Reflections on Passing Gear Philanthropy

Our region is fortunate to have a cadre of veteran grantmakers whose work exemplifies the habits of mind that are central to Passing Gear practice: a deep understanding of the strengths and shortcomings of the Southern culture and context, a values-driven restlessness for more equitable conditions and outcomes across the region, a passion for data-driven strategies informed by the aspirational North Star of shared wellbeing and unfettered opportunity, and a commitment to continuous improvement grounded in reflection, evidence-based assessment, and imaginative inquiry into new possibilities.

This section contains reflections in their own words about the “how,” “why,” and “for whom” of what they do. They share what is necessary and possible for Southern philanthropy when it aspires to be Passing Gear:

• Gayle Williams, philanthropic advisor and former Executive Director of the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation, on “Reading Reality With Joy, Humility, and Passion”

• Sherry Magill, President of the Jessie Ball DuPont Fund, on “Putting Community at the Heart of What We Do”

• Gladys Washington, Assistant Director of the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation, pointing out “We Have a Lot to Learn From Folk”

• Karl Stauber, President of the Danville (Va.) Regional Foundation, on “Turning a Leaky Daycare Roof Into Systemic Change for Children”

• The Honorable James A. Joseph, former U.S. Ambassador to South Africa, former President of the Council on Foundations, and Chairman Emeritus of MDC on “Making Hope and History Rhyme”

We are honored to elevate their voices.


Q: “You (talk) about the passion of grassroots leaders. Why does passion matter?”
A: “I’m convinced that the biggest asset we’ve got in advancing equity in the region is the people who are working to make it happen. It’s easy to fall into the trap of treating them like any other person looking for a grant, without taking care to connect with them as people, to understand their passions, and to figure out how to support them beyond just investing money.”

—From “It’s Better to Listen Than To Talk,” Wit and Wisdom: Unleashing the Philanthropic Imagination. Mark D. Constantine is interviewing Gayle Williams, p. 90. 2009, Emerging Practitioners in Philanthropy.

Gayle Williams: Reading reality with joy, humility, and passion

Editor’s note: Gayle Williams has 30 years of leadership and management experience in philanthropy and nonprofits. She now works as an organizational consultant and individual leadership coach after 19 years as executive director of the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation. She was interviewed by Joan Lipsitz, a senior fellow at MDC who formerly was program director for elementary and secondary education at the Lilly Endowment.

JL: Do you have something on your mind at the outset that you want to make sure you say about what thoughtful philanthropy is?

GW: Thoughtful philanthropy is deeply values-based. Being aware of and explicit about the deep values that inform the work is a place to start. For me the values always center on fairness, equity, justice, love, compassion: everything builds from there. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote, “Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.” That says it for me.

JL: How do you move from that awareness of deep values to the deployment of philanthropic resources?

GW: That’s where my practical bent comes in. The values guide and determine, but action manifests love and justice. It takes the shape of really practical things, like who’s on the staff, who’s on the board, making general operating grants, being in deep listening, respectful, purposeful partnerships with people and organizations aligned with the foundation’s values. So it comes down to the basic things a foundation does every single day, every hour of the day. A foundation’s staff and board should look like the community it serves, so that the experiences of people you want to be in partnership with are inside the foundation making decisions about how the power and privilege of the foundation are used. For me, it gets really practical, really fast.

JL: What kind of lessons have you learned about doing that work?

GW: It is absolutely the most rewarding, thrilling work I have ever done, and it is incredibly hard. Foundations are by their nature institutions of privilege—primarily white privilege—in a culture where money is perceived as power. To work with that crucible of power and privilege in ways that attempt to do what Dr. King talks about requires sensitivity and courageous action. Money, and therefore power, is an undeniable dynamic in relationships with the people and organizations with whom we seek aligned work. It takes focused intentionality to be aware of the perceived power held by foundations and their representatives. It takes long patience to build effective relationships over time that position foundations as trustworthy partners and grow “we” power (thanks to Anderson Williams for this phrasing of shared leadership).

It is essential that people in foundations do our own inner work about power and privilege, which is easier said than done. “Vulnerability” is an overused word, but as people in foundations, we have to come out from behind the privileged role we hold and put some of ourselves out there just as the people we are talking to are putting some of themselves out there. We have to deal human to human, with love and power. Inside the foundation, when the staff and board become more inclusive racially, ethnically, and socio-economically, we have to learn our way into being open to new sources of wisdom and to differences that rise to the surface, and as individuals and as a group be able to hold creatively the differences that come from various world views and life experiences.

It is inevitable that we’re going to hurt each other. I’ve been at foundation meetings with staff and board members who were either livid or in the bathroom crying because of an insensitive, uninformed comment made about their ethnic or socio-economic background by a foundation colleague. How do we use these experiences in ways that deepen understanding, strengthen relationships, and advance justice? Some folks now call this “deep equity” work, which pays attention to hearts, minds, behaviors, and structures. Philanthropy requires us to put some of ourselves on the table with each other in ways that go way beyond the intellectual ideas or the technical parts of the work, like objectives and outcomes. The technical parts are important, but I think often more important is the human part of how we treat and respect each other in the crucible of power and privilege.

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“Nonprofits… must build a conversation with anchor institutions that have lots of endowed capital—foundations, hospitals, higher education—about redeploying a fraction of their endowments toward local program and mission-related investments, and in neighborhood redevelopment. They must help foundations understand that they can invest their endowed capital locally.”

Sherry Magill: Putting community at the heart of what we do

We began this American experiment understanding full well the centrality of community—the commonwealth—in the human enterprise. As John Winthrop, the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, said in a speech he delivered in 1630: “Now the only way. . . to provide for our posterity is to follow the counsel of Micah: to do justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with our God. For this end, we must be knit together in this work as one man. . . We must delight in each other, make others’ conditions our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together: always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, our community as members of the same body.”

In Jacksonville (Fla.), our local government postpones mowing parks, has dramatically cut back neighborhood library hours, and will not solve our local pension crisis, despite our bond rating having been downgraded by Fitch and Moody’s. Why? Because local politicians will not raise any revenue through any taxation of any sort. But the real reason is because the people do not expect anything good to come out of local government, or government at any level. And the secondary reason is that too many of those with discretionary money are not dependent on things “public.” They might be readers, but they don’t need the library system to gain access to a book; they do not need to use the computer in a public library to apply for a job; their children do not need to participate in after school programs held at the public library. They think they do not need anything the public has to offer. We see no need to promote the general welfare, a reflection of our deep disconnection from community.

Yet, the only way we humans are going to make it—the only way we are going to meet the daunting myriad challenges facing us at any level: the family, neighborhood, town, city, state, nation, planet—is to rediscover our basic interdependence, to rediscover community, to do everything within our power to build and strengthen community rooted in local places. I have no faith that electronic communities will meet the challenge.

Which is why I believe foundations and nonprofits have a tremendously important role in building and nurturing community, putting community at the heart of the work we do. Unfortunately, I see a disturbing movement by elected officials—especially those serving in local government—toward eliminating contracts with nonprofits complimented by requests to private funders to bail out public services. It’s the local elected official’s definition of public-private partnerships. In other words, we too often refuse to understand public and private dollars as complimentary to one another, but rather we want to believe private money will replace public money in the provision of public services. The public has the need but the private philanthropic sector provides the dollar.


One of our most powerful tools is our voice. While foundations typically have tremendous social capital, they’re often reluctant to speak up, take a stand or advocate for vulnerable communities. Now is not the time to be meek.

Gladys Washington: ‘We have a lot to learn from folk’

In my 25-plus years in Southern philanthropy, I have learned a lot—not from textbooks or think pieces or some oracle on high, but directly from the region and its people. The most important advice I can offer someone new to philanthropy is to lead from a position of humility, dignity, and respect for every person you meet. This is a relational business, and relationships will make you a better grantmaker.

Whether you’re a place-based funder or an issue-based funder, understanding context is essential to identifying unique opportunities and partnerships with transformative potential. There are many Souths, each with its own history, culture, institutions and political realities, so there can be no one-size-fits-all package of remedies. People are well aware of the challenges and opportunities in their communities, and they often know the solutions to their problems. That means we, as grantmakers, must lead from the position that we have a lot to learn from folk. Be ever mindful that while the nature of philanthropy places us in a position of power, we don’t have all the answers. Forge authentic, trusting, co-learning relationships with your partners and engage deeply. Encourage honesty, risk-taking, and tough questions from both sides. To understand effective strategies and how best to support them, follow the lead of local experts. Attempting to impose your foundation’s programmatic will on an organization can only lead to frustration, missed targets and retrenchment. We don’t own the work; we support it.

Take the long view. In a region still very much grappling with the vestiges of slavery, Jim Crow and government-sanctioned institutional racism, it’s unrealistic to expect change to happen overnight. Given the multiple, mutually reinforcing factors keeping people trapped in poverty, there can be no one-shot approach to advancing justice and equity. To achieve true social change, we must push ourselves to consider long-term solutions, sustained support, and a range of complementary, multilayered strategies.

Don’t simply commit to supporting good projects; commit to supporting strong, resilient organizations. Multiyear, general-support grants offer partners the flexibility to respond to unforeseen challenges and opportunities. It also enables them to build their capacity, operate efficiently and address organizational development needs.


“It’s not just about whether the Foundation gets it, it’s about whether the community gets it.

And the community is catching on.

In the beginning, we were having to push, to show the community what excellence looked like and help them see not only that it was possible for Danville, but that we could get there. Now, others are pulling us. And, like Danville, it’s a good place to be.”

Karl Stauber: Challenging culture to change culture

Let’s begin this conversation with two framing factoids. In 1970, the median household income in Danville, Va., and surrounding counties was close to the state average. By 2015, Danville was half the Virginia median household income and surrounding counties were better, but still well below state numbers.

Also in Danville, if you drive south on Central Boulevard headed from the Dan River toward North Carolina, living a few blocks to your right will promise a healthy life expectancy of 66.6 years. Live a few blocks to the left and you have a healthy life expectancy of 48.7 years. That’s a difference of 17.9 more years within just a few blocks. Similar patterns exist in Pittsylvania County, Va., and Caswell County, N.C.

The patterns reflected in these two factoids represent the results of community policies and practices as well as national and individual choices. We can’t change the decisions we made in the past but we can change the present and the future using the knowledge that this is not who we want to be.

Danville Regional Foundation (DRF) was created in 2005 with the proceeds from the sale of the local nonprofit hospital. Working with a broad programmatic mandate, DRF’s board decided to task the foundation with focusing on the economic and cultural transformation of this region in ways that grow prosperity for all.

With limited resources (a $200 million endowment to start), how does a foundation help to change the present and the future in a region struggling with inequity, declining population and great needs? Where does it even begin?

From the start, DRF’s board was aware of the “charity-to-philanthropy continuum.” Simply put, charity is about reducing suffering while philanthropy is about reducing the causes of suffering. DRF decided to focus on the philanthropy end of the continuum, understanding many in the community expected us to function at the charity end.

DRF’s strategy has been to: 1. Change the conversation, 2. Change who is in the conversation, 3. Change behavior, and 4. Then change the outcomes. At least half of DRF’s annual grantmaking is responsive to unsolicited requests and an equal amount is foundation initiated toward strategic priorities, but all of our grants are made based on three criteria—need, opportunity, and impact.

In our grantmaking we look for several different approaches to Passing Gear philanthropy, and that is not by coincidence. MDC worked with the Foundation’s founding board to inculcate Passing Gear principles and build an initial vision for the foundation as an agent of regional transformation.

Before each grant meeting, our board members ask the following questions, which we call “key tests,” knowing there is no certainty and all our work is a calculated risk:

• For short-term grants: does it build willingness to change, belief in progress?

• For long-term grants: does it build transformation in a critical sector?

• Does the effort expand ownership/belief in this being a place of opportunity?

• Does it demonstrate progress in a critical area?

• Does it increase cooperation/regionalism among key players?

• Should it be sustainable; is it?


It is thus a good time for philanthropy to provide bold and imaginative leadership in making the case that equity and inclusion are in the self-interest of both the South and the nation at large.

James A Joseph: Making Hope and History Rhyme

Those of us who grew up in the South are pleased to see that foundations in the region are playing a major role in helping to build resilient communities. But as we look to the future, it would be a mistake to define community as simply a shared sense of place, when social cohesion is more likely to come from a shared sense of belonging. We find increasingly that when people feel they belong, with their traditions respected and their contributions honored, they are more likely to accept not just the benefits of citizenship but the obligations as well. A new middle class of color has emerged that has the potential for enlarging the resource for philanthropy. We need to identify and cultivate members of this group as part of the supply side of philanthropy rather than stereotyping them as only members of the demand side.

It is thus a good time for philanthropy to provide bold and imaginative leadership in making the case that equity and inclusion are in the self-interest of both the South and the nation at large. What some of us have long proclaimed as a moral imperative can now be portrayed as enlightened self-interest. The authors of the book The Spirit Level have documented how societies that are more equal almost always do better than less equal societies. In other words, there is now empirical evidence from comparative national research that inequality is socially corrosive, that it damages social relationships, and that measures of trust and cohesion are higher and violence lower in more equal societies.

Fulfilling the potential and promise of philanthropy will require that we make the case that diversity need not divide, that pluralism rightly understood and rightly practiced is a benefit and not a burden, and that the fear of difference is a fear of the future.

It is this widespread fear of the future that concerns me. If philanthropy is to help build a platform to a thriving tomorrow, we will need to better understand the problems and pathologies that now plague and divide us. Some psychologists call our time a period of free-floating anxiety. We have had moments of great anxiety before. 9/11 was such a moment. The assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King were such moments. The devastation of hurricanes has been such a moment. But while assassinations, disasters and political disquiet have battered our soil and shaken our souls, the anxiety many feel is the result of a confluence of events rather than any single event.

It is not just anxiety that plagues us. It is also alienation, with many people feeling disrespected, disconnected, and disempowered. It is adversity, with many experiences driving people to look for scapegoats rather than solutions. It is ambiguity, with many people wanting to believe that the issues are less complex and the solutions less limited than they are being told, so they are attracted to absolutes and reject notions of ambiguity.

And that is why organized philanthropy may need a new narrative to frame the discourse and guide our strategies for building and sustaining community. The framers of the American constitution reminded us that if we were to form a more perfect union we would have to establish justice, and if we were to ensure domestic tranquility we would have to promote the general welfare. They did not include people who look like me as full persons in their almost sacred document, but at least they had the language right.