Philanthropy as the South’s Passing Gear: Fulfilling the Promise

“The region has arrived at a moment in its history that calls for homegrown philanthropy to be a strategic tool for building the South of the future.”

The State of the South 2007: Philanthropy as the South’s “Passing Gear”


How far down the road has philanthropy traveled as the South’s “Passing Gear” for equity and economic promise since those words were written 10 years ago? And what should the priorities be today? Philanthropy as the South’s Passing Gear—Fulfilling the Promise, which is being released today at the annual meeting of the Southeastern Council of Foundations, answers those questions, revising and updating MDC’s 2007 publication, The State of the South 2007: Philanthropy as the South’s ‘Passing Gear.’

What is Passing Gear philanthropy? It is philanthropy that seeks to engage society’s inventiveness and focus its capabilities on situations where current performance is missing the mark. It cultivates the will, imagination, and know-how to enable caring and concerned people to address contradictions between the ideals we hold and the disappointing realities we confront daily.

The original report was designed to start a fresh conversation about the importance of philanthropy to promoting health, improving education, and dismantling social barriers in the South. Philanthropy as the South’s Passing Gear—Fulfilling the Promise, a joint venture between MDC and the Southeastern Council of Foundations with the support of 20 regional and national funders, updates the ways Southern philanthropic capital has succeeded as one of the most important strategic tools in the South’s forward movement—and the opportunities it has to do much more. Here’s what you’ll find in the full report, which you can download here:

Chapter 1: The State of the South—Better Off, But Not Nearly Good Enough

The report begins with data and analysis of how far the South has come, not just since 2007, but in the last 50 years, since the ground-breaking and tumultuous years when MDC was founded, change was underway, and hope seemed on the horizon. Using timely, disaggregated data on population, demographics, health, in-migration, poverty, assets, K-12 education, postsecondary attainment, and more, it outlines the progress made, and the challenges—old and new—that have yet to be solved. Just one example: while black and white attainment of Bachelor’s degrees have both increased markedly from 1970 to the present (when states ranged from about 6% to 14% of college graduates for whites and 3 to 5% for blacks), white degree attainment has increased more rapidly, ranging from 19 to 40%, while the number of African Americans with BAs increased to 14 to 22% among 13 states.

Turning Up the Degrees: Educational Attainment by Race, 1970 and 2015
(Percentage of Population with Bachelor’s degree or more)

Source: 1970 Census and American Community Survey 5-year estimates


Chapter 2: Accelerating Change with Passing Gear Philanthropy

Chapter 2 presents a framework for action by Southern philanthropy: a description of what Passing Gear philanthropy is, how a foundation must think differently to find inventive solutions to address “wicked problems,” and what it looks like in practice. It puts Passing Gear into the context of the four traditions of American philanthropy (Relief, Improvement, Social Reform, and Civic Discourse/Engagement), and explains the importance of using all five forms of philanthropic capital (Social, Moral, Intellectual, Reputational, as well as Financial)—a process that includes examining history and data, recognizing a philanthropy’s core values, then moving from concerns and ideals to focused work. This chapter also includes an analysis of 28,000 grants to Southern organizations from 2004-2014 identified as Passing Gear grantmaking by MDC, sorted by source—regional and non-Southern funders—and by geography and fields of interest.

Southern counties receiving the largest cumulative Passing Gear investments
(2004 – 2014)

Source: MDC analysis of 2017 Foundation Center data


Chapter 3: Passing Gear Philanthropy in the South

Chapter 3 describes seven examples of Passing Gear philanthropy as undertaken by funders across the South of varying types and sizes, covering a range of issues. They are powerful examples of grantmaking that contain elements of Passing Gear philanthropy—a clear reading of reality, using data and reflecting on it, employing multiple forms of capital, and applying evaluative thinking to address stubborn, structural challenges. Profiles include:

  • Alabama School Readiness Alliance: Grantmakers and Advocacy
  • ForwARd Arkansas: Two Foundations (the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation) Take the Lead on Education Reform
  • The Rapides (La.) Foundation: Taking a Time-Out to Become Strategic on Health
  • The Spartanburg County (S.C.) Foundation: Spartanburg Academic Movement
  • The Duke Endowment: The Nurse/Family Partnership in the Carolinas
  • Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation: Using its Endowment for Program-Related Investments
  • U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities: Supporting African-American Farmers and Forest Assets


Chapter 4: Reflections from the Field

We conclude with reflections from five seasoned foundation professionals on the “how,” “why,” and “for whom” of what they do. Contributors are:

  • Gayle Williams: Reading Reality with Joy, Humility, and Passion
  • Sherry Magill: Putting Community at the Heart of What We Do
  • Gladys Washington: ‘We Have a Lot to Learn from Folk’
  • Karl Stauber: Challenging culture to change culture
  • Ambassador James A. Joseph: Making Hope and History Rhyme

In his reflection, Ambassador James A. Joseph, U.S. Ambassador to South Africa under President Bill Clinton, President Emeritus of the Council on Foundations, Chairman Emeritus of MDC, and Emeritus Professor of the Practice of Public Policy at the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University, wrote, “The examples of imaginative philanthropy in this State of the South are encouraging, but too many of us find it easier to stand on the sidelines and simply lament the state of things. They are the ones who walk on the dark side of hope. Yet, while I worked in many difficult and dangerous places in the South, I still believe that the region has the potential to make hope and history rhyme. Philanthropy at its best provides not just help, but also hope. And as I like to say in every elevator speech, the gift of hope is as big a gift as the gift of life itself.”

MDC is saddened and alarmed

As an organization that has worked for nearly 50 years to build a South that is inclusive, thriving, and just, MDC is saddened and alarmed at the events in Charlottesville and a resurgence of the hatred and violent expressions of white supremacy that poisoned our region for too much of its history. We stand with our fellow Southerners and all Americans who wish to make our home a place that honors the dignity and talents of all its people, and that is guided by the conviction that society benefits when everyone succeeds. Only through recognizing our common humanity and grounding our actions and policies in a commitment to equity and inclusion can we make the South and the nation live up to our highest ideals.

The Story of State of the South

Ferrel Guillory, then a writer-in-residence at MDC, was driving on I-40 through the high-tech, corporate-filled Research Triangle Park between Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill, N.C., one day in 1995, listening to a radio interview with then-U.S. Rep. Newt Gingrich. As Gingrich talked about the failure of activist state and federal governments, Guillory looked around and saw a disconnect.

“I’m listening to this as I drive through RTP and thinking to myself that it doesn’t look like failure here, that this had come about through both public and private action and was becoming the crown jewel of this region,” recalls Guillory, formerly a Washington correspondent and political columnist for The News & Observer and currently a senior fellow at MDC. “It signified something going on that wasn’t simply failure.”

From that drive emerged the idea for MDC’s State of the South series, reports designed “not to sugarcoat or paint over the issues of the South,” Guillory says, “but to tell a story about what the South was becoming, how it was growing, and identifying some of the underlying issues. It was to be a good documenter of both how we’ve moved forward and how we’ve not, and come to grips with it.”

That led to the first edition of State of the South in 1996 and has remained MDC’s consistent mission through this ninth edition, which comes out on Tuesday. Entitled “Building an Infrastructure of Opportunity for the Next Generation, ” it takes a deep look at prospects and challenges for the region’s 15- to -24-year-olds, featuring analysis of data that includes region-wide reductions in K-12 and higher education spending, state-by-state looks at where young people are dropping out of the education-to-career continuum, and how some of the South’s most thriving cities may be rated at the high end of Forbes’ “Best for Business” list but also are near the top of less desirable lists that indicate serious inequities threatening their communities’ wellbeing.


A Visit to Northern Neck,VA

A Visit to Northern Neck,VA

There used to be so many oysters in Chesapeake Bay that ships would run aground on reefs piled high with them. By the turn of the 20th century, oystermen were harvesting 20 million bushels a year, delivered by steamship and rail to cities up and down the East Coast. But a century later, the oyster reefs have disappeared. A combination of overfishing, pollution, and disease wiped out the bay’s oyster crop. Harvests in Virginia and Maryland total in the tens of thousands of bushels, no longer the tens of millions. An entire industry was nearly destroyed.An effort is now under way to rebuild the bay’s oyster population by reducing pollution, creating oyster sanctuaries, and restoring reefs. And one company in the Northern Neck peninsula of Virginia is doing it box-by-box—cultivating native oysters in wire boxes and floating them in the bay – creating a new supply and market for varieties of the disappearing Crassostrea virginica. It is sowing the seeds (or spat, as oyster larvae are called) for what is hoped is part of an economic revival on the Northern Neck.

The company is the Rappahannock Oyster Co., run by two cousins who are the grandchildren of oystermen. There’s perhaps no better place to enjoy their oysters than Merroir, a restaurant they own in the tiny village of Topping, Va., overlooking the Rappahannock River. We stopped there for lunch while reporting on the Northern Neck, a beautiful and isolated peninsula between the Rappahannock and Potomac rivers, for our State of the South 2014 report.

At bayside tables shaded by umbrellas, Merroir serves the three trademarked varieties of oysters they raise–Rappahannocks (sweet), Stringrays (mild), and Olde Salts (briny)—along with a small plates menu that includes crabcakes, a variety of oyster dishes, and a delicious shucked corn and crab soup. (They all taste even better served with Pearl Necklace Oyster Stout, brewed with the company’s oyster juice by the Flying Dog Brewery in nearby Fredericksburg.) The restaurant is luring patrons from as far away as Richmond and Washington, D.C., who want to go to the seaside source and not just to the restaurants the company owns in those two cities. And it serves a growing community of wealthy retirees who are building multi-million-dollar homes on the bay.


Merroir and the Rappahannock Oyster Co. are emblematic of two areas of economic development— aquaculture and tourism— that folks on the Northern Neck are hoping will offset the decline of the peninsula’s seafood, agriculture, and canning industries. But they have a long way to go. Word is that the Rappahannock Oyster Co., which ships oysters to top New York restaurants, can sell as many as they can raise, but raising oysters isn’t labor intensive yet. The hope is that with improved science instruction at local schools, students will be better prepared for college and, perhaps, the nearby Virginia Institute for Marine Science, where they can build careers and new businesses in aquaculture.

In the meantime, as in so many rural places with weak economies, young and working age people are leaving the Northern Neck to find jobs. A repeated concern we heard was about a pronounced population drop of people between 20 and 55 years old detected between the 2000 and 2010 Censuses, and an average age around 54, compared to a statewide average of 37.5.

We talked to business, community, foundation, and education leaders—and young people—who know they have a big challenge ahead. In addition to demographic, political, and geographic divides across four counties, there’s also a racial one in an area of deep Colonial history that’s the birthplace of both George Washington and Robert E. Lee. The community is trying to addressing its poverty-related problems with youth programs, an expanded community college, and an initiative called “Visions” that has among its goals to bring the community together to understand the problems that poverty causes and to solve them through education, workforce readiness, and economic growth.

Leaders in Northern Neck recognize that oyster cultivation and destination restaurants like Merroir are not enough. But, like replenishing the oyster population in Chesapeake Bay, they know you have to start by rebuilding the foundational reefs on which they grow.

You can follow us on Instagram for dispatches from upcoming visits to other Southern destinations.

Ed. Note: This post originally appeared on MDC’s blog, The North Star.