The Give:  Kate B. Reynolds' Allen Smart Sees

U.S. Funders Opening Up to New Possibilities 

 

By Cheryl Brownstein-Santiago

 

 

The director of the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust's Health Care Division has traveled from his native New England to Minnesota and Michigan, from Chicago to Santa Monica, CA, and from Louisiana to North Carolina in pursuit of his education and civil sector career.

 

The journeys of Allen Smart, 50, have taken him to a position overseeing three-quarters of the grantmaking for North Carolina's largest private community health funder. He estimates that the Trust distributes between $18 million and $22 million a year, primarily in rural areas.

 

 "Our mission is to focus on the health of financially disadvantaged people, so there are certain things we do and certain things that we don't do, because they may not have enough of an impact on the lower-income communities," he said.

 

The U.S. philanthropic sector in general, he says, is looking at longer term commitments and moving to help fund possibilities, rather than sticking closely to the tried and true.

 

The Trust's concern for reaching out to all of North Carolina's communities contributed to its decision to join HIP's North Carolina Funders Collaborative earlier this year. "We've got the sixth fastest growing Latino population of any state," he said, adding that the connection is particularly helpful for the Trust's outreach efforts.

 

The geographic, cultural and linguistic isolation of people in need are of concern to the Trust generally and to Smart in particular. He was the only child of native French speakers who themselves grew up in such a remote area of Aroostook County, in northern Maine, that hardly anyone there made it beyond eighth grade because the closest high school was too far to get to in the harsh winters.

 

While his father worked in a factory that machined parts for the auto industry and his mother worked in a textile plant, Smart earned a bachelor of arts from Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., and masters degrees in Telecommunication Arts from the University of Michigan and in Public Health from the University of Illinois at Chicago.

 

He started his career working in grant writing and program administration at a community action agency in Waterbury, Conn., and later moved to work for the City of Santa Monica. Eventually, he worked in community health program development with a Catholic hospital system in Indiana.

 

"I had a dream going straight out of undergraduate school that I wanted to be involved in documentary film," he recalled. "The public health came later, when I was involved in the hospital work and was flying by the seat of my pants. So I needed a little more of a grounding in the theory of what I was doing on the job at that time."

 

Smart was vice president of programs at The Rapides Foundation in Louisiana before joining the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust, based in Winston-Salem, NC, in 2006 as Health Care Division senior program officer for the eastern part of the state.

 

It was while working in Chicago in 1991 that he met his wife, a hospice industry nurse-administrator, at a concert of The Sin City Disciples band. They have an eight-year-old son, who is active in youth hockey. 

 

Smart still enjoys "finding social groups around live music" and recently returned from the outdoor Salmonstock music festival in Alaska for an environmental organization that is concerned with the viability of the salmon population.  

 

The Interview:

 

CB:  Are there special challenges in serving the Latino communities in your state?

 

AS:  I think as a funder, but also if you talk about state government [outreach efforts, it's hard], because they are so rural that the isolation of these Latino communities is profound. There may be two communities in different counties ... and they might not even know about each other. [It affects] what services people do get and how local government thinks about them. It's very challenging. Certainly in Charlotte and Durham and Raleigh, there are some communities that are bigger. We have been particularly interested in Latino mental health issues -- substance abuse services with culturally appropriate organizations connected to the services.

 

 

CB:  How has the Trust's joining the HIP North Carolina Funders Collaborative helped?

 

AS:  When I moved into a leadership role, it just seemed a natural move to have another tool to attach ourselves to communities that could use some of our help. ... We're at the stage now in learning what other funders are funding and how they're funding Latino-led organizations, because prior to engaging with HIP we had maybe a handful of [Latino] organizations. But we hadn't sought them out.

 

HIP is potentially a vehicle to connect us with those organizations. I will be doing a lot of site visits with organizations that I haven't even heard of before -- my staff as well. They had a [round] and got something like 46 responses, so we are going to be on the ground starting [in September].

 

 

CB:  Have you seen changes in the way philanthropy in general approaches funding for Latino communities?

 

AS:  The approach of philanthropy historically making a scatter-shot group of grants for a year or two [and moving onto something else without effective change] ... . I think that era is coming to an end. There are longer term commitments to work with people over five years.

 

To some degree, we've seen the lack of success of this kind of gerbil wheel of grantmaking, and we need to work more fundamentally on community improvement. So for this emerging [Latino population... we have to find new ways. HIP is one way, and we hope to find others. We have to find better ways of reaching and helping people. And, if they know you're going to be there for five years or 10 years, this allows a different kind of conversation.

 

 

CB:  How do you see the field of philanthropy changing?

 

AS:  It started about five years ago. There's going to be a lot more partnerships and collaboration with local state and federal government... It works both ways. We're being asked often to be the source of information, or the source of best practice. Government is looking to come behind us at times and kind of supplement what we're doing. ...We're increasingly involved in those discussions, and we would never have  been 10 years ago.

 

 

CB:  How does that shift help nonprofits and their clients?

 

AS:  Maybe we can be useful in helping nonprofits and targeting certain populations and getting them to look at how they do things and reach people. Every nonprofit is not as effective as another nonprofit, and they're not all the same. Some are more committed to do the emerging work. So, hopefully, this will translate into better work and better opportunity for people.

 

 

CB:  What can philanthropy be doing more of for the Latino communities?

 

AS:  I think philanthropy needs to loosen up their burdensome eligibility criteria where budgets have to be a certain size or .... sometimes the best organizations don't fit your eligibility screen. Sometimes, if you want to get at people you want to help, you have to expand the toolbox. ... We haven't mastered it all, but I think as a field, we've got to come around to that.

 

 

 

CB:  Are you aware of progress being made in the field of cultural competence in health care?

 

AS:  I think they often have interpreters and Spanish-language written materials. I'm sure North Carolina and around the country we certainly need more and better of that. I think there's certainly less attention to some things. The backgrounds, educational levels and belief systems of Latinos in North Carolina are not homogenous. [Too often, people are viewed as:] "That's a Spanish-speaking person," as opposed to someone who came from a very rural part of Mexico, or that's someone who is a Columbia graduate. Health systems aren't set up to distinguish between people like that. The second part is if people come in with different belief systems, who controls how long you live? ... In the continuum of care, the American system has its own belief system, and [too often] there's a mismatch of belief systems. So there's plenty of work to be done there.

 

 

CB:  How do you see the future of philanthropy generally?

 

AS:  Philanthropy is in kind of a transitional period, where we are quickly moving away from the idea where a grant or a program can change anything. We're quickly realizing that we need to work in a different way that really tries to respond to the way people live and work and need help. We have the saying that you can't grant your way out of a problem. That's not to say there won't be funders doing nice work and on a limited scale. Funders became very metrics focused and risk averse. In California, there ... are funders who are interested in doing this is a different way, I guess. ... more fluid.

 

We've been talking about it with people here in North Carolina. And then there is clearly a group of California funders, family funders [who are interested in] reinventing how funders do business. We're not alone. I think this will resonate with other funders. People have just started talking about this in the past couple of years, but I think this will be a real shift to break through those paradigms.