Reflections on the South: Supporting Progress

Justin Maxson

The Foundation conducts its strategic planning in 10-year arcs, a process that includes reflection on our work and results, conversations with our grantee and philanthropic partners and efforts to understand emerging trends. We are wrapping up one of these planning processes now.

Looking across our work and recent history, some core lessons about supporting social and economic justice outcomes in the South emerge that are worth sharing.

In my previous post, I described some of the forces shaping our region: low-road economic development, policies that benefit too few, a growing urban/rural divide and shifting demographics, to name a few. Getting at the real opportunities for progress in the South today requires strategies that recognize the complex realities of the hard and lingering structural challenges. Six decades of philanthropy in the South has offered the Foundation some perspectives on what’s working.  

Supporting multi-strategy work in places 

MRBF believes layered social change strategies are key to making a lasting difference. Our experience tells us that where multiple strategies build on each other in specific places and concrete ways, often with unusual partners, good things happen. In particular, three broad strategies stand out: economic opportunity, civic engagement and policy change.

Examples include a policy research organization working with a coalition of community organizing groups to support local leaders to advance policy change, a multi-branch credit union providing a civic engagement organization with access to its members for get-out-the-vote efforts, or a workforce development alliance of business and civic leaders working with grassroots groups to embrace equity and create accessible training and living-wage jobs.

Work in Central Appalachia and South Carolina are strong examples of diverse networks that promote economic opportunity through civic engagement, policy change and asset development. The strategic focus in Appalachia is economic transition: creating economic alternatives to a politically powerful but failing industry. Engaged citizens and new economic models have changed the discourse in a region long dominated by economic distress and low-road economic policies. In South Carolina, cross-sector partnerships have built out a community economic development infrastructure and increased capital for small businesses and affordable housing.

Growing statewide policy change infrastructure

While the political situation in the South is challenging, creating the infrastructure to improve policy over time (and stop bad policy in the short term) is key. Ensuring important functions like research, advocacy and coalition building can yield real dividends; existing infrastructure is critical to taking advantage of the changing context.

Ten years ago, there were only three budget and tax centers in the region to provide timely research and data on policies that affect low-income people. Capacity building has produced a robust network of nine such organizations that enhance advocacy efforts across the region. Collaborating with community partners, these groups have achieved critical wins, from increasing minimum wage in West Virginia, to stopping a TABOR bill in Georgia, to raising the income tax threshold in Alabama.

Support for two key organizations in the statewide policy change infrastructure has achieved positive results in important ways. Arkansas Public Policy Panel provides a strong grassroots organizing voice and Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families provides solid research and data on issues affecting low-income residents. The two organizations move fluidly among multi-issue coalitions and are connected to an advocacy organization called Citizens First Congress to identify issues and advance policies.

Understanding place and engaging deeply

Knowledge of local context allows funders to respond to leadership, assess meaningful opportunity and discern what resources should be brought to bear. Deep, ongoing connections with public and private local partners can identify potential and build trust, thereby fostering co-learning and shared development of solutions.

Recognizing the need for staff to understand context deeply, MRBF reconceived the program officer position as a “network officer” who develops relationships with the "networks” of actors. This allows the Foundation to make smarter investments, act as a trusted resource to our grantee partners and engage in mutual learning.

Building on and deepening capacity

Combining our understanding of opportunities in a context with multi-year general support grants is necessary to grow existing capacity and fill needed gaps. In general, we have found supporting networks results in stronger work than supporting individual organizations alone. In some cases, we’ve helped develop capacity to strengthen a social change strategy that has potential in multiple places with focused investment.

For instance, the capacity of community development financial institutions (CDFIs) in the South has been steadily deepening with larger and longer investments by philanthropic, public and private institutions over the past few years. CDFIs are playing a larger role in community lending since the recession, providing access to capital that is critical to increasing economic mobility.

Engaging local philanthropy­

Local philanthropic partners bring resources, relationships with leaders at multiple levels and political leverage. As most giving in the South is local, these funders can provide foundational support for multi-strategy work.

Alabama Giving is a statewide grantmakers association with more than 30 members. It helped create the Alabama School Readiness Alliance, which was instrumental in increasing state funding for preschool sites.

Appalachia Funders Network is more than 80 grantmakers who envision an entrepreneurial-based economy that provides opportunity for all while sustaining Appalachia’s environmental and cultural assets. It has helped increase and align public and private investments in the region.

MRBF helped create Grantmakers for Southern Progress to engage Southern and national funders to understand the opportunities for advancing equity in the region. Our role has often been to help build bridges between funders who may not be familiar with each other’s context and culture.

These philanthropic partners, along with a robust network of public, private and nonprofit practitioners across the region, comprise a formidable force for change. 

In next week’s post, I’ll share more about the compass points we’re developing and the outcomes we believe can move the needle on social and economic justice.




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