David singing at the Oval Park July 4th Celebration in Durham. Photo courtesy of the News & Observer.

"The more candid folks can be about struggles and opportunities they can’t quite seize helps make me a better donor, because I can then figure out how I can make a difference."

- David Dodson

David Dodson is nothing if not passionate and engaged in the community around him, something one quickly learns is part of his DNA, as his parents exemplified service to the community as he grew up in Washington, DC. With the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement ongoing during his formative years, and later Watergate, “It was an active time, and you could see a lot of exciting things happening, but also a lot of things that needed changing in society,” he says. “Washington DC is a lovely place, but very divided in many ways. My parents and grandparents were all very involved in the life of the city, so I was very aware of what needed to be done.”

David’s father was a board member of the Urban League, and led the building of supportive housing for low-income, elderly people through the Episcopal Church. His mother was a school principal, and very involved in children's and elder issues, the first leader of Head Start in Washington. There was very much the mindset of, “If you weren’t out doing something, you should be, trying to make institutions better so people had the chance at a better life.”

After college and graduate school, David worked at Cummins in Indiana, overseeing the multinational organization’s foundation as well as corporate responsibility function. Through this position he was able to see the role of business in society in a tangible way – how to make a safe product (Cummins made diesel engines), how it contributed to the environment, and how overall businesses contributed to the communities around it.

David found his way to North Carolina in 1987 through a position at MDC, an organization whose mission is similar to that of the Foundation but on an expanded scale – “a South where all people thrive.” MDC’s research and support provides organizations doing the work on the ground with the resources they need to bring about change. David served as MDC’s president for over 20 years, and was co-creator of MDC’s Passing Gear Philanthropy practice, which focuses on eliminating the causes of inequity.

Gathered with his MDC colleagues, David was awarded the Durham Civic Award in 2020.

David felt a kinship with Durham when he arrived. He said it felt very much like the Washington DC he knew when growing up, a town with a lot of character, but with a Southern flavor. The neighborhood in west Durham where David lives is virtually unchanged since he arrived, but the downtown has become almost unrecognizable since that time. “I think in many ways it's a much better place. There's this vitality. We have good leadership for the most part, and people really love and care about Durham. We just need to make sure with all the change we are creating an environmentally sustainable community, and that residents feel included in and can contribute to the vitality. There is a lot at stake right now.”

David focuses his philanthropy in three areas that he views as necessary to a healthy community - justice, sustainability, and the arts. “We live in a community that has abundant opportunities and there's really a very strong economic engine. The challenge is to make sure people can connect to that in ways that can improve their lives, which leads to things such as education. While at MDC I helped conceive and incubate Made In Durham, a public-private partnership to get Durham youth who are underrepresented in Durham’s high-wage occupations the education and certification these jobs require. I also focus on environmental issues. I live very close to Ellerbe Creek and walk it almost every day, so securing that watershed and helping people see the intersection of community and environment is also important to me. And finally, I’m a singer, and have sung in the Choral Society of Durham for over 30 years. So I also support organizations that promote arts inclusivity and bring joy to the community.”

Getting ready for a performance at Carnegie Hall with the Choral Society of Durham.

The biggest obstacles David sees in the ability to truly create a thriving community for all is the imbalance between the creativity that exists in Durham and the Triangle and the level of philanthropic assets. “I think we are really under-resourced when it comes to philanthropic dollars,” he says. “When I ran MDC we were fortunate to have the support of national and regional funders, but when we worked on local projects we often ran up against the problem of starter money. Places like Greensboro and Winston-Salem have longer histories of building up philanthropic assets from having been manufacturing and banking cities. In the Triangle we have branches but not usually headquarters of international companies, so there is not a lot of homegrown wealth that has found its way into philanthropy. To me our biggest philanthropic problem is the absence of assets. The way many communities move forward is with the starter fuel of philanthropy, and right now we are not able to deliver it in the right dosage to help significant things happen.”

During our conversation, David had some great advice for nonprofits in need of support. “What I really appreciate from an organization is candor about where they are trying to do good work and where they are struggling. Having worked in the nonprofit field for over 30 years, I totally understand the fear that candor is somehow going to display weakness, which will then turn a donor off, but I think to the contrary, I really like to know what people are running into as they try to do the work they are trying to do. The more candid folks can be about struggles and opportunities they can’t quite seize helps make me a better donor, because I can then figure out how I can make a difference. Frankly, I think that's what a donor ought to do. Our job is to make their job easier and not second guess - ‘How can I help you do what’s important to both of us?’”

David recognizes that advice may be simplistic, and that it takes a lot of time and trust to get to that point, “But that's the point where one can really make sure that the dollars we are privileged to deploy can actually do what the nonprofit needs. If you trust the organization and believe it's doing good work, the job is to help it do that good work with less effort.”