Sandra Mikush, Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation

How did you get involved with the Appalachia Funders Network?

Several years ago, I was regularly finding myself in meetings with the same people - Wayne Fawbush, Ray Daffner and Mary Hunt-Lieving. We would have individual conversations and realize that we were funding many of the same organizations. This led us to think it would be great if we had more time to connect, learn about each other’s work and explore how we could work better together. These conversations led to the idea of convening funders in the region, which eventually became the Appalachia Funders Network. Around the same time, I was involved in a year-long leadership program at Rockwood and I wanted to give myself a challenge. I asked myself, "What can I do to be an organizer within philanthropy?", which encouraged my involvement in the Network.

What do you like about working with the Network?

First, the personal relationships within the Network have been very rewarding. I have enjoyed connecting with people in different kinds of foundations - on the community and national levels. On a transactional level, working with the network makes me smarter. By connecting with people in the region I get a better sense of what is happening on the ground; and connecting with national funders helps me know what is going on in the broader field. Even more exciting than relationships within philanthropy is that we have the potential to build a different kind of relationship between philanthropy and the people on the ground. When we engage grantee partners in developing our analysis, we create more authentic relationships between the funding world and people living and working in the region.

What exciting trends do you see in philanthropy in the next five years?

“Collective impact” is the current buzzword in philanthropy and I think that trend will continue, but maybe not in exactly the way it looks now. Aligning different stakeholders and partners toward a goal is effective and going it alone won’t get anyone anywhere. Another trend is the increasingly blurred lines between nonprofits, grantmakers and other stakeholders. That is likely to continue because people are working together more. A related trend is that as nonprofits become more entrepreneurial, I am seeing the lines between nonprofits and for-profits also becoming more blurred. I think some of this is a result younger nonprofit leaders using entrepreneurial strategies to affect change and wealthy philanthropists, many of whom are entrepreneurs themselves, employing more market-based approaches. On a related note, I think the ‘endowed foundation’ is a relic of the 20th century. I see foundations are being created while the founders are still very active, and many intend for them to wind down at a particular point. For instance, the Bill Gates Foundation is not intended to be long term – Gates wants to spend his fortune in a concentrated period of time. This trend is neither good nor bad, but it is something that grantees and nonprofits must adapt to.

What are your recommendations for funding in Appalachia in the next five years? What unique challenges and opportunities do you see around funding in Appalachia?

There are many opportunities that I would recommend focusing on: paying attention to promising sectors which offer shared prosperity and sustainability for the region is important; investing in key organizations that provide innovation and development around economic, community and leadership development; and supporting local efforts that are connected to those new ideas to move the work on the ground. All of these are key.

There are obvious challenges anytime you are in the middle of a big change, as Appalachia is, and the focus should be on how to support communities and organizations through the transition. The temptation to hang on to the past is a huge challenge. We must be patient as funders through the transition, which can be quite volatile. We must also be willing to take risks and develop new solutions that will work.

In the big picture, if the funders in Appalachia are successful in aligning our work, we have the potential to help the national world of philanthropy see opportunity in Appalachia and they will increase investment in the region. If we communicate well about what is working, we can help the country see the value and promise of the Appalachian region.

If you could travel to any country, where would you go?

It is difficult to say just one country, but I love to hike and recently went on brief trips to Mexico and Ecuador and I would love to spend more time there. I was intrigued by the culture and the resilience of the people. I would also like to see the ancient sites in South America.

If you could have dinner with one person, dead or alive, who has influenced your thinking about your philanthropy, community development, and social change, who would it be? What would you talk about?"

I would want to have dinner with Paul Ylvisaker, a former board member at the Babcock Foundation whose influence is still palpable in the organization. Paul was a strong voice about what philanthropy should and should not be. He was a fan of risk taking and not funding only proven projects. Paul was also a proponent of the power of what a small amount of money could do – he believed that small could still be effective in philanthropy. He came of age in the 60s and 70s when the government interacted with nonprofits very differently than it does today - I would love to have the benefit of his wisdom and updating his ideas for this time.