January 2, 2020
The Knight Foundation’s Charles Thomas earns a living by giving away money. His group’s latest beneficiary is the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library.
by Vanessa Infanzon
Charles Thomas may have one of the best jobs in Charlotte. As the city’s program director for the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, he gives away money for projects that help the community.
In November, the Miami-based Knight Foundation pledged $10 million to Charlotte Mecklenburg Library’s The CommonSpark, a $135 million campaign to build a new main library downtown. In all, the foundation has committed more than $58 million to Charlotte since 2008.
For Thomas, 46, this project is forward-thinking and creates public spaces that provide access to information for everyone. “And making sure that this is a generational investment,” he says. “Making sure that the future is really designed for residents as they are now, in the 21st century.”
Thomas moved to Charlotte when he was 6 years old and attended Randolph Middle School and East Mecklenburg High School. At Duke University, he earned a degree in economics. Before joining the Knight Foundation in 2016, he gained experience at various corporate and nonprofit entities. He worked at Accenture and The Light Factory, owned a photography business and founded Queen City Forward, a local startup hub that operated from 2012-2018.
Thomas remembers doing homework as a kid at the Independence Regional branch. It’s where he felt “safe and smart,” Thomas says. Now he serves on the board of trustees for the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library.
Comments were edited for brevity and clarity.
What’s it like to work in a position where you award money for projects?
It’s awesome. It’s hard — there’s pressure to it, but it fulfilled what I was looking to do, which was to have a greater impact. I’m investing in multiple nonprofits and trying to have an impact on neighborhoods.
Why does Charlotte get so much attention from the Knight Foundation?
Charlotte is supported by Knight Foundation because of Knight’s history in Charlotte. In 1954, the Knight brothers, John S. and James L. Knight, who owned newspapers, purchased The Charlotte Observer. When the brothers passed away, their assets became the Knight Foundation. Wherever Knight newspapers were located at the time of the foundation’s beginnings is where we invest. We invest in 26 cities, and Charlotte is one. We are a part of a unique group where we’re called resident cities because we have a program director.
How does the recent $10 million gift support Knight Foundation’s core beliefs?
Knight’s mission is to foster more informed and engaged communities. Libraries are places where people can go to become informed and engaged in their city. It’s a very democratic place. Everybody’s welcome, and it’s a very trusted space.
We think these [spaces] are critical for helping people to feel connected and attached. We feel it’s the best way to help people build more inclusive and equitable communities. If you don’t have those free open public spaces, then you’re making engagement and information a luxury and something that people, if they have enough money, can have. And those that don’t, can’t.
What will this gift help the library achieve?
Our investment in the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library is to support not only the building of the new main library, but to ensure that [it] is infused and embedded with technology. And to ensure that it has an impact on the uptown branch, but that it reverberates out through all the branches. When you walk into the library, it’s going to be very different. It’s very much about creating experiences, welcoming people in and then engaging people in the ways that people are engaged today with their mobile devices. The staff not only will be librarians, but they will be librarians that understand technology and the new era that we’re in — it’s not about being behind a desk, but it’s about moving around.
Who can apply for a grant with the Knight Foundation?
Anyone can apply to Knight Foundation for a grant: an individual, an institution, for-profit, nonprofit. The best way to start that process is to have a conversation with a Knight Foundation representative such as myself or [one of] my colleagues in the journalism or arts programs in Miami. SP
Library images from: LMNB, Architect: Snøhetta, Architect of Record: Clark Nexsen