He started out as a banker, but instead of making money for his clients, Robert Morris now gives it away for them. This year, Morris celebrates 15 years as the president of the Community Foundation of Greenville.
Known as Bob to his many friends and business connections, Morris has made a career out of getting to know people, developing relationships and facilitating change. The foundation is an organization that has had a hand in everything from the Kroc Center to arts initiatives in The Village.
A native of Burlington, N.C., Morris trained in politics, law and business at Wake Forest University.
“Both of my parents went to Wake Forest and that was just something I was going to do,” he says.
His grandparents were Baptist missionaries in China for decades. In fact, his mother and seven siblings were all born there. There were scholarships for missionary families, he says. He didn’t attend school too far from his hometown of Burlington.
“I grew up in the 1960s and I remember integrating the public schools very well,” he says. “Those issues are very fresh to me.”
After college, Morris went into trust banking, selling investment services. Little did he know it, but the experience helping wealthy people manage their money gave him a great background for working in philanthropy, he says.
Today, Morris says he feels like he is exactly where he needs to be, but it took a meeting in Charlotte to point him in the right direction. On that day in 1995, Morris dropped into the Community Foundation of Charlotte to see if he could land them as a client.
“And after that call, I told the president, ‘I would really like to do this for a living.’ After I found out what they did, I wanted to go work there,” he says. And in about a year, he did, joining the Community Foundation of Charlotte as vice president for development.
In 1999, he came to Greenville. As president, he has to know not only about who can give, but all about community issues, from the high school graduation rate to how a public park can affect economic development, he says.
The transition from banking to a foundation was not as drastic as it seems, Morris says. “The Community Foundation is very much like a bank. We have $55 million in assets and we have 220 different accounts. Those accounts have to be invested… those elements of my professional background are very useful here.”
Cultivating relationships, working those relationships and focusing on the long term is essential in his business, Morris says. “I personally think that’s a huge part of anyone’s leadership. You don’t do anything on your own. By working with other people, we can address some pretty important issues.”
Morris has been cultivating those skills since he worked on the Ronald Reagan presidential campaign as a 20-year-old, not to mention the three months he spent selling encyclopedias door-to-door in Cincinnati.
Morris admits that he’s not very patient; however, his work involves the “long sell” with intended philanthropists planning years in advance what they’re going to do with their estate. In the case of Margaret Southern, who left $8.4 million to the foundation in 2012, Morris had known about her wish since 2004.
Morris’ approach when he talks with people about giving is simply sitting around the table in his office. The process can involve a lot of thought and deliberation.
“We talk about what they’re interested in, what they’re involved with now and how they could support it and how much,” he says. “Sometimes people volunteer… but when they think about leaving $100,000 or $1 million, they have some strong preferences and a narrow list of things that they’re going to leave that much money to.
“I think people are just hardwired to give,” he says.
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What was your best business decision?
To leave banking and go work in philanthropy. A lot of people who work in banking would love to work in philanthropy. They understand what fun work it is.
Is there anything you miss about banking?
If you had to make a career change tomorrow, where would you go?
College professor in constitutional law. I understand about how all the things Socrates was talking about fit into our current Constitution, our current rights and freedoms and obligations. From an academic perspective, that’s a fun thing to talk about.
What are some common assumptions people make about your field?
Some people assume that nonprofits are not well managed and I take issue with that. I think many businesspeople say that nonprofits should be run like a business and I say many of them are. I don’t think there are as many training opportunities for people who start in nonprofits. When I was in banking, there was lots of training in the nine years that I was there.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
At first a forest ranger, then an architect for a while and a journalist for a little while.
How do you motivate people?
I think it’s a lot easier to find people who care about their work and work hard. If you can find those people, get them on your staff and keep them on your staff, that’s what works for me. It’s not management by objective.
Usually on Friday afternoons when I leave work, I’ll go to a movie. That makes a pretty easy transition to the weekend. Also, I’m a sports nut and during college football or basketball season, I’ve got plenty to do. If I get tickets to Wake Forest games, I’m usually there. I have a twin brother, Frank, in Greensboro who usually has tickets.
What was the most rewarding mistake you have ever made in business?
I remember going to the campus of the Salvation Army and being interviewed about whether or not they could build the Kroc Center. I pretty much told them that they didn’t have the support to move forward with that. So I was absolutely off the mark. And two years later we ended up making a $1 million commitment. It tells me that sometimes I’m closed minded when I ought to be more open minded in the early stages of a project because it may have legs that I don’t see.
What was a low point in your career? How did you get out of it?
It was really scary when I came here – the foundation had about $30 million in assets and then after the Internet bubble and major distributions, we had gotten down to about $17 million in assets. I was a little worried that I had made the wrong decision to come here. That was difficult. But things started to turn around and we came out of it.
Facebook. I message my kids.
What is your worst habit?
What are you a snob about?
I get really arrogant when I read these books about charities and how they are supposed to be run. It really upsets me and I get really angry when I read them. I shouldn’t take it personally, but I feel like I have all this expertise and I from my experience what they’re saying isn’t right. In one, there’s part about “it’s such a waste to send high school students on mission trips on their church and you should just send the money and have the kids stay home.” But as someone who has sent three kids on mission trips, I feel differently about that.