Profiles in Southern Passing Gear Philanthropy

Since the publication of MDC’s State of the South report “Philanthropy as the South’s Passing Gear” in 2007, foundations across the South have embraced many elements of strategic philanthropy and focused their work “upstream,” at the root causes of systemic inequities.

These are powerful examples of grantmaking that contain elements of what we call “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. These are habits of mind, not a formula, and can unfold in many, diverse ways. The elements of “Passing Gear” exist in all good grantmaking.

The profiles are based on information provided by the foundations, supplemented by additional research. The foundations were asked to answer the following questions to help inform the profiles:

1. Did you look at the historical context of the issues before you arrived at a grant-making strategy?

2. Did you collect and analyze data? What gaps did you identify between your values and the current situation that inspired you to move in this direction?

3. In engaging in imaginative inquiry, or a habit of mind, to read reality truthfully, how did you determine your course of action when confronted with a challenge that did not have an obvious solution?

4. How did the foundation strategically deploy its non-financial forms of capital—social, moral, intellectual, and reputational?

5. What processes have you used for assessing impact of your work?

6. What have you learned about making your philanthropy more effective, and are you doing anything differently as a result?

7. What was hard about this work? What was gratifying?


Alabama School Readiness Alliance: Grantmakers and Advocacy

A network of Alabama grantmakers took a methodical approach to an important strategic change—improving educational outcomes statewide—by gathering leaders at all levels (using social and moral capital) and drawing on a combination of expertise and community engagement to develop a strategy. They decided on a focus (pre-K), learned more about it (intellectual capital), and used data to rally leaders across the state, ultimately influencing state policy and significantly increasing state funding and the number of children in quality pre-K. 

Read more


ForwARd Arkansas: Two foundations take the lead on education reform

When high numbers of low-performing schools and school districts in Arkansas faced a state takeover, the state’s two major foundations organized a broad, statewide partnership—including state government—to create a strategy to improve education outcomes. They used a range of Passing Gear techniques to identify and address barriers and inequities: gathering data, engaging people across the state, learning more about the issues, making recommendations, deciding an initial focus, and getting state support.

Read more


The Rapides Foundation: Taking a time-out to become strategic on health

A hospital-conversion foundation in Central Louisiana started out doing general grantmaking and then realized that without strategic, upstream focus, it would never have significant impact on people’s lives. It took a grantmaking hiatus, studied the history and underlying causes of poor health in the region, listened to health experts, gathered data, and created a Strategic Grantmaking Framework that identified key areas where it could create better health outcomes—from education to tobacco usage—and used intellectual capital to identify and spread understanding of the issues, and social and moral capital to engage the community and implement its strategies. As a result, health indicators are gradually improving, and education indicators are showing marked improvement.

Read more


The Spartanburg County Foundation: Spartanburg Academic Movement

An initiative to double the number of college graduates in Spartanburg County, S.C., that started with data—an annual report on local indicators showing the county’s relatively poor standing—and led to a look at the region’s history, culture change in the name of economic development, and collaboration between local and national organizations to create a county-wide, pre-K through college completion movement that’s showing significant results.

Read more


The Duke Endowment: The Nurse/Family Partnership in the Carolinas

Through its four program areas, The Duke Endowment seeks to collaborate with government and other funders to change outcomes on critical issues. It recognizes the importance of data and its role in identifying key community challenges and assessing impact. That evolution in the Endowment’s “habits of mind” led to a public-private partnership supporting the Nurse-Family Partnership in the Carolinas and an innovative social-impact funding strategy called “Pay for Success.”

Read more


Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation: Using its endowment for program-related investments

Through the creation of “network officers,” the Foundation found a way to stay in close touch with grantees and their communities, better understanding their needs and challenges. And by regularly reexamining the causes of poverty and economic and social injustice, the Foundation learned about the mechanisms and potential impact of capital investment using philanthropic funds. The use of data, historical context, and insights from community partners, combined with a desire to find innovative solutions to a chronic and widening wealth gap, led the Foundation to augment conventional grantmaking with program-related and mission-related investments using its endowment capital. Early experimentation failed—but refinements led to successes that created a major thrust in the Foundation’s poverty-reduction strategy.

Read more


U.S. Endowment: Supporting African-American farmers and forest assets

A program to help rural, African-American families that had owned property for generations get clear title to their forestland and reap the economic benefits. The U.S. Endowment took a difficult problem, came to understand its causes, identified the barriers, and then used intellectual capital to learn why the property owners weren’t getting help and reputational capital to bring in government and corporate partners to solve the problem.

Read more