Few people have left marks on Southern philanthropy as significant as Katie Mountcastle’s, though she never would have said so. Mountcastle shunned the spotlight, seeking to channel her considerable energy and passion into effective, behind-the-scenes social change strategies.
Her mother, Mary Reynolds Babcock, established the Foundation upon her death in 1953. Babcock’s husband, Charles, led the Babcock Foundation until his death in 1967, and the first trustees were Mountcastle and her sister Barbara Millhouse. Assuming the mantle as young women, they poured their lives into the Foundation and, in many ways, shaped its guiding values well into the next century.
Charles Babcock recruited public servant, educator and foundation executive Paul Ylvisaker to the board to mentor the next generation of trustees. Ylvisaker supported poverty-fighting programs, pathways to empower people of color and women, and community problem-solving. He believed foundations, regardless of size, could be effective change agents through flexibility, risk-taking and advocacy.
Babcock and Ylvisaker left lasting impressions on the organization. From its early days, the Foundation sought to address root causes of inequality in the South, investing in the North Carolina Fund (a precursor to the War on Poverty), historically black colleges and universities, voting rights, government accountability and grassroots activism. This was a unique approach for a Southern family foundation, a trajectory Mountcastle and Millhouse carried forward.
In her 1983 President’s letter, Mountcastle described the Foundation’s interest in government accountability as rooted in the knowledge “a better informed and more responsive public” is a fundamental requirement for democracy. Around that time, the Foundation began making grants to grassroots groups “to help them gain some control over the decisions that affect their lives,” as Mountcastle wrote.
The Foundation increasingly took risks on new people, organizations and ideas. It began to target poverty and racism explicitly, and increased support for organizational development, asset development, policy research and organizing. In the next decade, grants became almost exclusively general operating support. The 1990s brought an exploration of strategies beyond grants, including program-related investments to expand economic opportunity for communities overlooked by big banks. The Foundation began to deploy its reputational capital to make the case for investing in the South.
Southern philanthropy had long been dominated by white men. MRBF sought a new direction and began to diversify its board. In 1991, MDC President David Dodson joined the board and immediately took notice of Mountcastle’s commitment to social change. “When I think of Katie, I think of the deep respect she had for any and all people who were pushing against an unfair status quo to make the world fairer,” Dodson said. “Katie taught me philanthropy should be pragmatic, impatient and always have the backs of people who lack power and voice.”
In 1992 the Foundation hired Sandra Mikush as Assistant Director. She remained at MRBF until her retirement as Deputy Director in 2017. “Katie wasn’t hoodwinked by a smooth proposal,” said Mikush. “In fact, she was more likely to advocate for a small, spunky grassroots group with a compelling mission and clear accountability to the community, regardless of how well they could articulate their strategy.”
When Gayle Williams joined the staff as Executive Director in 1993, she sought to deepen the Foundation’s learning about topics relevant to its work. She took the board to visit former Savannah Mayor Otis Johnson, who provided another catalyst for the Foundation’s evolution with the admonishment, “You can’t do the work you want to do in the places you want to do it looking like you look.”
The Foundation got the message, adding more leaders of color and Southerners whose expertise enhanced its work. Johnson joined the board in 1996, and he and Mountcastle formed a close friendship born of mutual respect for one another’s candor and wisdom: “It was clear right away Katie was a force to be reckoned with,” he recalled. “I learned to admire her wisdom and no-nonsense attitude. She had a deep commitment to the ideals of the Babcock Foundation and wanted to make sure its resources were helping to make a difference. It was always clear where Katie stood on an issue. She was my ‘Iron Lady.’"
Carol Zippert, cofounder of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, joined the board the same year. “Katie welcomed and embraced us as members of the family by heart, thus other family members and staff followed suit. She was the standard bearer who encouraged board and staff to give openly of their gifts to advance the ideals and goals of the Foundation. Her sharp mind, keen wit and thoughtful provocation are some of the treasured gifts she gave us.”
Not long after Johnson and Zippert joined the board, the Foundation recruited Gladys Washington to its program staff. Washington remembers feeling a strong bond with Mountcastle, based on humor and authenticity. “Katie made it a family foundation of the heart,” said Washington. “She broke down some of the traditional family/nonfamily dynamics. The board is still intentional about dismantling those barriers, but for community board members to feel that way says something about the family’s focus on sharing power. Katie always exhibited authenticity as a person with strong convictions given to her from her father that transcended time. She was always herself, and that lack of artifice gave me an opening to show up as myself. Her authenticity engendered authenticity in other people.”
The Foundation continued to seek the expertise of grantee partners and community leaders, opened it up to new influences, strengthened relationships and greater transparency. Centering the leadership of directly affected people became core to the Foundation’s approach. “Though she would probably run from the label, Katie was a real patriot in my eyes,” Dodson said. “Not in the flag-waving, America-first sense, but in her bedrock commitment to a functional democracy that makes room for all voices, especially those that have been muted and marginalized. She knew that real social change rests on deep inclusion and full participation for people who have been denied a seat at the table.”
Mountcastle was born in Philadelphia and lived much of her life in Connecticut, but she bore the spirit the South, with all its beauty and complexities, consistencies and contradictions, difficult history and potential for change. She had a profound sense of justice and never shied away from respectfully speaking up for what she knew to be right. “Katie valued people and her honest expressions demonstrated her unpretentiousness,” recalled Zippert. “She was forthright with her opinions and fair in her assessments.”
Katharine Babcock Mountcastle died peacefully on January 22 in Stamford, Connecticut. Her legacy lives on in her children and grandchildren through their commitment to public service and the values she cemented into the Foundation that bears her mother’s name. Mary, Laura, Ken and Kathy Mountcastle are longtime board members; Kara and Holt Mountcastle and Millhouse’s grandson Zachary Lassiter are the first of the next generation to assume the trustee responsibility.
“Katie made us all better in our roles at the Babcock Foundation,” Mikush added. “She made us laugh and occasionally wince, but she always made us understand and appreciate the privilege and responsibility we shared. I already miss her.”
For anyone who wishes to commemorate Mountcastle’s life, her family asks to consider a donation to the Fund for Women and Girls at Fairfield County's Community Foundation, 40 Richards Ave., Norwalk, CT 06854 or the Southern Environmental Law Center, 201 W. Main St., Charlottesville, VA 22902.