Why you should care
The southernmost states see a significantly smaller amount of philanthropic funding.
Rebecca Byrne wants to make a difference. She’s spent the past year and a half developing a hyperlocal philanthropic network in southwest Alabama, leading the creation of a veterans initiative to fund mental health and substance abuse treatments, among other programs. She has also started an initiative called Closing the Opportunity Gap that targets financially fragile families in the eight-county area. Byrne is president and CEO of the Community Foundation of South Alabama, and she’s found that strengthening her relationships with local communities and letting them direct philanthropic efforts is the most effective way to pursue lasting change. “What we have done is what we would love to see national funders [do],” Byrne says.
But Byrne has struggled to secure grants from national philanthropies. Her foundation, which focuses on veterans, addiction and youth development, has received grants in the past — after the 2010 BP oil spill, for example, the foundation got a $4 million grant from Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors. But that has changed, and now, Byrne says, the foundation relies on individuals and local businesses for the lion’s share of its funding.
“I don’t know what the secret is to unlock that, to make a shift in that,” Byrne says. “But we have definitely seen that we … just don’t get the national funding.”
What the Community Foundation of South Alabama is experiencing isn’t an isolated case. According to a report published this year by the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP):
Foundations nationwide invest 44 percent less in the South than they do in the rest of the United States.
From 2011 to 2015, the state of New York received $194 per capita per year, while Alabama received $30. Mississippi got $41 but California saw $111. Even less is invested in Southern structural change: 30 cents per person for civic engagement, community organizing, advocacy and policy change for every dollar per person nationally, the report found.
For its study, the NCRP analyzed data from the Foundation Center, a nonprofit that researches philanthropic activity, and calculated how much money was being given per capita by funders to benefit communities in the South. Researchers then conducted interviews with more than 150 philanthropic and nonprofit officials to try to understand the discrepancy.
NCRP Director of Research Ryan Schlegel says misunderstandings seem to be central to hesitation about investing in the South. Self-described “progressive” non-Southern funders assume their investment won’t make a difference because of the deeply entrenched opposition, he says, while Southern foundations, especially those in areas of deeply entrenched poverty, place more priority on addressing immediate needs and are uneasy about funding structural change efforts, like community organizing or litigation, that challenge the status quo.
Such reluctance could be because pursuing change in the South also means facing some of the country’s most uncomfortable and foundational problems, says Leah Austin, vice president of the Southern Education Foundation.
When the going gets tough, the foundations pull back or they fund in ways that perpetuate inequities in the funding ecosystem.
Ryan Schlegel, director of research, NCRP
“Because the needs are so great and are so deeply steeped in systemic racism and issues of slavery and segregation, I think funders are aware of the need — but I think the need also scares people,” Austin says.
Additionally, relationships between larger foundations and local Southern nonprofits have frayed over the years due to a history of flaky philanthropic efforts, particularly by non-Southern foundations that have promised to be present in the community but eventually fail to deliver.
“When the going gets tough, the foundations pull back or they fund in ways that perpetuate inequities in the funding ecosystem,” Schlegel says. “It took us … several centuries to get to where we are now, and it’s not going to change in a year.”
Getting to longer-term structural change also means longer-term funding, with patience for results down the road — something not commonly seen at present, Austin says. The systems of philanthropic accountability create expectations that defined deliverables should be available a short while after receiving limited funds, Schlegel says. “It’s just not well-suited for this kind of work,” he explains.
Some major philanthropies, though, are embracing long-term change. The W.K. Kellogg Foundation announced that Mississippi and New Orleans are two of its priorities, meaning grant applications from those locations will have a formal advantage. The foundation decided to focus its resources on areas with the greatest opportunity for long-term change, balancing short-term initiatives with structural change investment, according to Rhea Williams-Bishop, director of programming at the Kellogg Foundation for Mississippi and New Orleans.
The foundation is funding groups like Frontline Solutions International, whose aim is to end cycles of debt and financial insecurity for low-income communities through finance-focused racial equity tools. Some experts, like Schlegel, believe the path to a more equitable, just and sustainable democracy runs through the South, which means the programs successful here might be the blueprints for the future of the rest of the country.