Mary L. Thomas, COO, The Spartanburg County Foundation

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Episode Notes:

Allan and Clare interview Mary Thomas, COO, The Spartanburg County Foundation

  • Mary tells the story of the founding of The Spartanburg County Foundation over 75 years ago, and the legacy started by Walter Scott Montgomery with an initial investment of $10,000
  • She speaks to the impact of the foundation during the pandemic in 2020, and the results of its recent strategic planning and visioning, including thinking about the foundation’s “north star” and its 5 pillars – “The pandemic was an opportunity for us to live into what we can do.”
  • Use of technology, community engagement and connecting donors to the foundation’s work – “Technology became our secret weapon”
  • Developed “Real Talk” forums on issues important to people in the community “to help them navigate this pandemic”
  • “We’ve also had this pandemic around race.”
  • Mary addresses the work of The Center for Philanthropy – an objective of the recent strategic plan – groundbreaking was in Sept. 2019 – built to accomplish community leadership work “… allows us to be a thought leader” and a “hub” for the community
  • Community leadership and engagement – more transactional foundation in past; but over time foundation has found that to remain relevant and as a leader, it needed to step out of its comfort zone and understand the power of intellectual, social, moral and financial power along with its reputation – intentionally engaging the community
  • “We are more than a grant maker.” It’s also important to bring people together (social capital); and leadership is needed (moral capital)
  • 7 trustees serve 7-year terms
  • Use of data-driven solutions to community problems: started in 1989 – to inform trustees’ decision-making, produced “Critical Indicators” publication to study issues, and reports were produced every 2-3 years; partnered with United Way of the Piedmont in 2006, which led to “Strategic Spartanburg” project to share goals across the community in a public/private partnership which used data to build community engagement with 180 indicators
  • “The community helped set the agenda for what we measured.” Mary tells how they used data to inform community change efforts, and achieved results
  • Formation of the 40-30 Challenge task force to improve educational attainment was incubated at SCF for 18 months – SCF funded this movement with the first grant of $500,000 to establish the Spartanburg Academic Movement (now close to reaching 40%)
  • The data also reflects people’s lives and stories
  • Mary shares the story of her journey: from Pacolet SC, a very small town, daughter of 2 ministers, traveled often, an opportunity that exposed her to the larger world
  • The Bethlehem Center, where Mary was E.D., started at age 24 – enabled children to gain exposure as she had – was started by the United Methodist Women; she was there for 11 years
  • Winthrop College alum, French major – to become an ambassador to the U.N. – led her to study in France
  • “Live behind the confines of what your community might suggest.”
  • “I didn’t wear the lens of color; I wore the lens of competency and preparation.”
  • Taught to do what you do with a “spirit of excellence” by her father
  • Spent 3 months in Zaire with the Bethlehem Center to build a village for refugee children – “experienced the other side of poverty… that doesn’t cripple your mind” – learned about her culture and the beauty and intelligence of the African people in an opportunity that emboldened her to not be afraid to take on a challenge and to have a seat at the table – after which she joined the foundation
  • Foundation allowed her to be innovative
  • “The Dragons, the Giant, the Women,” by Wayetu Moore
  • Mary’s legacy and the Mary L. Thomas Award for Civic Leadership and Community Change – “I don’t do the work for the applause; I do it for the cause.” She credits her upbringing and teachings of her parents with her confidence and passion for her work
  • Created Grassroots Leadership Development Institute and won the Robert W. Scrivner Award for Creative Grantmaking – “always knew I would turn around and give it back to the community foundation… to create a legacy of perpetual leadership for those who don’t normally have a seat at the table but if given a chance could make a difference.”
  • Example of generosity: her “Grandma Coe” who taught her life lessons and was always giving – “You don’t have to have a million dollars to be generous; generosity comes from the heart.”

The Spartanburg County Foundation:

The Spartanburg County Foundation was established in 1943 by Walter Scott Montgomery and seven key business leaders who saw community philanthropy as a way to address issues in the area. As the oldest community foundation in South Carolina, the Foundation recognizes a rich history of innovation, philanthropy, engagement, and community impact. Over the past 75 years, the Foundation and its donors have granted more than $161 million to nonprofits serving the needs of Spartanburg County and beyond. Today, the Foundation manages more than $200 million in assets and nearly 1,000 charitable funds that will sustain positive change in Spartanburg County.

Mary Thomas:

Mary L. Thomas has over 25 years of experience in the nonprofit sector. She currently serves as the Chief Operating Officer of The Spartanburg County Foundation where she is responsible for the day to day operations of the organization and leads its mission, vision, and strategies while translating the Foundation’s goals into the overall program of work. Prior to joining the Foundation in 1998, Ms. Thomas was the Executive Director of The Bethlehem Center, a ministry that serves families in the Highland community of Spartanburg, SC for 11 years.

Ms. Thomas is a graduate of Winthrop University, and holds a Bachelor of Arts Degree in French and Communications. She was an exchange student to France through Lenoir-Rhyne College in 1983 and is a former French teacher in Spartanburg District 7 schools.

Ms. Thomas is a very active leader in the Spartanburg community and has held extensive leadership roles with a host of organizations throughout the area and beyond. She currently serves on the Apella Board of the Spartanburg Regional Healthcare System, Converse College Board of Visitors, the Northside Development Group Board of Directors, and the BMW Community Advisory Panel. Her past board service includes: The Southeastern Council of Foundations, The Rotary Club of Spartanburg, CF Leads, Women in Philanthropy, AFL Advisory Board, the Mary Black Health System Women’s and Children’s Advisory Board, the Mary Black Health System Board of Trustees, and SC ETV Advisory Board. She is also a former Commissioner for The South Carolina State Housing and Finance Authority. Ms. Thomas is a graduate of Leadership Spartanburg, Furman University Diversity Leadership Institute, and Spartanburg Regional Fellows. She is a Past Chair of The SC Grantmakers, the Spartanburg County Consensus Project, and Spartanburg Communities in Schools.

Ms. Thomas’s many honors include but are not limited to: being named Top Three Distinguished Grantmakers by the Council on Foundations in 2014 and, in 2006, being the first African American to win the Council on Foundation’s Robert W. Scrivner Award for Creative Grantmaking established by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund of New York. She took her prize money of $10,000 coupled with numerous gifts from the Spartanburg community to establish the Mary L. Thomas Award for Civic Leadership and Community Change. This award is managed by The Spartanburg County Foundation, and a deserving leader is recognized annually for his/her leadership on critical issues in the Spartanburg community. Other honors include Junior League Sustainer of the Year, the James E. Whitmire Meritorious Award, the Sunrise Civitan Good Citizen Award, the Mary McCloud Bethune Trailblazer Award (presented by the National Council of Negro Women), the 1998 Piedmont Area Girl Scouts Woman of Achievement, and a 1997 YMCA Black Achiever. She was ordained as a minister in 1986 by the Rocky River Baptist Association and is the second female to have that distinction in the Association. She is a member of Cornerstone Baptist Church where she serves as an Elder and Ministry Advisor. Ms. Thomas is the daughter of Mrs. Louise Thomas and Fred Thomas of Spartanburg, SC and is the eldest of three children. In her spare time, she enjoys traveling, decorating, cooking, and sports.

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