Southern Strategy: Can National Funders Better Engage a Growing Region?

photo:  Kent Weakley/shutterstock

photo:  Kent Weakley/shutterstock

To the extent a national philanthropy “establishment” exists, it generally doesn't call the American South home. Nor do most up-and-coming major donors from tech and finance. Despite that fact, the region is home to a diverse array of local funders, nonprofits and community leaders. In many ways, it’s also the region of the country most in need of philanthropic investment. 

According to the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP), there’s an enduring disconnect between how national funders often invest in the South (if at all) and what Southern stakeholders actually need. This year, NCRP is working to make those needs clearer in a series of reports titled “As the South Grows,” based on an in-depth survey of the region’s civic sector. Two reports are out, with three more slated for release.

Related: What's Going On With Philanthropy in the American Southeast? Here's a Quick Look

In collaboration with Grantmakers for Southern Progress, NCRP has conducted over 100 interviews with “nonprofit and community leaders across the South who represent great potential for positive progress in their communities but who have to date been passed over by most philanthropists.” We got in touch with report authors Ryan Schlegel and Stephanie Peng to hear what those leaders had to say. 

A lot of it is constructive criticism. In places that are very different from New York or San Francisco, the tendency has been to “underrate the capacity of Southern organizations.” According to Schlegel, “foundation staff expect capacity to be signaled in familiar ways, like a well-polished grant proposal. But that’s not the best gauge of capacity, especially in the South.” As a result, recent per capita grantmaking is dramatically higher in major coastal cities than in places like the Mississippi Delta, which rank among the very poorest regions of the United States.

NCRP’s contention is that Southern organizational capacity can be found in places where coastal philanthropoids don’t think to look. “Foundation staff need to go to these communities and leaders, not summon them," Schlegel said. "The cultural gulf between how funders and nonprofits talk about their work exists everywhere. The difference with the South is proximity.” And when national funders do show up, they need to lay aside preset agendas and take their cues from local leaders on what works best locally. 

In part, this gets back to the perennial debate over whether grantees should be given a longer or shorter leash by funders and the recurring tension between more top-down or bottom-up strategies. As you'd expect, NCRP’s interviewees have a few opinions on these matters.

When it comes to making change in a “reactionary political environment" in this region, many of these advocates believe that it's critical to respect local knowledge and networks. The Black Belt of Mississippi and Alabama, after all, was the epicenter of civil rights organizing, and infrastructure from that movement remains. Since the 1960s, the South’s progressive grassroots has spent more than a generation contending with "the same combination of corporate power and white supremacist politics that has overtaken the federal government," Schlegel said. 

In the age of Trump, the South may very well have lessons to teach advocates across the U.S. According to Schlegel, storytelling and messaging is one part of that—when to embrace more “progressive” appeals as opposed to using other kinds of language and managing expectations. Community accountability is another factor. This can mean engaging community foundations as bridge builders. As we’ve seen, community foundations are gaining prominence in the South, and their priorities are often surprisingly progressive. Funding for HIV/AIDS and LGBTQ rights is one example. 

It’s also worth looking at how regional funders approach their work in the South. The Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation (MRBF) is an exemplar of NCRP’s interviewees. Never hesitant to meet potential grantees on their own turf, MRBF wants to invest in long-term organizational development. In an interview with IP, executive director Justin Maxson put it this way: “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.”

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The Babcock Foundation is one leader in the push to rebuild the economies of places like Appalachian Kentucky and the South Carolina Lowcountry. NCRP’s second report details how funders can help the region cope with heavy industry’s departure and an “Appalachian transition” to a new economy. Many of the same lessons carry over.

Economy-focused funders should take the region’s unique heritage and resources into account and be willing to make sustained investments. That could mean embracing Southern pride of place by funding local CDFIs and loan funds engaged in placemaking projects, or by activating music, food and artisan businesses. In addition to MRBF, the Kresge Foundation and the Education Foundation of America are big players here, as is the 40-member Appalachia Funders Network

NCRP’s bottom line in these reports is that by engaging Southern grantees the wrong way, or by misunderstanding what’s possible in the Southern policy landscape, national funders can miss opportunities in a region with plenty of grassroots potential.

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