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“Because the South is and has often been the proving ground for some of the nation’s most regressive public policies and rhetoric, choosing not to invest in Southern structural change work puts marginalized people across the country in harm’s way. Wages are too low to support working families in the Midwest because of anti-labor legislation exported from Southern states. Cities and states in the Southwest model their systemic harassment of immigrants on policies and practices pushed by a powerful minority of Southern elected officials. The road to a more equitable future nationally runs through the South.”

This paragraph, taken from the first page of a new report by Ryan Schlegel and Stephanie Peng, highlights the stakes we face. Famously, it was the failure of Operation Dixie to unionize the South in the postwar period that set the stage for the gradual—and later rapid—retrenchment of unions nationwide that followed, leading to today’s extraordinary levels of economic inequality.

So, if nothing changes—that is, if “business as usual” persists and philanthropy continues to underinvest in the South and, even when it does provide grants, does so in a way that often undermines local capacity—we would be foolish to expect better results.

This is the wake-up call that Schlegel and Peng have issued. Philanthropy would be wise to heed it.

Schlegel and Peng’s report, titled As the South Grows, So Grows the Nation, is the culmination of a five-part series, based on over 150 field interviews conducted over a two-year period, published by the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP) and Grantmakers for Southern Progress. At NPQ, we have covered a number of these reports, including On Fertile Soil, which focused on the South’s civil rights movement heritage; Weathering the Storm on environmental justice movements; and Bearing Fruit, which focused on Atlanta. NPQ also cosponsored a webinar on the series’ environmental justice report this past February.

In their latest report, Schlegel and Peng highlight the fact that, despite higher need, philanthropic funding in the South trails the nation. According to their analysis of the five-year period from 2011 through 2015, philanthropic spending in the South averaged $60 per person. By contrast, in New York state—where, of course, many national foundations are located—philanthropy spends $194 per person, three times as much. As for grants to marginalized groups, what Schlegel and Peng call “structural change” grantmaking, the disparity is even greater. In the South, such grantmaking totals only $1.16 per person, compared to $6.85 in New York. In other words, in the South, advocates must make their dollars stretch nearly six times as far.

But, as Schlegel and Peng also show, quality is at least as important as quantity. In their report, Schlegel and Peng present an interesting list of “what not to do,” which is reproduced below:

  • Let those who benefit from the status quo dictate what is too dangerous to confront.
  • Take a race-and-ethnicity-neutral approach, allowing past wrongs to go un-righted.
  • Obscure the role national institutions have played extracting wealth and power from the South.
  • Prioritize credibility and reputation over risk and impact.
  • Overlook existing community infrastructure that looks unfamiliar or is hard to find by design.
  • Import a nonprofit or advocacy model that is not adapted to succeed specifically in the South.

The standard philanthropic tendency, as Schlegel and Peng note, is caution. That means avoiding “hot-button controversial issues—such as racism, sexism and homophobia.” It means avoiding “stirring the pot” and making sure the foundation stays “above the fray.”

Such risk aversion may be less than admirable, but it is easy to understand—and therein lies the problem. As a Harvard Business Review article noted a few years ago, there are “hidden dangers of playing it safe.” Executive coach Doug Sundheim explains,

We don’t see news headlines that say, “Low-risk approach forces local business to file for bankruptcy,” or, “Stunningly conservative move pushes global pharmaceutical company to the brink of failure,” or “Man retires after a mediocre career and feels painful remorse for never having laid anything on the line.”

The dangers of playing it safe aren’t sudden, obvious, and dramatic….You become aware of them only when you realize that you’re stuck and you’re not really sure how it happened.

Which, when talking about racial equity—or better said, the lack thereof—may sound all too familiar.

Of course, this is not just a problem for philanthropy, but for the nonprofit sector itself. As NPQ has noted, based on BoardSource data, racial diversity numbers among boards and leadership actually got slightly worse between 2015 and 2017. More broadly, BoardSource reports that in its first survey in 1994, whites were 86 percent of board members; in 2017, 23 years later, that number had dropped only slightly, to 84 percent.

As for philanthropy in the South, Schlegel and Peng point out that “foundation staff often get bogged down in the learning phase of grantmaking or they take a cautious approach that funds only direct services instead of long-term change.”

So, what would it mean if foundations promoting racial equity in the South decided to not play it safe? Schlegel and Peng have some thoughts regarding this. They implore foundations to “understand that inaction has a cost.” They acknowledge that “there will always be more questions to ask and more data to collect” but add that “race, gender and class inequity is costly in financial and social capital, so philanthropic deliberation and slow-walking has a big price tag for communities—and for us all.”

Schlegel and Peng also call on foundations to leverage their privilege, rather than hold it in reserve. They note that foundation “credibility and influence…is a powerful tool—use it to drive change and share with marginalized Southern communities who don’t have the influence and access you do.” Philanthropic privilege—that is, “the reputational capital and access that come with your position and your identity,” should be seen “as an asset to be invested in grantees and communities who can turn it into change opportunities.”

Schlegel and Peng also call on philanthropy to both “reckon with shared history” and recognize and honor existing capacity. Reckoning with shared history means not only embracing the discomfort of the philanthropic failure to address past wrongs earlier, but also recognizing nuances and distinctions within the South (which is one reason why disaggregation of data is important), as well as the linkages between the South and the North. Schlegel and Peng emphasize that while learning the history of the South is important, the “need to learn more” must not itself become demobilizing. “Perfect understanding,” they note, “should not be the goal; listening, learning, and regular reevaluation of grantmaking strategies should be.”

As for how philanthropy can help build capacity, Schlegel and Peng make a few suggestions here too. It starts, they suggest, with taking the tenets of asset-based community development, as developed by John McKnight and Jody Kretzmann, seriously, and spending “time and resources identifying existing infrastructure.” Additional suggestions are to look for capacity in perhaps unexpected places (such as churches and other places where mutual aid and communal life reside), hire from southern communities where foundations are working, and support leadership development (“invest in whole people”).

Schlegel and Peng acknowledge that righting the philanthropic ship will not be easy. Trust is essential, yet trust is often what is lacking in both directions—that is grassroots groups in the South mistrust philanthropy and vice versa. That said, they offer three suggestions as to how philanthropy can build trust with grassroots organizations in the South.

Find out what’s broken.

Find out how your institution has or has not interacted with marginalized communities in the South in the past. What relationship does the wealth donated to the foundation have to those communities? Questions like these are especially salient for foundation trustees and donors to begin a conversation around. What grantmaking strategies has your institution deployed in the South before? If your institution has never funded structural change work in the South, ask “Why not?” Explore the ways your institution may have made mistakes in Southern communities in the past. Ask yourself and your colleagues how you all can correct those mistakes.

Put relationship-building front and center in your grantmaking strategy.

Don’t get too bogged down in trying to have all the data. Developing trust and relationships will lead you to the right people and information. Be ready to make the time investment into building relationships, spending time in the South and in towns that are not as easily accessible from a large city.

Shift power and resources to Southern leadership.

Trusting, lasting relationships between philanthropy and the communities it serves can go beyond the charitable haves-and-have-nots paradigm of the past. In the South, where reciprocity and mutual aid are built into communal DNA, foundations and donors have an opportunity to learn with grantee partners and to learn how to shift their power and resources to communities that can use that power and resources to make big changes.

In concluding, Schlegel and Peng point out that while Southern history is marked by violence and repression, the South is not unique in having a violent past. They also note that “the South’s past (and present and future) is much more than the legacy of violence done to marginalized people.”

“The South,” Schlegel and Peng observe, “is home to inspiring, effective examples of strategies that have been pushing back against stark inequities for generations.” If philanthropy invests in the sometimes hidden, but certainly real, networks of high-capacity organizations in the South, the whole nation “will reap the results.”