The future of philanthropy in Memphis is certainly not etched in stone. There’s a lot going on and philanthropy professionals are working to stay ahead of what’s coming, working to understand what all the parties want, from big foundations to smaller donors to corporate philanthropy to the nonprofits who sometimes live or die by the degree of generosity that’s out there.

Robert M. Fockler, president of the Community Foundation of Greater Memphis, is in a particularly good position to observe the big picture. The Community Foundation was created to manage private philanthropy for families in Memphis. It started small but now works with about 800 families in town. “Our assets now are about $475 million,” Fockler says, “and last year we gave away $178 million. So that’s a lot of impact.”

The Community Foundation reaches that level in part because it has opportunities to work with private foundations. There have been many partnerships, but Fockler mentions Teacher Town in particular.

“Originally Teacher Town was the initiative to reform K-12 education in Memphis that was really led by the Hyde Family, Poplar, and Pyramid Peak foundations,” Fockler says, “but we were sort of a central gathering point where corporate and other philanthropists could participate in what they were doing. We continue to do that, to find more ways to be big or small servers, or servants to the private foundations.”

Fockler says the Community Foundation is increasingly involved in being something of a community banker for government. “Things like the Harahan Bridge,” he says, “and things like processing of rape kits. Also for the city’s participation in the MLK50 commemoration. We had a fund here set up for that, and then looking forward, the city and county have just set up a fund here for the 200th anniversary of Memphis and Shelby County.”

The Community Foundation also created, with other funders,, which is a central data library with a wide array of information. And is the go-to place for nonprofit information as a comprehensive nonprofit database. “I think we had 20 partners in creating those things,” Fockler says. “That’s a perfect example of access to information for private foundations, but also to citizens on the street. Whether they’re running a neighborhood association or trying to figure out where to get $50, it has been a huge service and we think that was kind of our role to throw information out there to be used however it wants to be used.”

Fockler sees two important changes coming in philanthropy. “I think that some of the traditional funders and foundations are going to be looking at where they want to be in 10 years,” he says, “and they may well not be the same as they are today. They may look at either getting out of the business or figuring out who replaces them. Existing funders are very interested in who is coming behind them, creating the next generation of the Hydes and the Ploughs.”

While change often comes with uncertainty, Fockler is encouraged by where things are at this moment in the Memphis timeline. “For the first time since I’ve been here — and I’ve been here for 44 years — the economy feels stable enough and we’re attracting young professionals. It finally feels like there’s really some possibility of creating economic opportunity that may result in some people stepping into those kinds of roles. I think a lot of the folks that represent Memphis philanthropy, the faces will certainly change and maybe the surnames will change as well.”

Institutions are already cultivating younger people, Fockler says, both to give and to promote philanthropic endeavors: “A lot of organizations, including the Community Foundation, have some sort of young professional programs. Our GiVE 365 Program is a great opportunity for young folks to get involved.”

The program, started in 2010, lets members, who are emerging philanthropists, pool their money. Members donate $365 (or more) for a yearlong membership. The money goes into the collective kitty and members decide which organizations get funding. Half goes to grants for the upcoming year, and half is put into an endowment.

The traditional foundation world is also looking to the future: “The best example I’ve seen is the Wilson family. The third generation is participating in the Kemmons Wilson Family Foundation, and I think we’re probably not far away from seeing the fourth generation involved.” 

Changes in philanthropic organizations are reflecting concerns that donors have. Donors want data from nonprofits that shows what the programs are doing. Even a long-time giver might reconsider.

“The best example of that is probably United Way,” Fockler says. “I’ve been involved in United Way since 1982. Historically, as generous as it is, United Way was something natural for people with charitable intent. But I think that strategically, United Way came to the conclusion that they’re tending to treat the same symptoms over and over again. And that’s where their movement came toward trying to solve the issue of poverty, which is a pretty steep hill. But rather than just continuing to treat the same issues that they’ve been treating for the last 40 years, they wanted to actually try to fix something. And United Way’s brand is probably the best example of wrestling with that.”

The Community Foundation has an initiative of its own with the aim of being flexible enough to go where it’s needed. “We have some of our own funds that we can invest in the community through what we call the Community Partnership Funds,” Fockler says. “It’s about a million dollars a year, which sounds like a lot, but obviously solving any problems in Memphis with a million dollars a year — well, its not a lot of money. We asked what’s the wisest use of that money in a fairly short time?”

One thing they discovered was that so much of the money being spent on K-12 education was going into the classroom — sustaining teachers, building schools, and so on. The big gap, it turned out, was in after school and summer programming. “It is a huge need,” he says.

Fockler says the first results of the first five investments were made known last spring: “In four out of five cases the results were really pretty staggering. In the case of Porter-Leath, which was one of our partners there, I think they set the goal of taking their kids going into kindergarten, having 75 percent of them kindergarten ready. I think they ended up with 81 percent kindergarten ready, which in Memphis, those are pretty staggering numbers. When we’re pulling kids through the system and 81 percent are showing up to kindergarten in the fall ready to learn at level, that’s pretty impressive.”

Fockler has ideas about where he wants the Community Foundation to go. He says: “We want to create a forward looking endowment that says, if we’re worried about Memphis today, tomorrow, 50 years from now, maybe we need to start saving for that today. And putting it in the hands of the broader community, rather than having to live off any one family’s agenda or any one corporation’s agenda, we’ll ask what the broader community wants.”

Needs change over time. “What people want may be something very different in five years, or 20 years from now,” Fockler says. “So we want to start challenging Memphians, including our donors to say ‘You’re doing great stuff today, but what about tomorrow? What do we do to secure the future of Memphis?’”