Inside Memphis Business set out to discover what’s going on in the local philanthropy community. We found four women who are or have been closely involved in the business and administration of philanthropy and who are keenly aware of the challenges Memphis presents to donors, nonprofits, and recipients. The city presents an ever-changing landscape for donors who want to continue to find the best way to give meaningfully. And these women are the next generation of leaders in the local philanthropic sector.

Our expert roundtable includes Lauren Young, formerly executive director of the Kemmons Wilson Family Foundation and now owner of Sweet Lala’s Bakery, which is in partnership with JIFF, a nonprofit that works to keep former juvenile offenders out of the criminal justice system; Jenny Koltnow, director of communications and development for Church Health; Melissa Whitby, vice president of development for Bridges; and Lauren Taylor, senior program director at the Hyde Family Foundation.

The four are more than colleagues. They are friends who have known each other for several years and often get together to talk about the state of philanthropy in Memphis. 

Here are excerpts from the wide-ranging discussion about philanthropy in Memphis:

How is the philanthropic scene in Memphis changing?

Jenny Koltnow: There’s a consciousness of change. And there are so many different issues that impact our nonprofit organizations, our philanthropic institutions, and how we make decisions, and how we use resources. There’s a heightened consciousness of what’s going on in the world, so that really impacts, not only philanthropic decisions and where the funds go, but also how our nonprofits respond in that we can’t sit quietly and just take it in. We all have to actively participate in finding solutions in the conversation. Oftentimes, we’re all forced out of our comfort zone so we have to break with tradition and legacy in order to be relevant and respond to current issues.

With all of this going on, there is an enormous emphasis on collaboration. Our organizations have to find ways to pool resources, to share ideas, to come up with better answers because the urgency and the need to deliver impact is greater than ever. The attention span challenges that we have in our society filter into the philanthropic space. People want us to get it right now. But we can’t just go about our business. We have to be relevant to provide value and really be effective. I think the expectation of effectiveness is greater than it’s been in the past, even five years ago.

Lauren Taylor: Especially today, people want to see change quickly. They want people to react quickly, be responsive. But my biggest lesson being in philanthropy for almost 15 years is you have to be patient. It takes time and you have to stick with the thing, and I guess I’m thinking about education reform as one thing. You have to stick with it.

Jenny Koltnow: I’ve been at Church Health for one year, making the big switch after 16 years in philanthropy and being responsible for grant-making, first with the Memphis Grizzlies Charitable Foundation, then with AutoZone. I have always observed that there have been so many brilliant initiatives started to tremendous fanfare — and then they just stop. Then three or four years later, somebody comes up with the bright idea that looks awfully like what happened in 1992, 1998, 2003, and 2010. The need for people to endure, and for funders to say, “This is important to us. We’re going to stay the course.”

There have been some remarkable initiatives started to address poverty, and workforce development, and health access, and all sorts of other things. But they just stop. I love sports analogies, and I’m a distance runner, so any of us could get up tomorrow morning and run a 5K. We might walk, we might take a few water breaks, but we can get there. But if you want a complete marathon, you really have to train. And you might get injured, and you might have to lift weights, and you might have to change your diet, whatever, but you have to work at it and endure.

We have to face this as the sort of proverbial marathon, where we’ve got to hang in there because there have been some remarkable things that have been initiated by the Hyde Family Foundation and the Wilson Family Foundation, but we have to give ourselves more than three to five years to see real progress.

Lauren Taylor: We’ve always had plans that have driven how we fund, but we did a new strategic plan last year that’s a five-year plan. It’s very outcome driven in that we’re changing the way we work. Throughout the year we’re evaluating, looking at certain indicators we said we want to affect. And then we’re having discussions asking, “How is this going?” and asking questions internally. And some of these things we’re not going to see change for years, but we can start course correcting, and I can already see how it’s changing how we fund things.

What are the barriers to collaboration?

Lauren Young: What’s hard is when we’re all funding very similar things, and it’s not for the lack of wanting to all come together and spend more time talking about these issues in a room, but it’s a matter that we’re all governed in a different way. There is a lot of miscommunication that happens between nonprofit and the foundation because the nonprofit is making assumptions that the money’s available or the money will be there, or that the commitment is there, but then that donor has been there, maybe for four or five years, and feels tired or drained, or maybe has had something else dangled in front of that donor. We were always here at our foundation [Wilson Family Foundation] loving the work of the Hyde Family Foundation, so I got to know people there and got to know other people in the philanthropy community. That’s how this group came together when we were building our foundation saying, “Help me do this,” because we needed someone who’s already done it so that we’re not spending more time recreating something.

But then you find it’s so hard to put each other on our calendars, and then hard to talk about the issues in conjunction with all of the programs at work that you have going on, under the umbrella of one foundation. I wish there was more donor education and more individual education about how this operation works because there’s a lot of confusion. The corporate industry that’s not involved in the philanthropic effort on a day-to-day basis is a very different culture. I think about what it costs to really run this work well, effectively and efficiently. And I think there’s a lot of corporate entities that aren’t as willing to stay the course because they’ve got a whole other driver of employees that they’ve got to try to maintain a level of like, “Well, this is interesting for two years for our employees, but we got to change organizations this year.”

So there’s this tension that happens all the time about trying to keep everyone focused on some of the principles and having donors focused on the fact that we’re all funding together. But, you’re not able to be in the same room often enough.

Lauren Taylor: I hope to build the philanthropic sector, and everyone here has been very involved over the years. The Grantmakers Forum, which is a convening of grantmakers of different kinds in Memphis, has strengthened over the last few years, and now it’s formally merged with Momentum Nonprofit Partners, which is focused on building the capacity of the nonprofit sector. I’m really hopeful that that is going to be a great partnership because we’ll be simultaneously building both sectors and providing professional development for both sectors.

Melissa Whitby: The Grantmakers Forum had been defunct for some years and our group basically breathed the life back into it, and that was the whole point: If we get together, we learn from each other. That benefits the organizations we’re supporting, and we should lead by example and inform each other about what’s happening in our foundations.

Lauren Taylor: There’s a ton of opportunities, and we’re making a big bet on Momentum. Our foundation decided we really need to invest in the capacity of organizations we fund, so we’re supporting Momentum. Organizations that we’ve funded for years have major capacity issues still. So we’ve started a pilot in one of our program areas where every organization we’re funding can apply. They receive general operating support from us, but they can apply and get multi-year support if they go through capacity building with Momentum, which we’re also going to support.

Lauren Young: What I love about it is that the exposure of a weakness in a nonprofit doesn’t keep it out of the funding. That elevates your ability to get funding, and I think that’s part of the trouble right now, or had been in the past, is that nonprofits wouldn’t expose a weakness for fear of not getting the grant. Nonprofits would show all the best parts of themselves in a grant, and what’s missing is the very part that really needs the most funding. Now, the fact that it’s all under one umbrella under Momentum, is that funders and nonprofits have more commonality to talk openly, and to be able to say, “Okay, what is the issue and how can we help you address it?” and not be shamed into not telling you. There’s more dialogue and there’s a more true relationship that’s being built and I hope that that makes partnerships.

Lauren Taylor: In any area that we’re funding, there are always policy issues. To do this work, we have to collaborate. I don’t think we can do any of the things that we do without collaboration with the public and private sectors, and it’s not easy. It can be really messy, but there are major payoffs from it when it goes well.

Some of the traditional ways we funded things, especially as grantmakers, these one-off grants, will not work anymore because they can’t take things to scale. We have to match up grant-making funds with loans from banks. There have to be some nontraditional mixes of funding to really bring certain things to scale. And that requires major collaboration.

Lauren Young: And that’s the challenge. I also serve on the Christian Community Foundation, and certainly am super involved with the Community Foundation’s work and their GiVE 365. We’re getting people around the table, talking about philanthropy, but talking about unique strategies. I think the old way was you gave somebody a list of naming rights and say, “Hey, which building do you want your name on?” And you pick the one, and then everybody comes around, you have a big cocktail hour and celebrate it. That’s not what this generation wants. It wants something more passionate, more mission-driven.

We can’t have a town without philanthropic gifts, and this whole town was built on the people who came before us. That’s probably what I would say about this generation, they miss that part of it. You’ve got to really remember those pieces of history that truly matter, and then let that build a fire in you. There are some really interesting ways to fund now that are so different in the thinking from 10 and 15 years ago. I realize when I talk to friends who are either moms or corporate partners, it’s just a different language. We’ve got to figure out how to explain it in a way that makes it matter, too.

Lauren Taylor: The Community Foundation’s LIVEGIVEmidsouth.org platform is where you can go learn what the issues are in Memphis, and then who’s working on them. The giving side of it profiles nonprofits, which I think provides a level of accountability and insurance that, is a smart investment to invest in these organizations. That’s one tool and some people will use it. But I think there has to be a mix of different options. 

Lauren Young: The [Greater Memphis] Chamber has the ability to give time to their employees to get more education in philanthropy, or in some kind of nonprofit. More companies are giving time to employees, to maybe do givebacks. Some of our top organizations could try to explain and spread that and you would get to more people than just relying on foundations. When you start thinking about corporations, you get thousands of people with some really amazing ideas. If you create the platform, or even if just they put LIVEGIVEmidsouth.org in their network and say, “Hey, we care about our city. We want to make sure you’re aware of this.”

Melissa Whitby: In looking at the giving trends just for BRIDGES over the last couple years, we’ve seen a dramatic increase of gifts through corporate entities. We’ve seen an increase in payroll deductions and in people giving monthly. People want to be more hands-on with their philanthropy.

We have a whole other building that we just took back after ALSAC rented it for five years. We moved back into that space and we’re looking at that as a training ground. We got partnerships with the county, with the city, with Le Bonheur, where they’re coming to us saying, “We have these things that we want to involve youth and we need space to do that.” We are trained well in how to do that.

How do you measure success?

Jenny Koltnow: One of the areas expected for funders is measuring success. It takes resources to have legit metrics, and they don’t just happen. Most nonprofits have small teams, and oftentimes there’s no one that has a deep analysis background. And a hired consultant costs money. But the expectation is that you’re measuring. So, it is exciting to see organizations not only fund the capacity building but also measurement and evaluation. That is huge. And then even, to have training for staff, because when that happens, not only can programs be evaluated and approved, but it opens doors to all sorts of other opportunities.

The other piece of it is, “How do you tell that story?” One of the things that’s been really eye-opening for me at Church Health, among many others, is how important dental care is in our community, especially for people who are low income because they don’t have dental care. The semi-annual visits that we all have are a luxury to them. When people have a healthy mouth, when they don’t have pain, their comfort level, their confidence, their mental health, and their self-esteem go from 0 to 10 almost overnight. And with that, their relationships with their family and friends, their ability to perform on the job and actually access better jobs or participate in workforce development, training programs is extraordinary.

The combination of visual storytelling and the metrics combined to explain how this all works takes a lot of work. But that’s where the resources need to be in order to move through those progressions and to ultimately sustain and grow that care for our patients.

Lauren Young: It’s a problem if you invest for three to five years and say you’re done but haven’t shared that story and not brought other funders along, and you’ve not developed the individual interest. We’ve seen huge investments from local foundations, but when their resources pull out, the [recipient] organization collapses because it’s too big of a gap to fill. That’s where I would say I personally started to become almost cynical, because it’s like, “Gosh, you’re putting all of these resources in, but you don’t know how to extend the lifeline, and have others come along.”

In five years, you’ve got to be working toward that timeframe, but you’ve got to start in year one filling that gap. And I think there’s so much work and there’s so much passion, it’s hard to pull your head out from underwater and be like, “Oh yeah, we’re five years now.” And so I think that’s what’s happened with nonprofits, either whether it’s capacity and leadership, or whether it’s the fact that other foundations weren’t being outspoken enough about their work.

It’s a double-edged sword, because as a donor you don’t want to be out there saying you’re spending a ton of money, or you’re doing all of these things because you have to if you’re bringing other people along. But you’re also exposing the very thing that you are trying to keep private, to some degree. I know we have the “anonymouses” in Memphis, and they can, in some ways, be difficult to work with because that makes you not celebrate the work, or it makes people shy away from telling their story because they can’t say who’s behind it. And then it doesn’t necessarily fuel you.

Talk about poverty in Memphis and how it impacts philanthropy.

Lauren Young: I agree with the sentiment that I don’t see enough change from the poverty perspective. I don’t have statistics to prove it, but it seems like the gap is widening. And maybe for the work that I’m in — because we opened a bakery inside of a juvenile intervention facility — I was reflecting on the fact that we’ve been seeing the same number of kids in juvenile court for the last five years. That number hasn’t really grown, that it’s more than 600 kids, but it’s not shrunk to be less than 600 kids. So we’re kind of creating this cycle of poverty for the kids and not seeing ways for them to get out.

Think about the families that they’re coming from, and the things that they’re up against. Those challenges haven’t shifted with all the programming put into their space. So, it’s concerning. People are getting in deeper debt, and you get into a bigger conversation around education and the way we educate kids now. You have access to scholarships or things that allow you to pull out just a little bit more, but you’re not putting in altogether the bigger picture of understanding finance.

So, poverty is bigger, even for those who are educated and for those who have access to education. They’ve found themselves in a deeper debt, and they weren’t intending to come into that.

Melissa Whitby: I was at the Community Foundation for 13 years and now I’m on the other side of the table, raising funds. So I’ve had time to look at both sides, and I feel like the funders need to work more collaboratively. When you look at generational poverty and all the issues that go with it, one nonprofit can’t solve that alone. We need to have more than one year’s worth of funding to be able to start to chip away at that, and we need lots of funding. The foundations can’t solve poverty even if they pooled their funds together, so we need the foundations to help leverage national support for the programs that they’re supporting and are proving to work. But that takes a lot of time. It’s not something we’re going to do in just a few years.

Lauren Taylor: For us [Hyde Family Foundation], we have three main pillars in our strategic plan, and one is access and opportunity. We have, in the last decade or more, primarily focused on K-12 education and improving access to quality education. We’re seeing improvement with some of the schools that we support, especially schools with the most economically disadvantaged children. Their outcomes are better. So that’s been our focus when it comes to poverty reduction.

We’re looking at how we can support pre-K, and with that we’re seeing more wraparound services for families, not just in pre-K, but in K-12, too. And then we’re also looking at what we can do in post secondary. We’re partnered with Southwest Tennessee Community College — how do you make it as accessible and low-cost as possible for people to be prepared for community college, graduate from college, and have a career path there.