Reflections on the South: The Road Ahead

Justin Maxson

Over the last few weeks in this blog series, I have explored some themes shared with me by our grantee partners, Foundation staff and board, and other colleagues across the South. Those conversations have been super helpful as I work to learn more about the region.

At the risk of over-summarizing, let me recap some of the themes:   

  • Entrenched challenges, including racism, political disenfranchisement and an economy that leaves too many people and places behind, conspire to make circumstances in the South difficult.
  • While these realities loom large for many communities, there is no one South. Uneven and rapid urban and suburban growth, declining populations in asset-rich rural areas, expanding new immigrant communities and surprising coalitions are creating new opportunities for deeper change.
  • Our partners have helped us learn about what works to support meaningful progress on tough issues: seeking to really understand places, building the capacity of organizations and networks, providing multi-year general support, supporting multiple social change strategies and resourcing smart collaboration.
  • There is much good work across the region that deserves real support. 

As many of you know, we are finalizing our strategic directions for the next 10 years. I say “strategic directions” instead of “strategic plan” because we are seeking to build a better compass to guide us, not a detailed road map. We are aiming to strengthen an approach built on our lessons and flexible enough to adjust to a complex and changing South.   

I wanted to share some highlights of where our efforts are headed.

First and foremost, the Foundation remains committed to helping to move people and places out of poverty. This remains the North Star that guides our work. It clearly means helping people build financial assets and access job and income opportunities. We believe it also means ensuring a broader range of people are engaged in civic life and democratic practice of all forms; state and local policies more effectively support economic and social justice; and institutions—public and private—take solving inequality seriously. 

To move people out of poverty, we believe progress matters on all three: economic opportunity for those who need it, broader civic participation and effective and accountable policy and institutions.

Our strategic directions are aimed at those outcomes and defined by several principal ideas. 

As our core approach, we will support networks in places that are engaging in multi-strategy work that combines elements of economic opportunity (small business development, housing, workforce development), civic engagement (community planning, voter education, leadership development) and supportive policy and institutional change work (community organizing, research, advocacy). Our experience tells us that where at least two of these pathways are present, meaningful change is more possible.

We will also support promising new approaches to moving people and places out of poverty. We recognize that taking on tough challenges will require new partners and unusual tactics.

We remain committed to multi-year general support, which enables our grantee partners to build capacity, respond to changing conditions and work collaboratively to address hard problems in their communities and at the state and regional levels.

We will increase our attention to shared learning about what is working and why. We will enhance our systems to understand progress and related lessons, engage with our grantee partners around what we are learning and share those lessons publicly when appropriate. We will continue to engage deeply in places and around issues by building relationships with organizations on the ground.

We will focus more intentional effort on influencing our philanthropic partners to support social and economic justice work in the South. We will build a clearer approach to engaging local, regional and national funders. We will create clear intentions, better track our activities and revise those activities based on our sense of where results are likeliest.   

If these ideas sound familiar, they should. We are not rewriting the MRBF playbook; these directions build squarely on lessons from our past work. 

We recognize there is a slowly growing vision of real progress in the South that includes those currently left out of shared prosperity—a vision that connects white, rural voters with new communities down the road, low-income families in the city center and suburban, middle-class communities of all ethnicities. To achieve this real change, we must build the capacities of community-led institutions and networks according to their needs and opportunities. Business and public leaders must be engaged in creating meaningful solutions. Economic opportunities that build assets for low-wealth people must be expanded. And everyone must be involved in the civic conversation about the future. 

We look at the region and see good reason to be ambitious about what is possible. We hope our planning efforts position us to continue to be a good partner to many engaged in this work.

Thank you for joining me in this exploration. Expect to hear more from MRBF as we sharpen our strategic directions in the coming months.

As always, don't hesitate to be in touch.




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