Taking a Step Back: Understanding North Carolina’s Changing Landscape

Nov 7, 2016 | Features, Philanthropy Journal, Philanthropy, Voluntarism, and Grant-Making Foundation

As an institution that is dedicated to improving the quality of life of all North Carolinians, the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation sees the need for listening to communities as the only way forward.

mo-green-head-shot_revised Special to the Philanthropy Journal

By Mo Green, Executive Director of Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation

During my seven-year tenure as superintendent of Guilford County Schools, I was committed to listening to and learning from others. I listened to parents, teachers and students to understand what we could do in order to make our schools better for each child. Much of that listening and learning contributed to the development of the school district’s first-ever strategic plan, which through the work of many, resulted in notable student achievements, both academic and non-academic.

zsr-logo_revisedToday, I am privileged to work in a new role as the executive director of the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, where I continue to find that there is tremendous value in listening to and learning from individuals, groups and communities.

The Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation currently supports nonprofit organizations across the state that are working to improve public education, preserve and protect the environment, promote economic opportunity for people of diverse backgrounds, engage more individuals in the democratic process, and elevate the dignity of all. Since 1936, the Foundation has invested more than $535 million across North Carolina.

However, in recent years, the Foundation has recognized that communities across the state are changing in rapid and fundamental ways. For example, technology is transforming our personal and professional lives, the demographic makeup of our communities is shifting, and our cities are expanding quickly, while small towns and rural areas are often left behind. To this end, in May 2016, the Foundation embarked on a yearlong strategic assessment to better understand the trends and changes happening across the state, as well as to examine our approach to our work in order to best serve North Carolina communities moving forward.

zsr-article-image-1_revisedAs part of this assessment, the Foundation embarked on a statewide listening and learning tour called Mo Wants to Know, where Trustees, staff and I are meeting with local leaders and members of the community to hear directly from them about these trends and changes, as well as successes and opportunities that lie ahead.

All of the insights we gather throughout the course of our conversations, along with the data from research we compile, will help inform the Foundation’s strategic direction and the development of a new strategic plan, which we plan to release in May 2017.

To ensure that we are being as inclusive as possible and hearing from as many voices as we can, Mo Wants to Know has taken on a multi-pronged approach.

We have held large scale community gatherings – in Winston-Salem, Charlotte, Asheville, Durham and Raleigh – where we have connected with members of the community to get to know them and for them to get to know us. We spent an evening in each of these places discussing more about our strategic assessment process and collecting thoughts on ways in which we can all work together to make North Carolina a better place.

Over the course of two days, we brought together data experts from across the state to help us make meaning of the trends we are seeing. Hearing their perspective on a changing state, through a data lens, has been invaluable to better understanding where we are and where we are headed as a state.

zsr-article-image-2_revisedIn addition to hundreds of meetings I have already had with various individuals and groups since coming to the Foundation seven months ago, we have spent time in communities learning about the changes they have been experiencing as it relates to demographics, workforce development, the environment, and education, to name a few. And since we cannot travel to all 100 counties, we have selected a handful of communities that we hope will provide us with a better sense of trends that are emerging across the state or that other communities might be grappling with.

Lastly, because we value all perspectives, yet cannot reach everyone, we have established an online platform where we are encouraging all North Carolinians to send us ideas about their own communities and our state’s future.

The question we are posing is: What are your game changing ideas and innovative solutions that the Foundation can explore in order to make North Carolina a better place?

Thoughts and ideas can be submitted by going to the Foundation’s homepage, www.zsr.org, or by visiting our Facebook and Twitter pages and using the hashtags #MoWantsToKnow and #EnvisionNC.

We have heard from many about challenges and opportunities as well as ideas and suggestions, yet what we have noticed, through all of our interactions both online and in person, is the steadfast determination that people in North Carolina have to make their communities, and this state, a thriving place to live and work.

zsr-article-image-3_revisedWhat has also resonated has been the pride that every individual has shown for their community as well as a commitment to improving conditions for future generations. There has been recognition that there are a number of hurdles to overcome within each place, but also the acknowledgement that there is ample opportunity for growth.

While the Foundation is still trying to determine how all of the information we are gleaning will be incorporated into our strategic plan, the relationships we are building, the conversations we are having and the connections to community we are creating, have and will be crucial, as we think about our work and determine our role as an institution. We will continue to rely on the great people of this state, and those doing the hard work, to guide us as we craft our new vision that will be shared next year.

We are also so grateful to the many North Carolinians who have welcomed us to their communities, shared openly with us and provided us with valuable insights throughout this process. And while we cannot promise we will take action on every idea we receive, we do promise that if you tell us, we will listen.

As an institution that is dedicated to improving the quality of life of all North Carolinians, we know that sometimes taking a step back is the only way to move forward. And based on all we are hearing, we are excited, inspired and hopeful about the future.

Maurice “Mo” Green is the executive director of the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, a private, statewide foundation that is based in Winston-Salem. Green joined the Foundation in March 2016 after completing more than seven years as superintendent of Guilford County Schools.

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