As the South Grows

On Fertile Soil


Sunflower County, MS

Sunflower County, Mississippi

Southern communities are rich with natural leaders and existing organizations – whether incorporated as a 510(c)3 or not – but often funders don’t recognize them. Sometimes, foundations and donors disregard Southern leaders because these individuals seem to lack the educational credentials or formal capacity that grantmakers expect from experienced nonprofit executives. Sometimes foundations and donors defer to existing power structures by working only with established political, business or social sector leaders.

Southern leaders who come from and are deeply connected to those affected by poverty, racism, sexism and other injustices are those most well-equipped to lead positive change in their communities.

And the capacity to effectively relate to, persuade and represent communities is more important than the capacity to write a grant proposal or speak a funder’s language. Southern leaders understand what is and is not possible in their communities. They understand what rhetoric can push the boundaries of the possible in a productive way and what rhetoric may push them to the breaking point.

Southern foundations – like Foundation for the Mid South – have a crucial role to play in convening partners around a “big table.” Southern funders also can help bridge the gap between how work in their communities is described and how national organizations expect it to be described.

Related: Read “On Fertile Soil: Voices From the South”

Practical tips for foundations and donors for greater impact in the South

Based on conversations with nonprofit leaders, advocates and funders across the South, there are certain characteristics foundations need to look for when they seek a Southern organization that will leverage philanthropic investments for greater impact. And there are some qualities that funders over-emphasize in their search for Southern partners, to the detriment of the foundation, grantee and community.


1. DO search for and fund Southern organizational leaders who represent the communities they serve.

For example, an organization that purports to serve the African-American community and is led only by white people may not be the most effective way for a grantmaker to invest in a better future for that African-American community. This is not to say that white leaders cannot be advocates for their Black neighbors, nor is it to say that men cannot do so for gender justice work nor heterosexual people for their LGBTQ friends and family. Indeed, they can and they do so in the South. But any Southern funding strategy must reckon with the importance of organizational leadership that is drawn from the communities the organization serves.

2. DO prioritize leaders and organizations that have the trust of their community as represented in relationships and the influence to get people to show up and speak out.

Organizations without the sufficient trust capital – built with time and hard work – to fill a funder listening session, for example, may not be able to leverage foundation resources effectively. Relationships, often those that go beyond professional transactions and into the territory of personal trust and mutual understanding, are a crucial cultural component of nonprofit work in the South. In fact, without them, sustainable long-term progress will be impossible. This kind of trust capital can be difficult to measure, which is why relationships with nonprofit and community leaders are so important to understanding this dynamic.

3. DO support Southern community leaders and organizations that are able to articulate how identity, history and politics combine to suppress the power and prosperity of their communities.

Their analysis may not be communicated in ways a foundation program officer is used to hearing from sector thought leaders or academics. But the analysis is there if one listens. How are women, LGBTQ people, people of color, immigrants and poor people excluded from community life? How does a community’s history live on in decisions made today? One doesn’t need an advanced degree in sociology to answer these questions thoughtfully and informatively.

4. DO look for networks of collaboration, resource-sharing and co-strategizing that already exist.

It took the authors of this report more than six months of conversations with community organizers and nonprofit leaders across the rural Deep South to begin to perceive the breadth and depth of the connections among them across issue and geography. It required the full-time work of more than two staff members and the development of trusting relationships. Often national organizations (which may not have as much time or resources to spend) look for formalized, publicized networks of nonprofits as evidence of power-building infrastructure. But Southern history is fraught with examples of well-meaning organizations provoking detrimental and long-lasting backlash. Funders need to consider the impact of that history on Southern nonprofit infrastructure.

Before deciding that no network capacity exists there, ask what you may not be seeing. Southerners themselves understand how to live within, build power without and change unjust systems. And Southerners themselves must lead philanthropic strategy development and execution.

5. DO provide flexible, multi-year funding and capacity-building support.

Grantees need long-term commitments from foundations and donors to plan for long-term strategies. This doesn’t mean support should come without concrete expectations.

Funders can empower Southern organizations by providing capacity-building support that enables them to secure more funding (e.g., setting up a fiscal sponsorship).

Related: Read “On Fertile Soil: Introduction”


1. DON’T assume formal education and nonprofit management capacity are necessary to engage one’s community in an inclusive vision for a more just and sustainable future.

Isolated and impoverished Southern communities often lack access to quality higher education, training on nonprofit board development, grantwriting and compliance, for example. But they do have access to extensive networks of community resources and knowledge that makes them a smart philanthropic investment.

Sometimes, funders overlook the formal qualifications when they do exist because of prejudice. When funders expect a college degree or a polished grant proposal to justify an investment, they exclude Southern organizations in need of philanthropic resources that are led by people who are most capable of organizing their communities. Funders often misconstrue signs of privilege for signs of capacity.

2. DON’T assume the community leaders and organizations most well-adapted to affecting systemic change in a given community are those already well-connected to political, economic and philanthropic power.

In fact, where traditional perceptions of race, gender and class dominate, relying on the leadership of well-connected organizations may be counterproductive. Foundation staff and donors need to seek out authentic relationships with affected communities, not just relationships with the mayor or the county commissioner.

3. DON’T rely only on established 501(c)3 organizations to leverage your Southern investments.

Southern organizations and networks take on structures that may be unfamiliar to foundation staff and donors. Securing 501(c)3 status is beyond the resources of some community organizations. And, if a particular organization grows out of a faith community or other organic social network, achieving 501(c)3 status may not be a priority.

Where advocacy, civic engagement, mutual aid and leadership development are woven into the fabric – for example, communities with legacy Civil Rights Movement infrastructure – foundation staff and donors do their work a disservice if they engage only with established 501(c)3 organizations. Fiscal sponsorships and other creative funding vehicles are often better adapted to the reality of work in the South.

Some leaders and organizations may appear at first to be monolithic or independent of any supportive network, but behind and beside most Southern leaders is an informal network of other leaders and community members who may, with support, represent an opportunity for philanthropic investment.

4. DON’T treat your grantees like contractors.

Southerners themselves must lead philanthropic strategy development and execution. Funders need to work harder at nurturing equitable partnerships between grantee and grantor, especially in those Southern communities where the balance of power between philanthropic capital (funders) and labor (grantees) has hindered Southern leaders’ autonomy, efficacy and sustainability. Foundation staff and donors must recognize that pattern of mistreatment and begin by listening humbly to the prospective grantee partner.

A funder-grantee partnership that is based in honesty will ensure that setbacks are opportunities to learn, adjust strategy and recommit, instead of fractures in an investor-investee relationship. Funders should embrace the differences in experience and perspective that their grantee partners bring to the relationship as opportunities to learn.

Ultimately, partnerships between Southern grantees and foundation staff and donors need to be transformative, not transactional. They need to draw on the South’s culture of community, hospitality and mutual aid to ensure that both grantee and funder learn and grow because of the relationship.

And, in surpassing a transactional form of relationship-building, they need to go beyond an exchange of grant dollars to include network-building and capacity-building in both directions.

5. DON’T burden your grantees with unreasonable goals and reporting requirements.

Funders and grantees can work together on sensible expectations and evaluation methods that don’t unduly burden the grantee. Measuring the impact in small, rural Southern communities can be challenging, especially on the scale that funders often expect. But if foundation staff and grantees have honest, trusting relationships, they can find ways to build evaluation strategies that don’t exclude work in the rural South from consideration.

And, if a funder cannot afford the time and resources this sort of relationship-building and paradigm-adjustment requires, there are philanthropic institutions – such as the Foundation for the Mid South, the Black Belt Community Foundation and other community-based philanthropies all over the South – that stand ready and able to help facilitate and, if appropriate, re-grant investments.

Getting Started:


Photo by cmh2315fl. Used under Creative Commons license.

As the South Grows

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Acknowledgements & Interviewees

Advisory Committee and Black Belt + Delta Interview and Focus Group Participants


Appendix A




Section 4: Getting Started