Thoughts on ‘As the South Grows’

As someone who has shed plenty of blood and tears after almost twenty years living and breathing Southern philanthropy, I am thrilled with the deep and committed work of Grantmakers for Southern Progress and the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP) on the As the South Grows series of publications. The writers — Ryan Schlegel and Stephanie Peng — spent a great deal of time outside the walls of their offices to capture the authentic voice of residents of six Southern sub-regions that have had small to middling philanthropic investment over the years.

My experience as a locally embedded Southern funder — first with the Rapides Foundation and then the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust — over the past couple decades prompted a reaction to both what is presented and what I hope will be addressed in future reports. The following observations come from a same church/different pew perspective of someone who has spent the bulk of his professional career trying to get philanthropic activity connected to local champions in a way that makes sense to funders and communities alike.

1. Large regional or national funders increasingly want long-haul relationships. For decades, I have observed the lack of large funder investment in the South. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if some particularly underresourced and isolated places in the region have never had any formal funder investment — ever.

Southern communities can certainly use financial resources focused on locally produced efforts to drive community development and improvement. But it is just as, if not more, important that large funder involvement focus on: 1) the inclusion of these places as part of national learning platforms; and 2) enabling these communities to tap into the wealth of intellectual and social capital that national funders can access on their behalf.

For example, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's Culture of Health prize recognized the small town of Williamson, West Virginia (population 3,100), in 2014 with a $25,000 award. The award paved the way for government funders to support new work around built environment, healthy foods, economic development, and other initiatives designed to benefit this coal-country town.

The best opportunities for large funders to make meaningful connections in the South are through local funders and nonprofits with grassroots credibility. There is no generally accepted, systemic way for this to happen, but it could take various forms. National and local funders could share staff and office space. Local funders could be invited to pilot national funder initiatives. And so on.

2. Funding grassroots organizations and activists is not the only way for philanthropy to support change. The best philanthropic work I have been a part of allowed people from grassroots and traditional stakeholder groups to work in a complementary fashion — sometimes solo and sometimes as part of a collective. Both sides need each other to get things done.

Beginning in 2012, I was part of a philanthropy-supported community solution-making effort in Halifax County, North Carolina, in which grassroots leaders, business, and local government came together to develop a long-term vision for equity-based access to recreation. The same groups of insiders and outsiders subsequently came together to reinvent a mental health system that was so fragmented that even local providers could not really describe how it was supposed to work.

In many communities in the South, there is no history of anything moving ahead without some participation from traditional institutional stakeholders.

3. Align funder strategy and agenda with relationship-building, inclusion, and equity. There is plenty of discussion — and disagreement — among members of the philanthropic industry about the most effective funding models (general operating support, long-term capacity building, non-grant investments). It's no surprise, then, that some of those quoted in the reports also disagree about the best funder methodologies for supporting local work.

Having met with many hundreds of organizations over the years, I understand the frustration of nonprofit leaders excluded from grantmaking for what might seem capricious reasons. There needs to come a time when the discussion between communities and funders isn't primarily about some discrete time-limited grant opportunity but something more fundamental and longer-term about relationships. We all understand that funders have the money — and communities often do not. But like nonprofits and the communities they serve, funders also have unique histories and cultures that are important to learn about and accept.

The important lesson from the NCRP reports is that many more funders need to drive their work toward inclusivity and equity in their giving and the way they operate.

4. Those who speak loudest are not always the right grantees. The landscape where nonprofits, their leaders, community, and philanthropy intersect is complex and imperfect. The likelihood that an individual philanthropy — even when local — will have perfect knowledge of all the dynamics necessary to do long-term change work is slim. Context is especially important when national funders do site visits and individuals present themselves as sanctioned leaders or spokespeople for the community in question.

It would be great if the As the South Grows series could identify examples of effective community change work that is happening behind the scenes. As is true in any kind of work or profession, the loudest and most visible aren’t always the most trusted and respected.

5. Funding existing work is the right strategy in Southern philanthropy. Funding new work is the right strategy in Southern philanthropy. We in the field have a terrible track record of distracting communities from their own work and asking them to focus instead on the work we would like to see done. Some of the people interviewed in As the South Grows make no bones about the need for funders to invest in what is already working. And I wouldn't disagree, as many effective community change efforts in the South are undercapitalized and fragile to the point that their raison d'etre is survival rather than growth.

But there is a whole category of investments where philanthropy can provide a critical new stimulus. I’m referring to those transformative ideas that are buried within a community for lack of supported advocates, funders, or both. There is a major difference between these kinds of initiatives and those generated primarily within the walls of a foundation. Funders who understand the difference can help through small grants, peer learning or coaching, and supporting adaptive leaders.

But to surface the truly transformative ideas, national funders need reliable information sources (such as local foundations) to help them discover what is really going on in a community.

6. The culture and history of the South is not a single story. The As the South Grows series is doing a great service in pushing forward the need for funders to understand the differences and similarities among Southern regions. The popular mythology post-election is that there is an enormous homogeneous block of Southern voters who share all sorts of history and values. It's much more complicated than that, of course, and funders need to take the time to understand the regional differences within and across states. Once again, local funders can be very useful!

In re-reading the As the South Grows series, I am heartened by what is a deeply felt portrayal of Southern communities and leaders that are ready to move the region (and country) forward, and the specific direction with respect to the kind of help they need. It's a great shorthand listening tour for those unable to visit these communities in person.

And with that in mind, I will leave you with a final thought: While more philanthropy might seem to be the answer, what the South needs is more AND better philanthropy.

This article originally appeared on Philanthropy News Digest blog in December 2017.

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