What's Going On With Philanthropy in the American Southeast? Here's a Quick Look

Like many regions of the U.S., the Southeast has seen big new wealth gains over the past few decades, and now it's seeing a new level of philanthropy. Still, when compared with the rest of the nation, giving in the Southeast is still very young and has many opportunities to expand and evolve.

It's an exciting moment. This region has a painful history of racism and inequality, and some of America's most entrenched social problems can be found here. But quite a few local grantmakers have pushed past Southern politeness to tackle the hard questions and support positive change. 

To learn more about the regional grantmaking scene, I recently met in Atlanta with the Southeastern Council on Foundations (SECF), which has a membership association of over 360 grantmakers in 11 states. SECF was established by the leaders of North Carolina and Georgia funders in 1970 in response to the Tax Reform Act of 1969. It has grown to become the nation’s second-largest regional association of grantmakers today.

President & CEO Janine Lee and Marketing & Communications Director David Miller were kind enough to provide me with a big picture view of the regional grantmaking scene and point me in the right direction as we launch our brand new Southeast section.

Top Southeast Funding Issues: Education & Health

Early childhood education has emerged as a huge grantmaking focus, and education in general is perhaps more funded than anything else in this region. Meanwhile, health legacy foundations are transforming nonprofit support in rural Southeastern communities. These are foundations grown from healthcare mergers and acquisitions, and these new funders have started making up a big part of SECF’s membership.

Taking Care of Rural Communities

A majority of the Southeast is rural; however, only a small percentage of grants have funded rural communities. This is a big regional issue and one that funders are well aware of. Rural health expansion is at the top of many funders’ priority lists these days.

Poverty in this region is a continuous issue, and the American South has the largest number of persistent poverty counties in the U.S. Funders here try to tackle poverty by providing jobs, homelessness strategies, health, and nutrition.

Other Issues Important to Southeast Funders

Some of the top emerging issues gaining steam with funders in the Southeast are immigration, LGBT rights, and mental health.

North Carolina funders, in particular, are very concerned about immigration reform because of the influx of Latinos in recent years. And in South Carolina, immigrants now make up about 5 percent of the total population, including increasing numbers of European, Latin American and Asian immigrants. In these Southeastern states, funders need to be aware that there’s not enough affordable housing, rental housing, or jobs to sustain new immigrants.

Being gay in the South has never been easy, but initiatives like Out in the South are trying to change that. More than three in 10 LGBT adults live in the South, which means it’s home to more LGBT adults than any region in the U.S. However, the South only receives 3 to 4 percent of national LGBT funding, so there’s a huge regional opportunity here for open-minded and equality-driven funders.

A final emerging issue that’s increasingly important to Southeast funders is mental health. The mental health and well-being of both children and adults is finding its way onto many regional funders’ priority lists.

Major Players in Southeast Philanthropy

With 11 states in the mix, it’s definitely a challenge to wrap your head around who the major grantmaking players are in the region at any given time. However, one that comes up frequently is the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust, which is now in the midst of a leadership transition. Other funders worth watching include the Duke Endowment, the Mary Black Foundations, the Woodruff Foundations, the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundations, the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation, and many more that we’ll be covering in our Southeast funders’ guide.

The Push for Place-Based Philanthropy

A majority of funders in the Southeast are private family foundations committed to their home communities, which lends itself nicely to place-based philanthropy. Only about 10 percent of SECF members are locally based corporate givers, although it's working to grow that constituency. It’s also been working to update its guidelines to better accommodate individual local donors in the Southeast and work with giving circles.

A regional trend, here, is an appreciation of the South as a place, even though it has a painful history that many people aren’t comfortable talking about. It’s been said that there would be no philanthropy in the South without the cotton gin. But these days, we’re seeing an increasing number of funders willing to push past Southern hospitality and politeness to take a stand for social change.

Advice for Southeastern Grantseekers

When I asked SECF President and CEO Janine Lee for a piece of advice that she’d offer local grantseekers, she gave me several. One is to remember that inside the beautiful facilities of foundations, there are real people in charge of executing a donor or organization’s wishes. These people are striving for alignment of a vision and mission for mutually beneficial outcomes, and connecting on a personal level with them is the only way that real positive change will happen.

Lee’s other big piece of advice was to adhere to your mission. Staying mission-driven is the key to any nonprofit’s success, and you should never give that power away to a foundation. Nonprofit leaders must be representatives and advocates for their cause, and if money takes you away from that mission, then reject it and refuse to compromise.

Final Thoughts

Compared to the big-name foundations on the East Coast or in the Bay Area, Southeast philanthropy is among the youngest of all philanthropic regions and quite small in comparison. This just means that Southeastern foundations need to leverage their assets more than ever to have the impact they seek. In a place that has long struggled with hate and inequality, philanthropy has an important place in the love of human kind. Now is the time for the Southeast to use its precious dollars to create change around hope and desire for people in the region and around the world.

It would benefit all donors and grantseekers in the Southeast (Arkansas, Louisiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida) to connect with SECF and read its Connections weekly e-newsletter to stay informed about news, trends, and issues on philanthropy for grantmaking foundations.

Here at IP, we're excited to expand our regional coverage to the Southeast and dive into an incredibly unique local grantmaking scene that holds so much promise. Tune in to our Southeast funding guide and Southeast news blog as we get to know locally focused funders and how they’re having an impact on our communities.