Updated November 2016 — Editor's Note: Karen McNeil Miller left the KBR Trust in 2015. Dr. Laura Gerald was announced as the trust's new president in May 2016.
As the daughter of a prosperous area farmer and the wife of William Neal Reynolds — President and Chairman of the Board at R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company — Kate Bitting Reynolds enjoyed a leading position in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, society in the early 20th century.
Not content to simply retreat to her estate, the generous Reynolds felt compelled to apply her resources and influence toward fighting poverty and extending access to quality health care in her community. Along with her sister-in-law, Katherine Reynolds, she pursued a life of active philanthropy. In Winston-Salem: A History, historian Frank V. Tursi describes their role: "They did more for Winston-Salem than any other women in the city's history. They were their husbands' consciences, pushing for better wages and working conditions for factory employees. They started hospitals, built schools and an elegant auditorium, and left behind a charitable foundation that has helped thousands of North Carolina's needy."
That foundation, the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust (KBR Trust), has truly been an extension of Reynolds' life, designed with the goal of fighting poverty in Forsyth County and improving health care throughout North Carolina. Created in 1934, in the midst the Great Depression, the trust went into effect in 1947, after Reynolds' death. Over the years, the initial $4 million in assets from Reynolds' estate has grown to more than $590 million, and the trust, with Wells Fargo serving as trustee, has invested more than $550 million in improving life for people in need across the state.
The KBR Trust, which has a staff of 14, works with Wells Fargo, its advisory councils, and other local, state, and national nonprofits to craft collaborative solutions designed to improve health and fight poverty. "It's an awesome responsibility to have been entrusted with, because this isn't theory," says McNeil-Miller, the trust's president from 2005–2015. "This is really somebody's life, and we have the responsibility, with the trustee, of interpreting [Reynolds'] vision and honoring her legacy and her gift."
Maintaining the vision
The KBR Trust began with a group of trustees, composed of the bank and three individuals — Kate Reynolds' husband, her nephew, and the Reynolds' personal secretary. Funding was split across two divisions: The Health Care Division received 75 percent of funds to address health care concerns across the state, and the Poor and Needy Division received 25 percent of funds for programs aimed at fighting poverty among needy residents of Forsyth County.
The basic goals and structure of the trust have not changed over the years, although the formality and methods have. Early disbursements from the trust reflected a small-town, personal approach. Checks were written to individuals for specific needs. "That's how you got a grant," says Allen Smart, the KBR Trust's Vice President of Programs. "You went into the mayor's office and said you needed glasses or dentures. It's a little different now."
Chris Spaugh, Senior Vice President – Philanthropic Strategist, Wells Fargo Philanthropic Services, credits Kate Reynolds and the original framers of the trust with having the wisdom to be specific enough to help future generations maintain the vision, and flexible enough to allow the organization to grow over seven decades to meet the needs of a changing world. "Although the faces and the situations changed, she had the foresight to know there were always going to be poor people and there was always going to be a need for medical care for people who can't afford it," he says. That understanding of her world and the difference she wanted to make set the trust on a clear path.
The grant is just the beginning
"One of the things we've learned is that if you really want lasting, life-changing events to happen, they don't happen in one- and two-year grant segments," McNeil-Miller says. "They happen over time, and so we have to be in it for the long haul. We have to learn to measure our success differently, and we have to know what the markers are along the way, because ultimate success is going to be 15, 16 years down the road."
This means that the trust's leadership had to stop thinking of themselves as simply sources of money, but instead work with the nonprofits they fund as partners. The KBR Trust provides support for grantees to help them become more effective in their projects, helping them build leadership and capacity as well as develop their overall fundraising plans. The trust has brought different nonprofits together to talk with each other about best practices. "We really have embraced the notion that our work really is only beginning when you cut the check," McNeil-Miller says. The KBR Trust brings on consultants who work with grantees to help them learn how to be more efficient and focused.
One such instance of taking things beyond just a check is the KBR Trust's Healthy Places NC initiative. Program officers — staff members from the organization who are assigned to specific areas of the state — go out into rural communities in some of the state's poorest counties to talk with local leaders and find out what health issues are most concerning for them. Common themes they hear are childhood obesity, diabetes, and helping older adults be more physically active. Then the staff figures out how to bring resources to help local leaders find solutions. "It's different work for us," says McNeil-Miller. "It's convening or providing expertise. It's helping them figure out what the grants are and who they should be working with. We're not leading with the money."
Flexibility and focus
This new way of doing work in the community also requires having the flexibility to work outside of the regular cycle of application and review of grant requests when needed, especially as local nonprofits and government agencies have struggled to provide aid during the economic downturn and slow recovery. For example, in 2013 the KBR Trust partnered with other agencies and nonprofits to step in when a software error caused delays in food stamp delivery for numerous families. The KBR Trust worked with the United Way, the Winston-Salem Foundation, the Department of Social Services (DSS), and three area food pantries to come up with a solution. "At a one-hour meeting, we had a plan that DSS could give a family a voucher to go to any of those three pantries and get two weeks' worth of groceries," says McNeil-Miller. "The funders just said, 'We'll figure it out. We'll fund it. Just make it happen.'"
Rather than going through a regular grant cycle, even a short one, the KBR Trust and other funders were able to put together a plan for immediate relief of a short-term problem. For this and other such projects, McNeil-Miller credits Wells Fargo as trustee for understanding that needs don't always run concurrent with grant cycles, and for allowing the trust the flexibility to act quickly. "Things come up that, because of an immediate need, can't always wait four months for us to go through our process, so being able to do some grants off-cycle has been really helpful."
McNeil-Miller also notes that their success over the last five or six years has been the result of a more focused approach. "We stopped trying to be just the benevolent funder of institutions," she says. "We decided to tackle certain issues. That was a shift for us, to go from funding nonprofits and activities to funding issue improvement and issue movement."
The Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust's focused and "place-based" methods have meant that one woman's passion and foresight has had a greater impact than anyone could have imagined more than 70 years ago. And no one forgets what this one compassionate woman began. "We like to think Mrs. Reynolds would be proud," says McNeil-Miller.