Shared History: Elevating Structural Change Grantmaking in the South

photo: Ingo70/shutterstock

photo: Ingo70/shutterstock

Over two years ago, a pattern of philanthropic underinvestment in the American South prompted the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy to partner with Grantmakers for Southern Progress on a deep dive. The result, a series of five reports entitled “As the South Grows,” draws on over 150 interviews with local leaders. The driving question: Why isn’t structural change work getting funded in this critical region? And what would it take to unlock that grantmaking?

Since the project began, national politics has undergone a series of convulsions whose effects on philanthropy are still playing out. But unlike most big city progressives, Southern organizers have taken the past two years in stride. According to NCRP’s Ryan Schlegel, who co-authored the reports, “Most of the southern leaders we’ve interviewed, after the election, were more even-keeled about it than many of my social circle.” 

Stephanie Peng, the reports’ other author, agreed. “They saw the mechanisms that made [the Trump phenomenon] happen. They understood it and how it came to form.”

The idea that Southern organizers are uniquely keyed into America’s deepest social challenges underpins the reports’ chief argument: that while the South's most potent philanthropic leverage points may be hard to locate, they merit investment. That’s the case despite the region’s entrenched challenges, and because of the special organizing environment they create. 


The latest and last report, titled “As the South Grows, So Grows the Nation,” sums up the previous four and offers “a new way to do grantmaking in the South.” Its core arguments echo ideas we hear a lot these days: get on a more equitable footing with grant recipients, give more general support, fund the grassroots, and don’t let civic engagement fall by the wayside. 

But getting to know the South means getting to know communities with what Schlegel calls “a history of disinvestment on a deep structural level.” As he and Peng write, “Southern organizers understand how to operate in an environment where money for their work can be scarce, but where reciprocal communal support has sustained their communities for centuries. They also understand how to move safely and strategically in a region where the threat of economic, social and even physical retribution is still real.” They go on to argue that since many of the nation's more "regressive" policies are born in the region, countering them in the South can prevent their spread elsewhere.

Southern organizers and nonprofits clearly have the ability to get things done. After all, they brought us the Civil Rights movement. But national funders based elsewhere tend to underrate that capacity in their grantmaking. Above all, the reports attribute that disconnect to a lack of trust on both sides: little trust that Southern leaders from underrepresented communities can make change, and scant trust that outside funders will meaningfully engage. 

To build that trust, the report suggests three ways funders should get outside their comfort zones: reckon with a shared history, take risks with your privilege, and recognize capacity even when it doesn’t look familiar. 

As Schlegel told me, many “self-described progressives in the Northeast see themselves as separate, and not responsible to their neighbors in the South.” But there’s a shared historical culpability for the social ills that still plague the entire country. The factors that bind us together, the report argues, make it necessary to have hard conversations even when it would be easier to gesticulate about the greater good and avoid getting “too political.”

More and more these days, progressive funders are embracing intersectionality as an actionable goal rather than just something to talk about. The South may provide particularly fertile ground for that effort. From the report: “Ironically, decades without significant philanthropic investments have collided with the region’s particular communal culture to create an ecosystem where organizing marginalized people across gender, class, race and other identities is the norm, not an exception.”

Risk-taking is another key recommendation. Too much aversion to risk on funders’ part may perpetuate problems that could be solved with a more active, positive approach. The capacity to take risks with capital, after all, is one of philanthropy’s privileges. While many funders may “feel attached to direct aid or charity,” Peng said, it isn’t necessary to accept an either-or choice between service provision and structural change. And when inaction may mean perpetuating unjust structures, the choice to stay away is also political.

As the report puts it, “The most basic form of philanthropy is charity, and structural change grantmaking builds on that foundation by addressing the fundamental conditions that make charity necessary.” Despite its value, NCRP found that structural change grantmaking only made up 3.4 percent of national philanthropic funding from 2011 through 2015. In the South, that proportion was lower still: 1.9 percent.

Those numbers do not reflect the lessons of the past, which amply demonstrate the power of grassroots organizing to deliver structural change in the region. Along with the Civil Rights movement, more recent examples like the LGBTQ rights movement and even the Tea Party show that philanthropy can work crucial leverage points when it supports organizer coalitions and networks. But according to many interviewees, funders often expect networks to form in the South without putting forward resources to make that happen. Funders could also do a lot more to advocate for their Southern grantees with peer foundations. 

The report lists several examples of funders already funding social change work in the South, including the Foundation for Louisiana, the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation, the Southern Partners Fund, the Greater New Orleans Foundation, the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, the Contigo Fund, and the Appalachian Community Fund. As we’ve been reporting, local and community funders in the region are engaged in more sophisticated grantmaking these days, and more of it. The report suggests learning from funders with established local ties who know the lay of the land.

We’ve already touched on the final recommendation: locate and fund Southern capacity, even when it doesn’t fit the typical grantee profile. The report asks funders, “In what way might capacity announce itself in a region with a vibrant faith-organizing ecosystem, with a long history of complex resistance mechanisms—small- and large-scale—and with a high cultural value placed on mutual aid and communal life?” Letting Southern leaders point the way is an important step, as is funding and even employing them. 

Last month, NCRP debuted “Power Moves,” a toolkit for funders to assess their commitment to equity through a power relations lens. The guide calls on funders to “take risks within their own institutions,” as Peng put it, and to question the typical funder-grantee relationship—which can perpetuate power imbalances based in race, gender and geography. When they assess capacity in the South, the report asks funders to “trust that the people closest to injustice, inequity and the work required to correct them are best at that work.”

Of course, the South isn’t the only place where that maxim applies. According to Schlegel, these conclusions have value in any area confronting deep structural disinvestment. That includes hollowed-out towns in the rural Midwest, or poverty-stricken and racially segregated urban neighborhoods. But the South has unique challenges that stem from its history. Understanding that context—and learning from those who’ve lived it—may be indispensable to funders who seek lasting change in the region.