Winning the Lottery: Connecting with Barker French

W. Barker French is perfectly at ease sitting in a blue plastic school chair at East Durham Children’s Initiative (EDCI). His comfort is understandable; for the past eight years, French has spent lot of time with EDCI, volunteering first as a founding member and now as Board Chair of the organization.

French and his EDCI co-founders (Wanda Boone, Minnie Forte-Brown, and Ellen Reckhow) came together with a common goal. They were determined to provide children in low-wealth communities with high-quality, comprehensive services and opportunities. In partnership with community organizations, they began asking people in East Durham to join a conversation around the idea of linking all the available organizations and services together to create a path for children.

EDCI’s mission and vision informs much of French’s other volunteerism and philanthropy. He and his wife carefully make their giving decisions based on where they think can do the most good in the world with the resources they have.

“I’ve always thought it would be great to win the lottery,” French says. “I can’t think of anything that would be more fun than giving away all that money. You could help a lot of people.”

But David Reese, EDCI’s Executive Director, already feels like he’s won the lottery with French.

“Barker is by far the best Board Chair I’ve ever engaged with,” Reese says. “There are folks in the world who have the option to live a life that’s really all about them. But when someone like that decides instead to improve the world around them, it gives us hope. That encapsulates Barker, and it’s part of why he has such a tremendous influence on our vision.”

When the EDCI Board first hired Reese, French worked with him as much as possible. He felt he’d gotten him into the job, and it was part of his responsibility to help him succeed. Eight years later, the two still work side by side toward EDCI’s vision, and the benefits of this partnership also go both ways.

“EDCI and David have helped me be a better person, for myself and in my community,” French says.

Before EDCI, French was trying to make strides on similar issues on his own. After graduating from Duke, French was hired to work at Wachovia Bank, and through that role began to volunteer in the community. Before he knew it, he was on the board for a local arts organization in Winston Salem.

“And, who knew, it was so much fun!” says French. “It gave me so much pleasure to be involved in the community, to be doing more than just getting a paycheck from a job.”

The rest, as they say, is history. Everywhere he lived after that, from Chicago to Pittsburg, French found meaningful volunteer work to do. When he and his wife returned to Durham, her hometown, French started looking around for his next volunteer commitment. He first served on the board of the Carolina Theatre, then at Durham Arts Council, and Preservation Durham. He made connections throughout the Durham community.

One day, he got a call from the Gang Unit with the Durham Police Department. They asked him if he could help find a job for a young man they had encountered. French was happy to help. He soon realized that he could leverage his business expertise and connections to make a broader impact than he could achieve working with individuals one-on-one. EDCI presented an opportunity to benefit the larger community.

Because he is out in the community with EDCI, working with the folks his philanthropy aims to serve, French feels like he can make clearer decisions about how to direct his resources. During his time on various boards, he began to worry that nonprofits were in a rat race for funds. That was where his interest in collective impact started.

“If twenty groups are trying to help with homelessness, I’m interested in how we get those organizations to work together so the impact of their collective work is greater than the single organizations acting on their own,” French says.

French encourages other funders to ask themselves about the future of the organizations they choose to fund. Are they being run well? Do they have vision and goals? Are they utilizing partnerships? How does the organization ensure community voice in its programming? Do they have plans to go to scale?

Then, French goes one step further and asks this important question: how can I best help them to achieve all of that?

This interest in volunteerism and collaboration has gotten French the reputation of being a connector in the Durham community. He builds bonds between EDCI and other nonprofits, or in his role as member of the Durham Technical Community College Board of Trustees. Friends and acquaintances reach out to him when they are deciding what to do with their time once they retire or when they meet someone new in town who wants to get involved.

“Through this work, I meet amazing people who are doing great things for Durham families, even without personal resources,” French says. “It takes time, talent, and money—not everyone has money, but everyone I run into has either time or talent. I’m incredibly proud to live in Durham and to be part of this community.”

It may not be the Powerball or the MegaMillions, but Barker French’s generosity of time and resources is a win for the Durham community.