Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The Insider: Gladys Washington, Program Director of the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation

Meet our latest Insider, Gladys Washington, Program Director of the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation, a private family foundation based in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.  In her role, Gladys helps people and places across the southeastern United States to move up and out of poverty.  The Foundation supports organizations and networks working in low-wealth communities that are poised to expand their scale of impact and are working across racial, ethnic, economic, and political differences to build just and caring communities. Gladys works with the Foundation's applicants and grantees in the Gulf Coast and Delta regions of the South, and she has directed the Foundation’s programs in grassroots leadership development and community problem solving.

Gladys's own background gives her first-hand knowledge and experience in working with those living in poverty and low-income communities. Before her career in philanthropy, Gladys worked in Corrections at an all male prison as a means to lift herself and young son out of poverty. However, she realized that the position was not uplifting to the Black community and subsequently resigned to return to school, earning a Master's degree in Public Administration.

Read on to learn how Gladys got her start in philanthropy, her advice for those pursuing a career in philanthropy and the nonprofit sector, and tips for grantseekers.

Hometown: Ocala, Florida

Education: BA in Political Science from the College of Charleston, Charleston, SC; Masters in Public Administration, Universities of South Carolina and Charleston (dual degree)

Previous Positions: Senior Program Officer, Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation; Program Officer, Community Foundation Serving Coastal South Carolina

Civic Involvement: Chair, Board of Directors – Association of  Black Foundation Executives

How did you get your start in philanthropy?

In a previous life, I ran a maximum security unit at an all-male prison in South Carolina. As a young, undereducated, underemployed single mother, I began working in Corrections as the means to lift myself and my young son out of poverty. At some point during my career, I realized that I was not uplifting African American people in that role. I understood, up close and personal, the revolving door of the prison industrial complex and its impact on African American and low-wealth people in this country. I resigned from my position and returned to complete my undergraduate degree. I was then offered the opportunity to pursue a master's degree with a graduate assistantship at the Institute of Public Affairs and Policy Studies at the University of Charleston. I chose not to conduct research and was assigned to work with the local community foundation to support the development and integration of a neighborhood development program into the focus areas of the foundation. It was there that my exposure to philanthropy developed into a passion and career.

What advice do you have for those pursuing a career in philanthropy and the nonprofit sector?

I sincerely believe that a career in philanthropy and the nonprofit sector is, to some degree, a calling. Certainly, one must have an educational background that validates learning and matriculation through an organized system. However, philanthropy is about learning every day. Learning every day requires an open heart, strong listening skills and most of all, humility. I am a generalist not a specialist, meaning that I know a good deal about a number of strategies that assist people and communities along pathways out of poverty. I did not learn those things in a classroom. I learned them from folks on the ground doing the work and changing people’s lives in real and deep ways. Working with people is a great deal more fulfilling and effective than doing for people. Be humble!!!

What are your thoughts on diversity and inclusion in philanthropy?

I believe that philanthropy and the nonprofit sector have a ways to go toward equity. Fairness requires that race and ethnicity be honored and valued as fundamental elements of inclusiveness. Philanthropy is not excluded from the systems and policies that support the unfair treatment of people of color. Conversations at the institutional and sector levels must continue and policies must be implemented to ensure changed behavior and outcomes.

What are three tips for organizations seeking grants?
  1. Do your homework: Research funding matches for your work and don't waste time on those foundations whose priorities do not match with the work you are doing.
  2. Avoid mission drift: Do not change your primary mission and focus to meet the needs of a foundation. Foundations change priorities and nonprofits are often left without sources of support because the organization has translated their work through the priorities of a foundation.
  3. Build your internal capacity: Strengthen the governance and operational structures of your organization to weather both good and bad times. Strengthen your organization's capacity to represent investment in itself by creating diverse funding streams, engage the board in fundraising, and build in systems for continuous evaluation and impact.
What is one of the greatest career lessons you’ve learned?

The greatest career lesson I have learned is that above all else I must be my authentic self. I am an African American woman with strong values about integrity, honesty, humility and a hopefulness that positive change can occur in the lives and communities of people I care deeply about. That is who I am, my true soul and spirit, personally and professionally. The two cannot be separated.

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