Member Highlight: Rhett Mabry

More than four years ago, The Duke Endowment was among a small group of foundations that came together to form Blue Meridian Partners, described at the time as "a new funders collaborative that aims to invest $1 billion in high-performance nonprofits poised to have national impact for economically disadvantaged children and youth."

Since then, Blue Meridian has evolved from a collaborative to an independent nonprofit organization making both national and regional investments -- the latter category includes the Get Ready Guilford Initiative, spearheaded by The Duke Endowment, which seeks to support the physical, social-emotional and cognitive well-being of children from birth to age eight in Guilford County, North Carolina.

The Duke Endowment's strategy for Get Ready Guilford aims to accelerate existing local efforts to improve early childhood outcomes—including healthy births, infant/toddler development, school readiness, and success by third grade—by bringing evidence-based programs to greater scale in these areas, improving the quality of local programs and catalyzing collective impact efforts.

In a recent interview posted at the Blue Meridian Partners website, Duke Endowment President Rhett Mabry said Get Ready Guilford and other programs like it are a direct result of working with other foundations through Blue Meridian -- The Duke Endowment is now one of the organization's Regional Partners.

"Collaborating with like-minded philanthropists challenges us to improve and expand our thinking for how best to achieve impact," Rhett said. "Some of the most significant investments The Duke Endowment has made to help vulnerable children in the Carolinas were identified through our relationship with the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation and now Blue Meridian Partners."

Since helping form Blue Meridian Partners, Rhett and the rest of The Duke Endowment team have learned valuable lessons about the limitations of some programs, even those based on evidence and data, when they don't work strongly with local organizations.

"National evidence-based programs sometimes struggle to achieve even greater scale and sustained impact because they fail to integrate locally with other nonprofits in the community or local systems like health and human services and schools," he said. "Too often, these evidence-based programs operate in isolation, and this fragmentation mitigates their impact on the community and potential to serve as a catalyst for change."

Get Ready Guilford stands as an example of how Southern foundations can continue to engage in the place-based work that is a hallmark of the region's philanthropy while also benefiting from the experiences of funders based outside the Southeast.

"We studied efforts across the country, including Harlem Children's Zone, StriveTogether Communities, Purpose Built Communities and Able Learning Communities," Rhett said. "The message from each was clear: listen to the people who live there. As the saying goes, culture trumps programs — even national evidence-based ones — so we must earn and keep the community's trust by valuing its voice."

Listening may sound like a passive activity, but Rhett observes that it's actually "an intricate task."

"We're working hard to earn trust in Guilford by strengthening the backbone organization Ready for School Ready for Life — which local leaders created and use as a platform to pilot initiatives for years, being transparent in our communications, and being visible and present in the community," he said.

Rhett, a Hull Fellows alum and former SECF Board chair, has been with The Duke Endowment since 1992 and became president in 2016. He holds a master's degree in health administration from Duke University and a bachelor's degree from UNC Chapel Hill.


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