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Q and A with Sally Dalton Robinson

by Jennifer Garner

February 6,2007

You have a long tradition of family philanthropy in Charlotte. Who instilled this sense of civic duty in you?

I think it comes from seeing your family do things, you witness behavior and want to model that yourself. My father and four older brothers were very active in town and I watched them. Looking back, I remember being inspired by my mother’s work with the church and the YWCA; of course those were about the only charitable outlets for women in those days. I have a wonderful picture of my mother on the front page of the second section of the Charlotte Observer and she is pictured with the other ladies who were installed as the new officers of the YWCA. This was the 1940’s and they all wore hats and gloves and one lady even had on a fur. My mother was president of the YWCA and from her I learned that was just what you did. Of course I didn’t really get involved until later in my life, after my children were older I got involved with my church and the Junior League and it just grew from there.

What guides your philanthropic decisions? How do you choose what organizations to support?

I find it most rewarding to choose one or two organizations and really focus on making an impact there. When I was working on the Levine Museum of the New South, I was focused solely on that project and loved it. I found that similar passion when Rick Dunlap and I founded the St. Francis Jobs Program, now BRIDGE Jobs Program, Inc. When you help start something new or initiate a new program, there is tremendous satisfaction in that and I find it more fulfilling than being spread too thin across many organizations.

You have been a generous donor to large organizations like the Levine Museum of the New South. What are some smaller organizations on your radar that are of interest to you right now?

I am very interested in groups that build bridges between cultures and help bring people together. I think the only way we are going to address society’s problems today is if we really engage with each other to work together, across lines of race, ethnicity and religion. I love the work of the Women’s Intercultural Exchange that Stephanie Counts and Dee Dixon started. Their mission is to bring all kinds of women together to exchange ideas and learn to trust each other. The Innovation Institute is teaching organizations to tap into their creativity to solve problems and take a different approach to finding solutions. Personally, I have been so enriched by learning about a new culture and meeting new people. I think these kinds of groups should be of interest to corporations and individuals seeking to make a change today.

You are a Charlotte native. Do you think the same issues exist today in Charlotte as before? Have the concerns changed over time?

I think the issues are more complex today than they were. Charlotte is a much bigger city today, we have the major banks here and we are a much more diverse population than we were 50 years ago. But I think we are still struggling with some of the same issues, those of education, affordable housing and immigration. We still have so much to do on these issues. I believe that until we can take the fences down between groups of people, we are never really going to be able to address these issues. We’ve got to get people to the table to discuss these issues and find solutions, not just the corporations and elected officials. I’ve been amazed at how diverse non-profit boards are in Charlotte. I think they were at the forefront of integration in Charlotte. I have met the most diverse and amazing groups of people serving on boards. The non-profit world has seen the value of bringing many voices to the table to advance their missions; this is a great model for change in Charlotte.

Tell me about your monthly lunch meetings with Le Girls. What were the hot topics at your last lunch?

There are four of us who get together for lunch once a month at different restaurants. Sally Van Allen, Dee Fox, Sara Bryant and me. Two are Republicans and two are Democrats and we have the liveliest discussions! We talk about local and national issues and we don’t always agree, but we really enjoy hearing the others’ opinions. Our last lunch focused on Sally’s work with the Carolina Theatre Preservation Society and their work to save the historic theatre on Tryon Street. We all agreed that we support Sally in her efforts on this board.

I understand you like to ask others, “What is your outrageous ambition?” What is your answer to this question?

Well, I have to give credit to former Duke University president Terry Sanford for that phrase. I really love that idea of an outrageous ambition and right now mine seems pretty simple. I want to find more balance in my life! It’s outrageous when you are spread too thin; I need to find more balance. I want to read more spiritual writings and fiction, and fewer board reports. I’m going to find that time for me again.

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