Action Greensboro pioneers a model for growth

October 24, 2010 

Try hunting for a convenient parking spot in downtown Greensboro on a Saturday night, and you'll see how things have changed.

Once abandoned for decades, the city's Elm Street corridor now bustles with nightclubs, restaurants, theaters and shops. It won't rival Charlotte or Chapel Hill's Franklin Street anytime soon. But the city's transformation over the past decade has been remarkable - and an innovative partnership among several of the city's private foundations has helped speed it along.

In fall 2000, when the textile industry was crumbling and a new report by consulting giant McKinsey painted a bleak picture of the city's prospects, Greensboro's future looked shaky. A few bold private developers were in the early stages of reviving downtown. But the city's base of corporate leaders was rapidly shrinking. Elected officials, prone to infighting, weren't providing visionary leadership either.

Into this vacuum stepped the heads of six Greensboro foundations, led by the Joseph M. Bryan Foundation, the Cemala Foundation and the Weaver Foundation. Together they formed nonprofit Action Greensboro to revitalize the city's economy.

It was a pioneering model for sparking growth, a task that usually falls to top business and government officials.

"It just evolved from seeing the need to step forward and trying to create a can-do attitude," said Richard "Skip" Moore, who co-founded Action Greensboro as president of the Weaver Foundation.

Flush with more than $50 million from its member foundations, corporations and other partners, Action Greensboro has spearheaded the creation of the city's baseball stadium, park and greenway and accelerated work on the new International Civil Rights Museum.

It supported initiatives that helped improve public school performance, fostered industry and university partnerships and rebuilt the city's approach to business recruitment, luring Honda Jet, Mack Trucks and Elon University's new law school.

Foundations in Pittsburgh and Detroit have experimented similarly, so Action Greensboro's approach isn't unique. Still, it's turning heads.

Springfield, Mass., for example, is using Action Greensboro as a model for reversing its fortunes. Across North Carolina, many communities might benefit from its lessons as they grapple with the demise of the state's textile, tobacco and furniture industries and a severely damaged banking sector.

With Charlotte's corporate base reeling, the Foundation for the Carolinas and its peers could find ways to extend their leadership. In the Triangle, where the universities that help drive growth are suffering from the downturn, Action Greensboro might serve as a model for community development.

Action Greensboro executives can offer foundations plenty of advice on what to expect if they try - and their experiences also shed light on the challenges of leading community change over long stretches of time.

Merely aligning a group of foundations in support of the same projects is demanding. Each foundation has its own boards and priorities that must be made to overlap efficiently.

When a partnership is established, a massive time investment is needed to make it succeed. Foundation executives must build a network of business leaders, public officials and private citizens - while ensuring that their foundations' other projects, which often provide crucial support for education, health care and social services - don't get neglected. It takes a staff of five people, in addition to foundation executives, to make Action Greensboro run.

The group has flourished for a decade, but the passage of years brings its own challenges. Action Greensboro has focused on ferreting out solutions for so long and become so enmeshed in the city's leadership culture that "sometimes you can get the attitude that you know what all the questions and all the answers are," Moore says.

Well-chosen successors can help ward off complacency. Since it's an all-volunteer effort with no human resources department to manage the process, however, succession's not an easy task. Clearly, Action Greensboro will need a fresh injection of talent as its foundations' heads approach retirement and its existing partners in the business, nonprofit and education communities cycle out. With Greensboro's economy still facing serious challenges, its mission remains urgent.

So Action Greensboro's leaders are asking themselves big questions: How can they purposely cultivate new talent? With their own endowments hurt by stock market woes, where will the resources for new projects come from? How can they foster more public-private partnerships and increase the city's entrepreneurial base?

It's the problem of sustaining positive impact - and that, in a city that's endured more than its share of bad news, is still a good problem to have.

Christopher Gergen is the founding executive director of Bull City Forward and director of the Entre pre neurial Leadership Initia tive at Duke University. Stephen Martin, a former business and education journalist, is a speech writer at the nonprofit Center for Creative Leadership. They can be reached at

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