The power of philanthropy to transform Arkansas communities

October 8, 2013

"I want change now," says Sherece West-Scantlebury (MPP '89). "I want the solutions now to solve old and difficult problems that keep Arkansas in the bottom five on indicators of children and family well-being. I want us to be number one on those indicators today." The Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation (WRF) in Little Rock does the kind of philanthropic giving that can help Arkansas' many nonprofit organizations make that goal a reality. West-Scantlebury, WRF's president and CEO, is happy to pilot the ship.

In 2008, WRF initiated Moving the Needle, a 10-year plan to reduce poverty and increase economic mobility; increase high school, vocational, and college graduation rates; strengthen communities; and build nonprofit infrastructure in Arkansas. West-Scantlebury speaks passionately about that last bit in particular because supporting nonprofits is a central objective of the foundation. The organization takes a holistic approach to grantmaking that seeks to transform Arkansans' lives—particularly vulnerable and underserved groups—for the better.

"We don't just write a check and move on," she explains. "Powerful change requires powerful movements. Powerful movements require powerful organizations. We provide strategic assistance that builds leadership and strengthens organizations and seeds long-term solutions."

The foundation helps nonprofits do what they do best and for the long haul—which might mean consulting with them on everything from how to develop organizational policies and manage finances to putting together a board of directors. In 2012, WRF made more than $4 million in grants to 65 groups. This year's grants are funding, among many others, an organization that prepares African American and Latino youth for college; a statewide organization working in rural Arkansas counties to revitalize communities; educational and job training programs for young adults; and a program focused on empowering immigrant workers.

WRF also invests in research that will inform public policy debates and doesn't shy away from placing large bets on enterprises it believes will offer innovative solutions to persistent social problems. It's the kind of risk, West-Scantlebury says, that independent foundations such as WRF can, and should, take. "We invest where private markets will not," she points out. "We capitalize loan funds to spur entrepreneurship in rural communities. We incubate emerging nonprofit organizations whose mission aligns with WRF. We support housing and business development in impoverished communities. We fund advocacy and organizing."

The needle is moving, West-Scantlebury says, but there is much more to do. Having worked in philanthropy for more than 20 years—she previously was CEO of the Foundation for Louisiana—she considers her work a "responsibility, passion, and honor" and is grateful that her personal mission aligns with WRF's: to transform vulnerable communities into healthy, vibrant communities.