to harness new technologies to make vaccines for diseases in developing countries,” he says.

The nonprofit aims to address a gap in the market for vaccines, Johnston says.

For-profit vaccine companies typically license new technologies from universities that develop them, but then have no profit incentive to apply those technologies to diseases for which there often is little or no market, “so diseases that affect billions never benefit,” he says.

“We want to intercept those technologies, apply them to poor countries for these diseases, and see if we could make a difference in the world,” he says.

Global Vaccines has licensed two technologies from UNC-Chapel Hill, including one invented in his lab there that it continues to work on. It has developed an “adjuvant,” or agent, to increase the immune response of vaccines, including one for dengue fever.

Known as “break-bone fever,” the mosquito-transmitted disease is “absolutely rampant in poor countries,” with 400 million cases a year and 2.5 billion people at risk for infection, Johnston says.

Global Vaccines, which employs half-a-dozen people working full-time and part-time, has received funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the National Institutes of Health.

And while it has not yet brought a vaccine to market, Johnston says, “we’ve got a mighty big heart.”

Making life better

A big heart also could be a metaphor for Johnston’s approach to giving.

Philanthropy is “helping people who don’t have as much as you do, or who haven’t had the opportunities or for that matter the luck that you have had,” he says. “By that definition, everybody can be a philanthropist. The amount doesn’t matter; it’s the act.”

What inspires him, he says, are “ordinary people doing extraordinary things relative to their capacity, ordinary people going beyond themselves to do something extraordinary.”

Life in the Triangle

In addition to the Triangle’s “weather and livability,” what Johnston likes about the region is that it is “intellectually dynamic,” he says. “So many people have good ideas and they put them into practice here. It’s just intellectually a stimulating place.”

The region also faces big challenges. To deal with the traffic its growth has created, the Triangle has opted for the traditional strategy of simply building more roads, he says.

“That’s a big error,” he says. “We need a light rail system and we need it about a decade ago. If we don’t get on that right now, we’re going to have just the same traffic mess as Houston and L.A. and just about every city. We shouldn’t worry about where existing rail lines are. We need to build mass transit.”

He also believes the region need more affordable child care and pre-kindergarten education.

In his own childhood, “my mom was home,” he says. “My grandfather and grandmother were right across the road. My aunt was home. We just had a wonderful childhood. A lot of that was the contributions of our mothers and grandmothers. In today’s world, mom and grandmom are at work. They have to be. So what happens with the kids? You see the result of that.”

Impossible dreams

Johnston says he retired from UNC so he could devote himself to his work at Global Vaccines. And while he keeps a small sailboat on Albermarle Sound, he rarely finds time to actually sail it.

“My hobby is thinking about going down there,” he says.

But he holds onto the dream.

When he was a teenager, he says, he once visited some friends who lived west of Houston on a ranch with a lake, where he tried to learn how to waterski. When he had placed his feet in the skis and adjusted the tow-rope, the pilot of the boat threw the throttle wide open, and nearly jerked the rope out of Johnston’s hands. He initially stood up and skied for about 10 feet, then fell under water but held on for another 30 feet before he let go.

“I think sometimes I hold onto things too long, even as an adult,” he says. “I don’t know when to quit. There’s a lot of Don Quixote in me.”

But Johnston says impossible dreams are what keep him going.

His late wife, Jane Johnston, a nurse in the neonatal unit at WakeMed in Raleigh who died of breast cancer, devoted her life to saving the lives of children born prematurely.

“We both had the same goals,” he says. “But she had the reward of seeing positive results right away. What I’m doing is something now that might help people in 15 or 20 years or after I die.”

Creating a legacy for the arts

By Todd Cohen

[Note: This was written for Triangle Community Foundation.]

DURHAM, N.C. — The Carolina Theatre in downtown Durham is a mecca for culture, a catalyst for community, an engine for growth, and a crossroads for past, present and future. After closing in 1988 for renovations, and reopening in 1994, the historic theater has attracted big-name performing artists, as well as emerging voices, and helped kickstart and fuel downtown’s cultural and economic renaissance.

The vision for saving and restoring the theater has inspired a large and eclectic cast of players performing widely diverse roles.

Pepper Fluke and Stephen Barefoot, two of those players, traveled different paths to the Carolina Theatre, but they share a passion for the arts and a bond with the late Connie and Monte Moses, the couple who spearheaded the theater’s revival.

In 2006, to help provide continuing support for the arts in Durham and to serve as an enduring legacy to the Moseses, Fluke and Barefoot created the Connie and Monte Moses Fund at Triangle Community Foundation.

The Carolina Theatre “would fulfill all their hopes and dreams,” says Fluke, 85, a Durham potter who volunteered for years on the restoration work.

Barefoot, 68, who met Fluke while he was serving as the Theatre’s managing director from 1985 to 1988, says the facility — built in 1926 as the Durham Auditorium — now has a quickening “pulse” driven by a “phenomenal variety” of programming.

Baton-twirling champion

Born and raised in Ridgewood, N.J., Fluke learned from her parents that “you do things for other people, and you don’t necessarily do it for what you’re going to get from it but because you’re going to share your talents.”

Her father taught science at Eastside High School in Patterson, N.J, and created the marching band there. A member of the U.S. fencing team that competed in the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp, Belgium, and a college champion at swinging “Indian clubs,” he taught her both skills.

Her mother, a dietician, taught European immigrants how to run an American house so they could get housekeeping jobs.

“My parents were school teachers and there were no extra dollars for anything,” Fluke says. “I learned from them that you share what you have with your community.”

In 1939, at age nine, she accompanied her father’s marching band and majorettes to the World’s Fair in New York City and won the gold trophy in the national juvenile championships for baton twirling.

Guided by her parents to the sciences “because it was the only way a woman would be able to make a living,” she says, she majored in biology at Cornell but found no organized team for a woman who could fence or swing an Indian club, although she practiced with the men’s fencing team and traveled to Dallas and Chicago in compete in Indian club competitions.

In 1952, after graduating from Cornell, Fluke got a job in the pathology department in the research center at Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island that was looking for peaceful uses for atomic energy.

While at Brookhaven, she met her future husband, Donald Fluke, who spent most of his career as a professor of radiation biology, including job at a research center associated with the University of California at Berkeley and eventually at Duke.

The couple share a love for community theater and got involved with a local theater group on Long Island that had been started by Connie and Monte Moses. After the Flukes moved to Durham in the late 1950s, they helped persuade Monte Moses to take a faculty job at Duke.

The Flukes have two children — a son who is retired from IBM and lives in Oxford, N.C. and a daughter who is a veterinarian in Charlotte.

Fluke became a potter after spending a year in The Netherlands and falling in love with Dutch art while her husband was on sabbatical there. When the couple returned to Durham, she enrolled in a new women’s program at Duke and took four art classes. She then found her calling at a potter’s wheel and continues to makes functional items like bowls, pitchers and mugs.

Fluke, who lives in Durham with her husband, 91, says creative people inspire her.

“I just love creative people,” she says. “I love being around them. I love helping them and the ideas that get generated.”

Swine-breeding arts impresario

Barefoot was born at the old Mary Elizabeth Hospital in Raleigh and raised in Johnston County on his family’s farm. His father grew tobacco and corn, raised pigs, and also worked for the county’s Soil Conservation Service. His mother was a homemaker. As a child, he took piano lessons, a pursuit he says led to his lifelong passion for the arts.

He learned from his parents “to treat people fairly, to work hard, to be a part of a community, to be a good neighbor, whether the person lived next door or not,” Barefoot says.

While he was the state 4-H swine champion at age 12 or 13 — his father helped him raise a pig and taught him how to keep records on her litter of 16 piglets — he knew early on that he “wanted to be anything but a farmer” and was “inclined to either music or journalism.”

Barefoot majored in journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, then spent three years as a U.S Peace Corps volunteer in East Africa. He has devoted most of his career to performing arts production, presenting and administration.

After serving as director of public relations for The Experiment in International Living in Putney and Brattleboro, Vt., and as director of marketing for A Southern Season in Chapel Hill, he was owner and operator of Stephen’s After All, a Chapel Hill club where he first met Connie and Monte Moses.

He then served as managing director of the Carolina Theatre for three years and as executive director of Brightleaf Music Workshop at Duke for six years before founding goingbarefoot in 1994. The firm provided arts project management services and customized entertainment planning, design and production for commemorative events.

Barefoot, who has lived in Durham since 1978, partially retired this summer but his agency still represents a handful of national touring performing artists.

What inspires him is the “interaction between artists and audiences, seeing how the arts enable an individual to respond to his inner soul,” he says. “It frees one to follow his passions.”

Genesis of a restoration

When the Washington Duke Hotel, which opened in downtown Durham 50 years earlier, was imploded on December 14, 1975, Connie Moses was watching and vowed publicly “that would not happen to the Carolina Theater in her lifetime,” Fluke says.

Barefoot says the Carolina once was among roughly 12 “legitimate theaters” downtown, but all but the Carolina had disappeared or been torn down.

“The Carolina was the last one standing when the Moseses came to town,” he says, “and it was really their passion to keep that building from being demolished.”

Monte Moses formed a nonprofit, Carolina Cinema Corp., and persuaded city officials to lease the theater to the nonprofit, which would manage it while plans were made to restore the building.

Fluke says she learned how to be a volunteer from Connie Moses at the community theater in Brookhaven, N.Y, and then spent countless hours volunteering on the restoration of the Carolina Theatre, where Connie Moses, a milliner, oversaw a crew of over 200 volunteers who restored the building’s ballroom.

Thriving in Durham

Fluke and Barefoot have seen Durham revive and flourish since they moved to the city — Fluke in the 1950s, and Barefoot in the 1970s.

“I used to be able to drive downtown at 5 o’clock if I had an appointment or class,” says Fluke, who has lived for 50 years in the same house she and her husband built in Duke Forest right after it opened and was “just a wood.”

Now, she says, “it’s almost impossible because there are so many places. People are driving downtown to eat and be entertained.”

As a potter who loves the arts, she says, she enjoys Durham’s thriving arts community, where she can visit groups like Manbites Dog Theater or a diverse mix of shops, restaurants and food trucks on Foster Street.

In November, she was one of 18 local potters featured on a tour of studios.

“It’s a wonderful energetic community with many different facets,” she says of the Triangle and Durham.

Barefoot says he also enjoys the region’s cultural mix.

“The Triangle is just a fabulously rich community in which to live due to the diversity of communities and opportunities, Durham especially,” he says.

When he was managing director of the Carolina Theater 30 years ago, he says, only one person — Tim Walker, known as “the leather worker” — was officially a resident of downtown. Now downtown housing is an important engine in the area’s economic and cultural boom, he says.

Legacy for the arts

In the 1980s, Barefoot served on a volunteer committee that reviewed funding requests from arts groups to Triangle Community Foundation. So when he and Fluke were looking for a way to create a fund to honor the legacy of Connie and Monte Moses, they created a donor advised fund at the Foundation.

To seed the new fund, Barefoot and Fluke assembled a “Circle of Friends,” a group of nearly 200 people who made contributions. The fund also received money remaining in a memorial fund from the defunct Carolina Cinema Corp. that had been established after the death of one of its managers.

The Connie and Monte Moses Fund was created to support local projects in the performing and literary arts, cinema and filmmaking, and historic preservation, Fluke says.

“The Carolina Theatre being there has made all those interesting presentations come alive in this community,” she says.

Barefoot agrees.

“That’s what Connie and Monte worked for,” he says. “They would be so excited to see that building.”

Nonprofits, funders looking for community partnerships

By Todd Cohen

[Note: This was written for Triangle Community Foundation.]

DURHAM, N.C. — Fixing local problems can be tough.

Charities that focus on community issues can find their work slow, messy and fragmented. With limited resources, charities face growing competition for funding, as well as rising demand from donors to show and measure their impact.

And because they often focus on a single issue or group of issues, many charities are not positioned to address the underlying and interconnected causes of the broad range of complicated problems in their communities.

The way charities operate, however, is beginning to change. A small but growing number of charities and funders are starting to work together to make a “collective impact” on local problems.

The challenges facing charities and funders working on the issue of community development, and the solutions they are developing to address those challenges, was the focus of a recent meeting of Triangle Donors Forum.

“Nonprofits don’t work in silos,” said Katie Loovis, director of U.S. community partnerships and stakeholder engagement for GlaxoSmithKline, and a panelist at the Donors Forum, which was hosted by Triangle Community Foundation on November 20. Building healthy communities “requires each [nonprofit] working together,” as well as sectors working together, Loovis said.

Moderated by Farad Ali, president and CEO of the North Carolina Institute of Minority Economic Development and a member of the board of directors of Triangle Community Foundation, the Donors Forum was held at the Holton Career and Resource Center in Durham.

Building capacity

Strengthening the organizational capacity of nonprofits is the focus of a “People and Places” initiative Triangle Community Foundation launched this year that focuses on groups working on the issues of community development, youth literacy, land conservation, and the arts.

That initiative grew out of a two-year effort by the Foundation to assess its grantmaking with advice from donors, nonprofits and civic leaders from throughout the region. A key goal was to identify “community benchmarks” the Foundation could use to find ways to make a greater impact with the limited discretionary funds it invests in the community.

As a general funder that is a “proxy for so many donors, and a vast number of nonprofits,” and with “limited resources and a vast region and many microcosms of communities,” the Foundation wanted to find “that sweet spot of funders and nonprofits and volunteers where we start to chip away” at addressing pressing community needs, Lori O’Keefe, the Foundation’s president, told the Donors Forum.

While the Foundation’s community conversation initially focused on finding ways to improve the delivery of services, she said, it eventually shifted to the organizational capacity and infrastructure of nonprofits.

Recognizing the widespread need of local nonprofits to strengthen their operations so they could make a greater impact through the services they deliver, the Foundation decided to make capacity-building the focus of its discretionary grantmaking.

Partnerships key

Alice Lutz, CEO of Triangle Family Services and a panelist at the Donors Forum, said partnerships are critical to the impact of her organization, a 77-year-old agency that focuses on mental health, financial stability and family safety.

“It’s partnerships that make a difference,” she said.

But partnership also are challenging, she said, because “the work doesn’t stop” while staff members responsible for delivering services also are devoting time to building partnerships with funders and other agencies.

Maggie West, program coordinator for the Community Empowerment Fund in Chapel Hill and another panelist, said her organization depends on collaboration and partnerships “more than we depend on funding.”

The Community Empowerment Fund operates with 250 student volunteers from Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, pairing two students each with individuals who are homeless or at risk of being homeless. In 2015, it plans to add students from North Carolina Central University.

The students work to help each client focus on their goals in the areas of employment, housing and financial security.

“Communities are people that know each other and in relationship to each other can build mobility,” West said.

And while the organization’s volunteers, known as “advocates,” help their clients navigate through courts, housing agencies, health clinics, public-benefits systems and other agencies, “student volunteers are not going to be the experts,” she said. “So we depend on partnerships” with shelters, clinics, housing agencies, workforce development organizations and other groups.

Investing in collaboration

Loovis said many issues in a community are interconnected, and funders struggle to “change the way we fund and foster more collaboration” to address those issues.

“As the funding community, sometimes we get it all wrong,” she said. “The very things we have funded to create sometimes exacerbate the very things we don’t want to see.”

While they may “know fostering a healthy community requires addressing a broader array of factors,” she said, funders may opt to fund individual nonprofits, in effect forcing nonprofits to compete with one another for funding rather than encouraging them to work together.

Funders also tend to invest in short-term programs, even though fixing complex problems can take longer.

“How do we fund things and recognize this isn’t a one-year deal, change the funding stream and realize this is a long-term approach,” she said.

And while funders “want nonprofits to show outcomes,” she said, funders may not be providing the funding nonprofits need to evaluate their work.

GlaxoSmithKline wants to change the way it funds nonprofits, and is working with Triangle Community Foundation to “figure out how not just to fund one nonprofit but groups working together,” possibly with “more than one business funder at the table,” she said.

“If we do want healthy communities, this is complicated work,” she said, “and we do all have some room to improve.”

Incentives for partnerships

Bob Johnston, who is founder and executive director of Global Vaccines, a nonprofit in Morrisville, and attended the Donors Forum, suggested that philanthropic funders that want to invest in solutions to complex community problems might take the approach of agencies like the National Institutes of Health that fund scientific research.

His own university labs once operated like “an island,” said Johnston, a former professor of microbiology at North Carolina State University and former professor of microbiology and immunology at the School of Medicine at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

“You wrote a grant, got funding, and there was competition, and actually drives a lot of innovation,” he said. “But as science has moved forward, the goals are too big for individual labs.”

So the NIH now issues “calls for proposals” that spell out a big goal, knowing that “no one entity can satisfy that goal,” said Johnston, who created a donor advised fund at Triangle Community Foundation.

It then becomes “incumbent on people applying for funding to assemble the consortia that are important to whatever that goal is,” he said.

So if philanthropic funders want to set an ambitious goal for addressing a community problem, they can issue a call for proposals that will give community groups “an incentive to organize themselves” to apply for funding, he said, “Having it come from the ground up could be a real advance. It would be up to individual people and agencies to come up with consortia and the groups that can do it. Your decision the would be who can do it best.”


Lutz said nonprofits working in the area of human services have “little room for mistakes.”

While nonprofits ought to be able to learn from and build on initiatives that don’t work, she said, “funders move on to another organization.”

The challenge is to find ways to pilot new programs, “identify mistakes, and then turn to funders and in partnership move through that system,” she said.

What is needed, she said, is “coopertition,” or a combination of cooperation and competition.

Loovis said there is a “push-pull” between funders and nonprofits.

“In some ways, nonprofits are ahead of us,” she said. “In some ways, funders are a little ahead of nonprofits.”

When GlaxoSmithKline decided to pursue a strategy known as “collective impact,” she said, it wanted to invest $500,000 each in tackling community problems in two communities in other parts of the U.S.

It assumed local nonprofits in each community were ready for a collective impact strategy “and we would come in and work and learn from them,” she said,

One of the communities already had a strong funding community, largely because of several big funders, she said, but that philanthropic infrastructure was lacking in the other community “and we really struggled as a funder.”

So instead of making a collective impact investment in the second community, GlaxoSmithKline shifted gears and is considering making a planning grant to pave way for a collective impact initiative.

Collaboration and mergers

Haywood Holderness, who is pastor emeritus at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Durham and attended the Donors Forum, said the Triangle is “ripe for more collaboration and mergers among nonprofits.”

The number of nonprofits in Durham, for example, has soared and now is many times the state average on a per-capita basis, yet many nonprofits operate in silos, he said.

But with the Baby Boomer generation of nonprofit founders retiring, the time is ideal for funders “to talk to nonprofits about more collaboration or even mergers,” he said. “You guys can make that happen.”

Steve Toler, who is a public relations and communications consultant, former vice president for public affairs in North Carolina for Verizon, and attended the Donors Forum, said the business community was “light years ahead of nonprofits” in mergers and acquisitions.

“We’re not seeing that” in the nonprofit sector, he said.

Lutz said mergers require mediators and investment from funders to provide incentives to nonprofits to talk about merging and give them the time needed to pursue merger conversations while continuing to serve clients.

As part of its People and Places initiative, Triangle Community Foundation is working to better understand and address the challenges of building the capacity of nonprofits to address pressing community issues.

“We know all our donors are not ready to fund that capacity-building infrastructure…yet,” O’Keefe said.

Building community by investing in nonprofit capacity

By Todd Cohen

[Note: This was written for Triangle Community Foundation.]

RALEIGH, N.C. — Marbles Kids Museum created a program to train its staff to help develop early literacy skills in visitors to the museum.

Triangle Family Services developed metrics on the use of its space that helped dramatically reduce the “no-show” rate among its clients.

Both Raleigh nonprofits were among 22 in the Triangle that received grants from Triangle Community Foundation to assess their operations, and among 21 that received additional grants to use those assessments to strengthen their organizational “capacity.”

The Foundation’s total investment in the effort, which included learning “cohorts” designed to provide training for participating nonprofits and help them share best practices with one another, was $330,000.

“Running a nonprofit is a business, and one with an extremely important outcome,” Pat Nathan, a member of the Foundation’s board, told 85 guests attending TCF Connect, an event in October at the North Carolina Museum of Art attended by 85 Foundation donors and nonprofits.

A similar event for donors and nonprofits was held in Durham and attracted 40 people.

Building capacity

Building the capacity of nonprofits in the region that work in the fields of youth literacy and community development is the focus of the first phase of a “People and Places” initiative Triangle Community Foundation launched in 2014 that also will invest in nonprofits working in the fields of land conservation and the arts.

The Foundation decided to make capacity-building in those four fields of interest its focus as the result of a two-year effort to assess its grantmaking with advice from donors, nonprofits and civic leaders from throughout the Triangle.

Lori O’Keefe, the Foundation’s president, told donors and nonprofits attending TCF Connect that its dollars for making discretionary grants are limited and its donors want to see the “direct tangible impact” of grants from their funds.

“As much as we want to give from our hearts, we have to invest in organizations’ ability to grow and expand and be successful,” O’Keefe said. “We have to be accountable for what the return on investment is.”

In the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2014, discretionary funds available for grants to community programs totaled $1 million, or the investment income on 15 percent of the Foundation’s $189 million total assets.

“It’s important for us as donors to recognize that for organizations to feed more kids or buy more books,” O’Keefe said, “they have to be able to invest in their infrastructure, much like a business.”

Literacy, community development

Nathan, founder and president of Dress for Success Triangle NC and a former sustainability executive at Dell, moderated a panel that focused on the issue of organizational capacity and included Sally Edwards, president of Marbles; Alice Lutz, CEO of Triangle Family Services; and O’Keefe.

Since Marbles was formed seven years ago through the merger of Exploris and Playspace, hundreds of thousands of children have visited the museum, Edwards said.

“We knew we had such an opportunity to make such an impact in early literacy but didn’t have the capacity to make it,” she said.

So with a grant from Triangle Community Foundation, Marbles assessed its capacity in the area of youth literacy, looking at factors such as its staff and exhibits to determine how it might best improve its organization to better focus on early literacy.

A second grant from the Foundation allowed Marbles to develop and launch a program in collaboration with Motheread, a Raleigh-based national training and curriculum development organization, to train its staff to help develop the early literacy skills of visitors to the museum.

Triangle Family Services, which works to help families experiencing family violence, financial crisis and mental health issues, was looking for ways to streamline its operations.

With five business units spread across multiple locations and operating seven days a week, the agency was using a complicated process for assigning its rooms for clients to meet with its staff.

Triangle Family Services used an initial grant from Triangle Community Foundation to  identify the need to improve that process, and used a second grant to develop and adopt a “systemizing of metrics and measures across all program areas to make it simple and accessible” to assign space for clients, Lutz said.

The result: A reduction — to 5 percent from 18 percent — in the no-show rate among mental-health clients.

Gearing for change

The “People and Places” initiative is part of a larger effort at Triangle Community Foundation to find ways to be a more effective partner to donors, funder of nonprofits and resource on local community issues, Lacy Presnell, chair of the Foundation’s board, told guests at the TCF Connect event.

“When we work together,” he said, “we are stronger and can increase the positive impact we have on our communities.”

In the fiscal year ended June 30, 2014, he said, the foundation received over 220 gifts totaling over $25.2 million, and made over 3,700 grants totaling over $15.4 million invested back into the community.

In assessing its grants, he said, the Foundation found the biggest fields of interest that received funding were education, arts and culture, followed by housing and human services, religious activities, and health care, he said.

Today, with $189.4 million in assets and celebrating its 30th anniversary and the 100th anniversary of community foundations in the U.S., Triangle Community Foundation is “trying to stay in step with rapid growth in the region,” said Presnell, who serves as general counsel for the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

Retooling for impact

O’Keefe said the focus of the Foundation’s grantmaking is local, with three-fourths of all its grantmaking remaining in the Triangle, and donor advised funds accounting for nearly two-thirds of the grant dollars that stay in the region.

The Foundation has been retooling, looking for “how to best deploy the flexible funds that have been given to us by past and current donors, and how to put them back into the community for the best use,” she said.

In talking to donors, the Foundation learned that while they were “excited about the programs, they were not always sure how it connected back to their funds and grantmaking.”

And finding that donors already were funding programs in the areas of youth literacy, community development, the arts and the environment, she said, the Foundation decided to focus on capacity-building in those four areas.

Partnering for success

Jessica Aylor, director of community investment at Triangle Community Foundation, told guests at the TCF Connect event that partnerships with nonprofits is one of central roles the Foundation is playing.

“We are taking more of a partnership approach with our programs, trying to strengthen the capacity of nonprofits, giving them grants and putting them in learning cohorts” where they can learn from one another, she said. “Stronger nonprofits end up with greater impact in the community.”

Funding for the Foundation’s “People and Places” community programs that focus on youth literacy, community development, land conservation and the arts is available from Fund for the Triangle, created through gifts to the Foundation by donors “who wanted us to be more strategic in our funding,” she said.

Getting involved

In addition to donating money, said panelists at TCF Connect, donors to Triangle Community Foundation and to nonprofits have many other opportunities to get involved with nonprofits they care about.

Donors can contribute time as volunteers, either working directly with a nonprofit’s clients or in the back office, or can serve on boards, committees and task forces, they said.

At Marbles, for example, a donor could volunteer to help deliver programs or with committees such as one working on a master-planning process to expand the museum’s campus, Edwards said.

And at Triangle Family Services, donors can serve on boards, task forces or a facilities committee that currently is looking at how to get a sump pump for the organization, or can attend a coffee chat with the CEO on the first Friday of each month from 8:30 a.m. to 9:30 a.m.

Donors, nonprofits and local residents also can attend the Foundation’s What Matters event on April 1, 2015, that will feature stories about giving and data on the Triangle, and will focus on “how the region is changing and how to be thinking for years ahead,” Aylor said.

This past April, the What Matters event attracted 500 people and focused on community innovation.

“Community foundations,” she said, “are places for people to learn together and support causes they care about.”

O’Keefe agreed.

“The community foundation field is about connecting resources to opportunities and needs,” she said. “The more we learn together, the more work we can do.”

Collaboration seen as key to improving youth literacy

By Todd Cohen

[Note: This article was written for Triangle Community Foundation.]

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C. — At age three, Travis Mitchell got a first-hand lesson in the value of literacy.

Growing up in southeast Raleigh, he says, he spent many afternoons with his grandmother while his mother, a teacher, worked to earn credentials so she could get a counseling job in the Wake County public schools.

Although his grandmother had not gone to college, she “created an environment of learning,” he says. “There were books around I was required to use. There were conversations I was required to know something and share something about.”

Enriching kids with a culture of reading before they start school is critical to prepare them to succeed in school, in the workplace and in life, according to Mitchell and two other education leaders who spoke on October 9 to the Triangle Donors Forum.

The Donors Forum, hosted by Triangle Community Foundation and held at the offices of Research Triangle Park Foundation, spotlighted youth literacy, which is a focus of Triangle Community Foundation’s “People and Places” initiative to invest in pressing community needs in the region.

The challenge

Bob Saffold, who moderated the session and is vice president of the Smarter Learning Group, a national education consulting firm, said two-thirds of third graders in the U.S. do not read proficiently, a share that rises to 80 percent among third graders who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch at school.

In North Carolina, he said, 66 percent of fourth graders do not read proficiently, a share that rises to 78 percent among those who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

According to newly released state data, one in eight of last year’s third graders throughout the state either were retained in third grade this year or are in a special program to transition to fourth grade, Saffold said.

In the Triangle, the share of last year’s third graders who were retained or are in special transition programs this year total 18 percent in Durham County, 13 percent in Orange County, 10 percent in Wake County, and 6.5 percent each in Johnston County and the Chapel Hill-Carrboro schools, he said.

Yet despite huge gaps in reading levels between low-income children and those in middle-income and more affluent families, and between what those two groups of children achieve in life, Saffold said, “it’s within our capacity to make a difference.”

Starting early

Communities in Schools of Wake County in recent years has expanded its focus to children before they start school.

“We were beginning programs in kindergarten,” Mitchell says. “We were missing something. Students were already behind.”

To bridge the gap between students who were falling behind and those who were entering kindergarten prepared to read, Communities in Schools launched programs aimed at “preventing students getting behind in the first place,” he says.

In partnership with the federally-funded Head Start pre-school program and with Meredith College, for example, Communities in Schools retrofitted the SAS Learning Center in the Kentwood community to take a “holistic approach to invest in an earlier portion of the pipeline” of students headed for kindergarten, Mitchell says.

Long-term studies have found that students who participate in pre-school programs are more likely to graduate, be employed, earn a significantly higher median annual income, own a home, have a savings account and be arrested less often, he says.

“If we’re going to change the trajectory of children, we have to start early,” said Mitchell, who joined Communities in Schools as president four years ago after a career in broadcast journalism.

Teaching, tutoring, professional development

The Hill Center in Durham takes a three-pronged approach to youth literacy, Denise Morton, director of outreach at The Hill Center and former chief academic officer for the Orange County Schools who has a doctorate in education leadership, told the Donors Forum.

With one teacher for every four students, it operates a private school that provides three hours of instruction a day in reading, math and written language to 170 children from 77 other schools in the Triangle.

It provides tutoring after-school and in the summer for students from public schools in Wake, Durham and Orange counties and from the Chapel Hill-Carrboro schools.

And it provides professional development for teachers who want to learn its specialized technique, known as the Hill Reading Achievement Program, for reading intervention.

Over the last six years, the Hill Center has served over 12,000 educators, including 125 teachers from 13 school districts in the state who are putting those techniques into practice for the first time this year.

And the Hill Reading Achievement Program has been replicated in Geneva, El Salvador, and Colorado Springs.

The Hill Center “wants to spread understanding and services to help children learn to read and read well,” Morton said.

Collaborating on early literacy

Improving the way young children and students learn to read requires careful collaboration among public schools, nonprofits and funding organizations, the experts at the Donors Forum said.

And effective collaboration, they said, requires changing the thinking about reading programs; securing funding over multiple years from multiple funders; and collecting and sharing data to measure the impact of early-intervention reading programs.

Schools and school districts “often have real difficulty engaging with community partners” and “sometimes have a real tin ear on collaboration and public relations,” said Saffold, a former teacher and school administrator whose father also an educator.

Mitchell said “political gridlock and partisan debates” often can stifle innovation. “The environment is very risk-averse,” both at the district level and often at the school level, he said.

So collaborating with schools requires that nonprofits “change our own mindset.”

The best way to engage a school system, Mitchell said, “is to come in willing to listen to possible gaps and how to help, and bring in resources to make it easy for the principal or superintendent to engage.”

And to be effective, he said, partnerships require taking risks and working hard.

“Collaboration is messy,” he said. “Nobody wants to talk about what happens when collaboration doesn’t work. You need a willingness to fail in order to succeed. If you don’t meet your goals, retool, don’t stop.”

Adding value

Morton, who was a special education teacher for 14 years, mainly in Alamance County, said efforts to partner on youth literacy programs with public schools should begin with identifying what the schools need and want and then finding ways to work with the schools to address those needs.

Understanding the larger context of policy and funding discussions and decisions at the state legislature is key to avoid being “left in a silo,” she said, as is understanding “what you’re walking into in a school district. Every one is different.”

It also is important in approaching a school system “to know the right person to get to at the central office,” she said, “There are layers of people. You have to know who has the power or you spin wheels.”

Data essential

Equally essential is agreeing in the partnership contract with schools to gather and share data on the progress students are making.

Saffold that “one of the key barriers to effective collaboration with school systems is around the systems’ reluctance to share data needed to track progress and identify gaps in programs to tweak programs,” he said.

Morton agreed.

“It’s real important we have data,” she said. “People won’t pay attention unless there’s a proven track record.”

Mitchell said data not only are essential for funders and partners but also can make a big difference among the staff of the agencies partnering with the schools.

“If you can begin to explain to staff how effective they’re being with the use of their time,” by the end of the year they “can see how they really changed the game for their students,” he said. “Our theory of change is that programs don’t change people, relationships do.”

So having data that measure the progress of a collaborative effort has helped “increase morale and momentum for the organization internally,” he said.

Going to scale

Fostering a culture of collaboration is essential to the success of youth literacy programs, the experts told the Donors Forum.

“We make every effort to connect with as many organizations as possible with a similar focus,” Morton said.

Mitchell said funders want to know in advance what the “return on investment” will be and are looking for metrics that will gauge the “collective community impact” of their funding.

They also want to invest in partnerships that can be expanded and already have the “administrative capacity” to expand, Mitchell said.

Taking such programs “to scale,” he said, requires funding from three to five funders over multiple years.

Morton said the least successful initiatives are those that involve funding for one year only, known as “one and done.”

Collaboration essential

Schools and school districts cannot on their own improve student performance in reading, Saffold said.

“We need to craft and implement a set of community solutions to improve literacy,” he said. “There’s a major role for nonprofits and foundations to get involved to move the needle on literacy.”

Donor advised fund focuses on Chatham County

By Todd Cohen

[Note: This article was written for Triangle Community Foundation.]

FEARRINGTON VILLAGE, N.C. — Chatham Outreach Alliance, a food bank in Pittsboro, provides a summer feeding program for kids.

Family Violence and Rape Crisis Services, also in Pittsboro, provides services to battered women and sexual assault victims.

And Boys and Girls Clubs of Eastern Piedmont, in Siler City, provides a safe place for young people to learn and grow.

All three nonprofits are among dozens in Chatham County that have received a total of over $1 million since 2008 from the Arthur Carlsen Charitable Fund, a donor advised fund the late Arthur Carlsen established at Triangle Community Foundation to benefit nonprofits based or operating in Chatham County.

“There is a trickle effect of one man’s decision to give, and it’s visible here in Chatham County,” says Carl Thompson, a member of the Foundation’s board of directors and director of continuing education for the Chatham County campus of Central Carolinas Community College “Because of his deep care and concern for his fellow residents, he has made a difference in Chatham  County that continues to grow.”

Thompson spoke September 10 at a reception the Foundation hosted at The Garden Terrace at Fearrington Village to celebrate the milestone the Carlsen Fund has passed in awarding over $1 million grants.

Carlsen, who died in September 2006, one month shy of his 91st birthday, was a retailer who was born in New York City and settled in North Carolina with his wife, Alice Lee Yeats, who predeceased him. He spent his final years in Fearrington Village, had no blood relatives, and left the majority of his accumulated wealth to the Foundation.

He set up the fund to benefit Fearrington Cares, which provides support, services and programs for residents of Fearrington Village, and to support other community organizations.

Grants from the Carlsen Fund have supported direct human services, the arts, food security, and education, among other causes.

Lori O’Keefe, president of Triangle Community Foundation, says the Carlsen Fund reflects the Foundation’s commitment to serving diverse needs in the region.

“While the Foundation has a regional focus on the Triangle, we understand that each community has very diverse qualities that make it unique,” she told 50 guests attending the reception. “It is vital to us that we continue to learn about these specific needs alongside each of you, as our region grows and changes.”

Veronica Hemmingway, senior donor engagement officer at the Foundation, says the Carlsen Fund is one of the largest sources of philanthropy for Chatham County and accounts for roughly half the Foundation’s annual giving to support causes in the county.

The fund also represents one of the few sources of general operating support for nonprofits in the county, she says.

Thompson, who was born and raised in Chatham County and served for 16 years on the Chatham County Board of Commissioners, says that, on paper, the county would seem to be “very prosperous.”

It trails only four of North Carolina’s other 99 counties in per-capita income, for example, while its education level per-capita also ranks among the highest in the state and its unemployment rate among the lowest.

But the the western part of the county is a different story, he says, with much lower income and education per-capita, and slightly higher unemployment.

With growing global competition, he says, parts of the county like Siler City “lost a lot of industry and manufacturing plants,” and are home to “a lot of vacant buildings and lost jobs.”

Nonprofits in the county provide people in need with critical services such as education, including literacy, and basic services such as food, Thompson says.

And while the Carlsen Fund represents one of the county’s largest sources of philanthropy, more support is needed, he says.

“We know we can’t do it alone,” he said at the reception. “The legacy of Arthur Carlsen is strong and impactful, but we need continued support in this community to make his dreams a reality — and enhance the lives of all who live here.”