#FundSouth Is More Than a Hashtag. It’s a Movement.


By William Cordery

Every few years or so, national foundations turn their attention to the South – often in response to a natural disaster, a tragedy of national significance or an upcoming national election – and provide short-term, strategic investment in the region.

Although such funding can bring positive change to some communities, the lack of long-term, capacity building investment in grassroots organizations working in the South for social, economic and political equity ultimately stymies a permanent shift in the region’s socioeconomic and political landscape.

With so many credible and viable organizing efforts emerging across the South, now is the time for philanthropy to increase and coordinate long-term investment to strengthen the social justice infrastructure in the region.

As The South Goes

Progressive organizations in the South have proven their ability to respond quickly and powerfully to attacks on low-income families and marginalized communities, including the Zimmerman verdict in Florida, the striking down of progressive policies in North Carolina, anti-immigrant laws in Alabama and Congressional delays in comprehensive immigration reform, and voter suppression laws throughout the region.

Those well-executed responses are the result of a new generation of leadership in the South committed to building the infrastructure to confront and withstand attack—to build a movement for Southern transformation in the 21st century. How to support and strengthen such organizing and infrastructure-building has been the subject of discussion among several philanthropic networks and institutions.

One such group – comprising regional and national funders, including my organization, Marguerite Casey Foundation – began conversations in 2009 around how to sustain grant dollars in the South beyond the response to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Anchored by Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation, Southern Partners Fund, the Foundation for Louisiana (formerly the Louisiana Disaster Recovery Foundation), and Hill-Snowdon Foundation, and a handful of other funders, the Southern Organizing Working Group began to take shape. By 2013, this network had grown to include more national and regional funders, was renamed Grantmakers for Southern Progress (GSP), joined Neighborhood Funders Group (NFG) as an official working group, and released its first major report, As the South Goes.

As the South Goes explores the differences in the ways local, regional and national funders think and talk about social justice organizing in the South and why and how they choose to support or not to support it. After research that included interviews with funders and organizers across the South, GSP recommended that funders build deeper relationships with each other and with organizers working in the South, think creatively about how to sustain and strengthen their efforts, and better align their funding strategies with the goal of increasing philanthropic support and strengthening organizing capacity in the region. The hashtag, #FundSouth, was first used by a funder colleague in spring 2013, as a result of reading As the South Goes, to give the conversation a presence on social media.  It has since been used by numerous foundations, philanthropic networks, non-profit organizations, and advocates.

Over the next 12 to 18 months, GSP and its members plan to increase interest and investment in funding progressive work in the South, offer programming to national and regional funders that supports efforts to better leverage their resources, develop a joint strategy with regional associations of grantmakers, build a comprehensive database of funders and grantees in the South, and explore the opportunities to launch a national campaign to raise money and the number of funders investing in the South.

Philanthropy Turns South

In addition to the efforts of GSP, several philanthropic networks and institutions have stepped up their activities in the region. Over the past year, W.K. Kellogg Foundation made a strategic decision to place program and grantmaking staff on the ground in Mississippi and Louisiana in recognition of how critical good relationships and personal experience are to making impactful investment. Additionally, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Forward Promise initiative has committed $11.5 million to improving the lives of boys and men of color, with a significant portion earmarked for funding projects in the South. Other efforts to increase funding in the South have been initiated by Funders for LGBTQ Issues and Unitarian Universalist Veatch Program at Shelter Rock. Increased funding support, however, is not enough to realize positive, sustainable change for the region. We need to structurally change our analysis and our approach to funding in the South.  

Since Marguerite Casey Foundation began making grants in 2002, it has invested more than $57 million in grassroots organizations in the South through more than 260 grants. As of January 2014, the foundation has 48 active grantees in its South region, with grants totaling $14 million. The foundation’s grantmaking strategy has been to provide general operating support in multiyear grants to cornerstone organizations that develop leaders within the community and civically engage their constituents. The average length of the foundation’s relationship with grantee partners is more than six years. We know that tangible policy wins and community change are not likely to happen over the course of a one-year grant term or because of some narrowly defined grant deliverable.

We strive to build long-term relationships with our grantees in order to seed movement building efforts and to give organizations the flexibility to respond to timely organizing opportunities. Over the past 12 years, our grantees have been able to strengthen their collective capacity, attain solid policy wins on issues affecting poor and low-income communities and communities of color, and partner with other grantees and progressive organizations across states, regions and the country. Grantees in Mississippi have successfully advocated for full funding of the state’s Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP), safeguarding billions of dollars for public education in one of the poorest states in the country. Groups in Florida have effectively mobilized poor families in rural and urban areas across the state to advocate for public policies to improve their quality of life, including increased wages for farmworkers and in-state tuition for undocumented youth. Grantee networks in Alabama successfully struck down the most discriminatory provisions in HB 56, the state’s anti-immigrant, Arizona copycat law. These are just a few examples. These examples illustrate that sustained resources are critical to organized communities’ ability to effectively respond to bad policies and turn the tide in favor of low-income families.

A New Opportunity

Movement building in the South is looking beyond a two-party political approach to bettering the lives of low-income and marginalized communities. This could not be more perfectly illustrated than by the base-building efforts of the Dreamers, the Dream Defenders in Florida, the organizing of Moral Mondays in North Carolina and Georgia, the Peoples Movement Assemblies and the Southern Movement Alliance. This movement energy is in direct correlation with the new majority – young people, families, immigrants, LGBT communities, and people of color – which looks at the world through a different lens. The South is at a tipping point: Low-income and marginalized families, fed up with ineffectual national politics, are turning their energies to the local and state levels to bring about real change on the ground. People are building power at the community level, defining justice and pursuing systemic change to improve their own quality of life.

We in philanthropy have been presented with an enormous opportunity to fund movement building in the South. Movement building in the region is tangible; it is timely; and it is well resourced with people, smart organizing strategies and a commitment to long-term change. To support it, we institutional and individual donors must invest in strengthening the capacity and networking of local organizations that are developing grassroots leadership and advancing public policy shaped by affected communities across the South. We should commit substantial philanthropic dollars beyond a one- or two-year grant cycle or specific project and provide organizations the flexibility to use those funds to strengthen their infrastructure as well as their programmatic work.

Finally, we should measure movement progress, not turnout numbers at rallies. We should fund movement building. We should #FundSouth.

William Cordery is a Program Officer for Strong Local Economies at the Surdna Foundation and a GSP Steering Committee member. You can find him on Twitter @WilliamCordery.