Philanthropy's Debt to our Country's Biggest Region

  • By Jeanne L.L. Isler, July 12, 2018

Repair (v): To make good; compensate for.

The southeastern U.S. is heavy with history and layered with nuanced culture that can take a lifetime to fully understand. All places have magic and secrets, but the As the South Grows initiative documents the unique and hidden complexities of advancing systems change in the South.

The data and narratives in the series’ reports prove that despite the innovative leadership of Southerners, funders often discount those most directly affected by our country’s biggest problems, perpetuating problematic relationships and providing less funding compared to investments in other regions of the country.

Our sector sometimes forgets the origin of things, leading to this disparity. We focus on “innovation" and “scale,” but solutions that do not stem from a full understanding of the problem are destined to fail. We oversimplify complex social problems rooted in trauma to entire communities labeled “underserved” or “marginalized.” These passive words diminish the fact that people created policies, rules and structures that harmed – and are harming – communities across the country.

As the South Grows helps us to remember by telling the stories of Southern leaders who face traumatic history courageously and work to transform it in creative and effective ways every day. Grantmakers for Southern Progress (GSP) and the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP) are especially proud of So Grows the Nation, the fifth and final report in the series.

Like the preceding reports, it contains data on grantmaking for diverse communities and for structural change strategies in every Southern state. But this report answers a question for philanthropy that is critical for transformative change: What will it take to repair that which has been damaged?

Philanthropy must prioritize reparing the broken, or nonexistent, relationships between Southern grassroots leaders and funders if we want to move forward and create a more fair and just society. This report offers three actions that can specifically improve such relationships. As we worked together on this initiative, NCRP and GSP quickly recognized that our partnership mirrored the dynamics in many funder relationships with community leaders. We realized the repair process starts with us, so we took our own advice.

  1. Find out what’s broken. GSP, a network of grantmakers committed to leveraging resources and learning for strategic structural change efforts in the South, initiated the partnership and offered most of the relationships and vision for its impact. From the beginning, GSP staff and board were clear that bias in the sector, which favors organizations like NCRP – a white-led, national organization with high research capacity – could diminish the value of GSP in this project. NCRP staff listened and committed to using our privilege to ensure that the sector understood that resources and credit for As the South Grows should be shared between our organizations.

  2. Put relationship-building front and center in your grantmaking strategy. Our partnership required both of our organizations to make intentional choices along the way to respect one another’s strengths. We chose to move at the speed of trust, not advancing until GSP, NCRP and our Southern partners about whom the reports were written were comfortable with the course of action. This required rewriting portions of the final report in the series several times with our Southern partners and delaying the release date to ensure that the message was grounded, relevant and true.

  3. Shift power and resources to Southern leadership. Throughout our process we yielded to Southerners who are doing the work. Southerners not only informed our research but had authority as partners to validate the narrative and content. Southerners have shaped core messages about the research in presentations to funders across the country. Southerners have leveraged the reports to build new and stronger relationships with funders. GSP and NCRP made intentional choices to share our power with our Southern partners.

During our partnership, NCRP had to shift how we executed our research, and we learned how to be more effective from GSP. But reparing broken relationships is only one part of building long-term capacity and power. So Grows the Nation offers additional practical recommendations for increasing grantmaking to an important geographic region while building more respectful relationships that grantmakers, and others, have broken over time.

Funders, accept the challenge in So Grows the Nation: take risks, acknowledge the history of your foundation and the communities with whom you work, and be bold in your efforts to repair what was broken.

Jeanné is VP and Chief Engagement Officer at NCRP and promotes the As the South Grows initiative around the country with GSP and other partners. Her life is a product of Southern parents and family members, and she is passionate about driving more resources to and appreciation of people in the region.