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Going South – Sowing rural seeds

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By Todd Cohen

RALEIGH, N.C. — Long underserved and low on charitable assets, the rural South is getting some philanthropic cultivation.

The Raleigh-based Southern Rural Development Initiative, formed in 1994 by grass-roots activists and donors focused on community-development and social-justice issues, is working to help boost the region’s philanthropic capital.

The goal, says Alan McGregor, SRDI’s director of philanthropic programs, is to attract more philanthropy from existing sources inside and outside the region while helping home-grown groups foster their own philanthropy.

SRDI’s philanthropic program is a consortium of four community-based philanthropies, including the Atlanta-based Fund for Southern Communities and the Foundation for the Mid South in Jackson, Miss., plus five federated funds, including Tennessee Community Shares and Black United Funds in Memphis — all of which are controlled by the constituents they fund.

“They have traditionally been a hidden asset within the philanthropic community,” says McGregor, who is based in Asheville, N.C.

Because many board members of community-based funds are activists who concentrate their efforts on community development and organizing, he said, they often lack experience or knowledge in raising and handing out money.

To build their know-how, SRDI has launched a series of three-day workshops for board and staff members of the nine community-based groups to explore broad concepts about philanthropy.

Participants, for example, learn about the culture of philanthropy, such as the language fundraisers use to communicate with donors, or how community foundations are set up and what they do.

The initiative also encourages mainstream foundations to channel more funds to rural areas, and works to break down community-based funds’ isolation from traditional philanthropy.

SRDI, for example, helps send its community-fund members to meetings of groups such as the Atlanta-based Southeastern Council of Foundations.

SRDI also has teamed up with the Southeastern Council and the Mid South Collaborative to Build Philanthropy, an arm of the Foundation for the Mid South, to form the Southern Philanthropy Consortium.

With the help of a three-year,$300,000 grant from New Ventures in Philanthropy, a program of the Forum of Regional Associations of Grantmakers in Washington, D.C., the consortium aims to strengthen the rural South’s philanthropic base.

As part of that effort, the consortium has commissioned the development of a “philanthropic index” to help remote rural communities measure their philanthropic potential.

After taking their communities’ philanthropic pulse, local groups can decide whether to organize a philanthropy, either independently or as part of an existing organization, such as a community foundation.

The consortium also will visit local donor forums throughout the South to talk about the need for rural philanthropy.

The consortium also will work with the American Forum, based in Washington, D.C., to distribute opinion columns about rural philanthropy to the philanthropic and mainstream press throughout the region.

Through its network of donors, funders and community-based groups, SRDI hopes to build the philanthropic framework critical to helping the region move into the economic mainstream.

Chronically poor rural communities in the South control only 1 percent of the region’s philanthropic assets and get only 3 percent of the region’s grants, according to a 1999 study by SRDI.

In Georgia, for example, only 39 grants totaling $11 million from the largest U.S. foundations went to chronically poor counties from 1993 to 1997 out of a total of $902 million in grants made throughout the state during that period.

Although it boasts the most philanthropic assets of any southern state, McGregor says, Georgia lacks the kind of rural philanthropic support systems enjoyed by other states such as North Carolina, which has a statewide rural center, a statewide community development initiative and a statewide community-development lender.

Georgia, he says, typifies the plight of rural areas caught in a bind created by the lack both of philanthropic assets and philanthropic support systems.

“How do you start funding if there’s no capacity, and how do you get the capacity if there’s no funding,” he says.

Ultimately, he says, SRDI aims to help build the rural South’s philanthropic capital both by encouraging rural communities and funders alike that “there’s a real opportunity in rural areas that’s not being met by southern philanthropy.”

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