A Foundation's Hopeful Vision for a More Equitable American South

A few weeks ago, after Donald Trump's electoral victory, Ford Foundation President Darren Walker wrote about the importance of finding hope during challenging times. Well, a nice thing about hanging around the philanthropy world is that such hope is never hard to come by; at any given time, there's always some funder stepping forward with an optimistic view of how things can be made better. 

One area where we've been seeing some hopeful thinking in philanthropy lately is the American South. That region, of course, has seen some of the cruelest injustices in our history and it's still home to some of America's most entrenched inequities. But as we've reported, philanthropy has been booming across the South, and you'll find quite a few funders who are pushing hard for a more equitable and tolerant future here. 

One of them is the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation, based in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Founded with wealth from the R.J. Reynolds tobacco empire, this foundation has long embraced a progressive grantmaking vision under the guidance of Reynolds family heirs. Among them is MRBF board member Mary Mountcastle, who was long involved with the anti-poverty group Self-Help, along with other organizations advocating for greater equity in North Carolina and beyond. As well, Mountcastle serves on the board of the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, which also pursues an equity agenda. The work of these two foundations is part of a larger story about generational change and philanthropy. As we often observe, the descendants of wealth creators often care far more about creating a fairer society than did the original family patriarch. (This phenomenon might be called "Rockefeller Syndrome," since that family offers up the best-known examples of such generational evolution.)

So what's the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation up to lately? Well, it recently wrapped up a strategic planning process, setting out its plans for coming years, which means this is an ideal time to get acquainted with this regional funder and what it cares about.

During its planning phase, the foundation put new grant inquiries on hold, but now applications are fair game again. To learn more about its new direction, I connected with the foundation’s communications manager, Susanna Hegner, and executive director, Justin Maxson.

To get started, I asked what the foundation believes are the biggest issues facing the Southeast and South right now. Like many funders around the country, structural racism and economic inequality are on the forefront of the staff’s minds these days. “They are entrenched challenges that give rise to political polarization, disenfranchisement, segregation, disinvestment, economic immobility and a host of other obstacles to progress,” said Maxson. “The good news is, the region is rich in natural resources, culture, local expertise and passion. There are pockets of opportunity everywhere, and with smart, targeted investments, the South can capitalize on its vast assets and reach its potential.”

Here’s what Maxson said when asked about the foundation’s theory of change behind its grantmaking:

We take a long-term view of how progress happens, so organizational development is critical. We aim to build strong, resilient, community-based organizations and networks that work with directly affected people to come up with solutions that make sense in the places where they live. We also look to support work at the intersections of economic opportunity, democracy and civic engagement, and supportive policies and institutions. These pathways are mutually reinforcing, and our experience tells us progress along two or more of them is more effective and enduring.

In addition, we are deepening our focus on shared learning about poverty alleviation efforts in the South and how best to support them. To measure our impact and refine our approaches, we are capturing lessons, commissioning research and sharing our findings with our grantee and philanthropic partners. We strive to shine a spotlight on the good work happening here and invite other funders to bring their resources, relationships and political influence to bear.

Fortunately for nonprofits in the Southeast, MRBF is looking for new grantees and is open to inquiries from local, statewide and regional nonprofits that are fighting poverty and injustice. The bulk of the funder’s grantmaking will fall under the categories of economic opportunity, democracy and civic engagement, and supportive policies and institutions. New MRBF grantees are expected to address the root causes of poverty and maintain meaningful connections with and accountability to low-wealth people and communities.

Going forward, the funder is looking for organizations that embrace collaborations with other nonprofits, as well as the private and public sectors. The expectation of diverse partnerships is a trend that we’ve noticed among funders, and it’s proving to be an effective one in leveraging more resources and achieving greater impact.

It’s important to note that although MRBF is based in Winston-Salem, not much foundation grantmaking actually takes place in the city. Instead, this regional funder gives more broadly throughout the South. More specifically, the funder has a particular interest in supporting economic transition work in central Appalachia, civic engagement for local and state policy change in Arkansas and North Carolina, and community economic development efforts in South Carolina.

The work in Appalachia is especially worth flagging right now, since its part of a larger uptick of funder attention we've noticed in a historically impoverished region that faces new challenges as the coal industry declines, but where there's also some real optimism. MRBF talks about a "new Appalachia," and it helped create the Appalachia Funders Network, which is composed of dozens of local, regional and national funders who are working together to advance a hopeful vision for the region called the Appalachian Transition.

General operating support, project support, organizational development support, and “glue” support for networks of organizations are all available from this funder. There are no deadlines to submit a proposal, but the board will next review proposals in June 2017.

It will probably come as no surprise to learn that this forward-thinking funder also engages in impacting investing. Maxson elaborated on how this part of the foundation’s work supports its larger strategy:  

We also make below-market-rate, program-related investments in community development financial institutions that share our vision, generating economic benefits for underserved communities and modest financial returns for the Foundation. CDFIs improve access to non-predatory lending, small business capital, affordable housing and personal savings. With their re-lending expertise and deep local knowledge, they are a critical part of the infrastructure for addressing poverty in the South.

Notably, impact investing is particularly important in regard to advancing Central Appalachia, given the limits of using traditional grantmaking to address the region's deep-seated economic challenges. 

Additional information about MRBF's program guidelines and strategy can be found on the prospective grantees page. You can keep up with what this funder is interested in and who’s receiving MRBF grants by following the foundation blog.

We’ll leave you with a final piece of advice that Maxson would offer to prospective grantees:

As with any foundation, do your research before you submit an inquiry. Spend the time to understand the kind of work we’re interested in. Then be real with us. Be honest about who you are, what you do and who you do it with. Good foundations respond positively to organizations that steer clear of smoke and mirrors.