The message of the first report in a planned “As the South Grows” series on giving in the Deep South has been repeated so many times, we figure something has to be getting in the way of its being heard. So, we are going to start with one of its charts, showing the disparity in per capita grantmaking between the Alabama Black Belt and the Mississippi Delta and the rest of the United States.
The National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP) and Grantmakers for Southern Progress at the Neighborhood Funders Group (GSP) teamed up to produce As the South Grows: On Fertile Soil. Its premise and overall point is that the Deep South has been neglected by philanthropy, particularly as regards investments in grassroots power-building, the very activity arguably most likely to shift entrenched political dynamics. But, as the report points out, the efforts are there to be funded.
In small towns across the Alabama Black Belt and the Mississippi Delta, movements to establish community control over schools, economic development and political institutions pit grassroots networks against centralized power, which still rests in mostly white, wealthy, male hands. In the decades since the Civil Rights Movement, national foundation interest in the rural South has waxed and waned, and Southern foundations have focused on funding direct service work instead of systemic change strategies with the most potential for long-term progress.
The report, written by Ryan Schlegel and Stephanie Peng, is full of powerful firsthand commentary and stories from Southern activists, including Ivye Allen of the Foundation for the Mid South, which has for decades been supporting those very groups and trying to convince other funders to come to the region with higher and more consistent higher levels of funding.
“People think of the South and think there’s no capacity there. Not true. People have the skill sets; some of them, more than we know, have book knowledge. But they also have a lot of experience, even if they don’t have the technical aspect of it,” explained Allen. “Those leaders are going to continue to be there, whether we are in there investing or not. So how do you help people who don’t look at you as just a handout but look at you as a partner in helping to move their respective communities forward?”
You certainly don’t do so by showing up only periodically. In fact, that is an excellent way to depress capacity in the groups you would otherwise support—if only they had the capacity. (You get the picture.)
The report goes on to say that some foundations and donors “disregard Southern leaders because these individuals seem to lack the educational credentials or formal capacity that grantmakers expect from experienced nonprofit executives. Sometimes foundations and donors defer to existing power structures by working only with established political, business or social sector leaders.”
Given the lack of funding for organizing in the area, the availability of groups to fund, and the capacity and history of the struggle for civil rights in the region, here is another chart from the report that, combined with the first chart, should make founders interested in social justice cringe.
The implication of this is that funders do not invest in homegrown power-building efforts in the Black Belt because they are not drawn in the image of the more-built-up grantees they know well and favor.
But, besides being the right thing to do, why should progressive funders make more permanent and larger commitments to community-driven activism in the South? The report ventures a guess that the rest of the country could learn a little something:
The South is…home to some of the most vibrant and promising systematic change efforts at work in the country, Our new national reality of unified, reactionary, antidemocratic government has been a reality for Southerners off and on for more than a generation. Therefore, national and non-Southern organizations have much to learn from their Southern counterparts.
Southern nonprofits are dynamic, innovative and resilient. By necessity, they work at the intersections of identity and issue, building on the South’s tradition of mutual aid, relationship-building and radical hospitality to change their communities for the better—often without much in the way of philanthropic resources.
Additionally, lest anyone forget, we are still one country:
The time to invest in Southern equity work is now. With the right investments in sustainable social justice infrastructure, progressive candidates will be able to leverage the demographic changes in the South for long-term, region-wide change. Just as the South birthed a nationwide movement for civil and human rights in the 20th century, Southerners’ potential for transforming their communities and our country in this century is immense.
The report’s authors still believe that the habit of underfunding the Deep South can change. They go on to provide a list of do’s-and-don’ts for those interested in investing in the area and a few resources in the form of foundations that can act as guiding partners. One is the aforementioned Foundation for the Mid South, but local community foundations are also referenced as good potential partners.
Below, we’ve reprinted the steps for positive action; they make enormously good sense.
One final “do”—do read this report and those that follow, and let’s start to change this decades-long status quo in philanthropy.