Community Foundations in the Southeast: News, Trends, & Who to Watch

Community foundations have a unique role all throughout America, and one of the fastest growing regions to watch is the Southeast. Community funders down here are really growing and becoming more influential, which is changing the philanthropic landscape of the entire region.

To learn more about the regional community foundation scene, I consulted an organization that so many of them have in common: The Southeastern Council on Foundations. After speaking with the council’s Janine Lee and Dave Miller, a few trends and newsworthy topics came to light.

One good example of this growth and expansion is the Community Foundation of Atlanta (CFA), which started out with around $270 and people passing around a hat to collect more. Today, CFA is a billion-dollar foundation with ambitious goals for the greater metro area. CFA’s giving accents a strong resource in the geography it serves as a public foundation supported by individual families on behalf of local communities. CFA serves a multiplicity of several counties within the metro area, and groups like this typically bring in members of the local community who understand the local interests to serve on the board.

In Georgia alone, there are 13 community foundations, and Georgia Trend recently published an article titled, “The Business of Giving,” that offers some great insights into the state’s community foundation scene.

Philanthropy is growing in some more unexpected places too, such as the state of Mississippi and the Jackson area in particular. The Tupelo-based community foundation, CREATE, recently announced that its assets topped $100 million for the first time. There’s a new Jackson-based foundation that recently formed called the Education Services Foundation, which has about $150 million in assets to put to work at the local level. This might not seem like a lot to fundraisers in certain areas of the country, but in Jackson, this amount of money can make a profound difference.

After the Council on Foundations did some restructuring back in 2012 under the direction of President and CEO Vikki Spruill, fewer special services have been provided to community foundations. The last one of the council’s specialized annual community foundation meetings was held last year, and many community funders aren’t renewing their memberships. This has left many community foundations in the Southeast to look elsewhere for specialized support.

Increasingly, community funders in the Southeast have been coming together to create coalitions of memberships. The largest community foundations in the country have been doing this for a while to educate themselves, and there’s been some competition in this space now as well. One example of an emerging leader here is Jeff Hamond, who used to be an economic policy advisor for Senator Charles Schumer but more recently started a firm called Van Scoyoc Associates to support community foundations.

So with that bit of background in mind, what are the issues that are coming up in Southeast community foundations the most these days?

It might come as a surprise to some people that a lot of work is being done in the immigration and refugee space in the Southeast. Community funders have been paying a lot of attention to what’s been happening in their communities and how they can be supportive. There’s also been a lot of interesting work happening in food and nutrition here lately. Overall, there’s a big push among Southeast community foundations to support capacity building. After the recession, a lot of these community funders started to get more creative about how to strengthen the capacity of partners that receive grants.

One by one, we’ve been working to wrap our heads around the Southeast community foundation scene and cover their works in our Grantfinder profiles and local blog. There are a lot of innovative and influential groups at work across the region, but here are a few on our radar right now.

  • Memphis Community Foundation
  • Foundation for the Carolinas
  • Community Foundation of Northeast Florida
  • Community Foundation for Central Georgia
  • Community Foundation of the Chattahoochee Valley
  • Spartanburg County Foundation
  • Community Foundation Serving Richmond & Central Virginia
  • Education Services Foundation (Jackson, Mississippi)

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

Most community foundations in the Southeast have a mix of funds from donors and also engage in a competitive grants process. But there isn’t a huge amount of competitive discretionary funds to go around here. If donors aren’t interested in supporting discretionary funding, community funders must honor that through donor advised funds.

However, community funders here have more flexibility to deploy greater than the standard five percent annually because they’re not bound by the same rules as other types of donors. The average annual giving for Southeast community foundations is about 9-12 percent, according to Lee.

Also according to Lee, for many very large private foundations, community funders can become really great partners when they have huge amounts of resources and need to get those resources to the community. Community funders in the Southeast are often best poised to serve their communities because of the high number of rural areas in this region and because of the very familiar relationships in the South.

If you flip through the Southeast Council on Foundations’ newsletter, Connections, you’ll see lots of movement in the community funder space and resources for local community foundations to take advantage of. For example, SECF hosted a Community Foundation Boot Camp August 22-23 in Charlotte, North Carolina, and has shared some other related webinar opportunities too. A National Center for Family Philanthropy Spark Session about building blocks for community foundations starting the relationship with family donors recently took place via webinar, and another one about the community foundation’s role among a family’s professional advisors is coming up on October 20.