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Pushing levers that create sustainable change

A Q&A with Darrin Goss Sr., Coastal Community Foundation and member of the Board of Directors of MDC

Darrin Goss imageThe 2015 shooting at Emanuel AME Church spurred hard questions about equity in South Carolina’s Lowcountry, and  Passing Gear Philanthropy is helping find the answers.

MDC speaks with Darrin Goss Sr., president and CEO of the Coastal Community Foundation in Charleston, S.C., and member of the Board of Directors of MDC, about how this approach is helping leaders in his community create equitable, sustainable change.

Goss previously worked in leadership positions at United Ways in Baton Rouge, La., and Greenville County, S.C.; directed multicultural affairs at Wofford College (his alma mater); and implemented training programs at Sunoco Inc.

Under his direction and using Passing Gear principles, the Coastal Community Foundation recently completed a series of community conversations to learn the issues that were most important to people living in the Lowcountry of South Carolina and followed up with town hall meetings where data on those issues was discussed. The foundation now is developing a policy agenda based on the community’s priorities that it hopes to share and pursue with other groups and organizations in the region.

How did you first learn about Passing Gear Philanthropy?

I started working with Passing Gear Philanthropy with the United Way of Greenville County (S.C.) in 2009. It really changed my perspective on philanthropy. At that time, we were doing program-based grantmaking that was focused on outcomes, and really only focused on two of the four traditions, philanthropy as relief and partly as reform. But once we went through the Passing Gear process, it frankly just opened up everything—SMIRF [the multiple forms of philanthropic capital: Social, Moral, Intellectual, Reputational, and Financial] and reading history truthfully. That got me thinking about what’s possible, what philanthropic organizations can do, and how they can do that work better together.

How does that inform your work in Charleston?

I came to the Coastal Community Foundation in Charleston in 2016. It was clear to me that we were a good community foundation by all objective measures—asset growth, good at stewarding our donors, doing all the things that a traditional community foundation should do. I came in on the heels of the Mother Emanuel massacre [when nine African-American church members were shot and killed by a professed racist at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston on June 17, 2015]. And the board and the staff had done a lot of reflection about what equity means. There are a lot of causes for why that happened, but for the community foundation it was about racial disparity, and they started objectively asking, “What does it mean to be a community foundation,” and do we really speak for, work with, and represent the community we serve, up and down the coast of South Carolina? That set the conditions for what we’ve been able to accomplish in my two-and-a-half years here, and absolutely set the mindset and focus for the organization.

Did you talk about it in your job interview?

Yes, the board and staff members talked about being more effective, more of a community leadership organization that is more civically engaged. What challenged us is how to engage in this work when we had limited relevance and few unrestricted dollars to fund programs and initiatives. I thought about what better way to do that than to apply Passing Gear principles to our organization. I firmly believe that if you’re going to go into civic engagement and community leadership, you have to leverage the other forms of philanthropic capital and have a mastery of the four traditions of philanthropy [relief, improvement, social reform, and civic engagement].

So, for us MDC had these two things—this ideal that we wanted to be a community foundation that represented the whole community, and that we recognized there was this disparity among people of color and others, and among the rural and urban communities we serve. So, on the one hand, you had this really strong social impulse that economic opportunity was important, and then on the other hand, all you really understood was financial capital. So how do we get at all these important social issues by just grantmaking? What Passing Gear Philanthropy says is we can’t fund our way to greatness on some of these issues, but we can leverage our social capital as an organization, we can absolutely leverage our moral capital, taking counter-cultural positions and bring to the attention of others what’s wrong and what’s right. How do we actually move forward with equity? Putting our organizational reputation on the line when it matters most, on hard things, and helping the board and staff understand what that meant.

Who was the foundation representing before?

Typically, the community foundation donor was from old Charleston. And if there were people of color represented, they would have come along, but it really wouldn’t reflect the diverse community we are now.

In our grantmaking, we did some real, hard looking at who we were granting to. And when we did that we realized that, by and large, we were making grants to the same white-run organizations, and they weren’t necessarily serving the populations of people who really needed support. When we realized that, we turned an equity lens on ourselves and asked what we were doing and how we were doing it. And when we read the data truthfully, we realized we weren’t living up to what community really means in a lot of tangible ways.

How did you change the culture?

In May 2016, we took the board and the staff through an exercise called Question Zero. Question Zero asks some very important questions on which we had to reflect. Why do we exist, why are we here? What happens if we cease to exist? What is our unique value proposition? When you start asking those questions, and asking if you’re relevant and what value you bring to the community, the answers become revelatory. It really charted for us the course we would take over the next year. When we answered Question Zero and we said this is our value proposition, this is why we think we exist, there were people, board and staff members, who decided it was time for them to move on. When we started dealing with issues of who we are, why do we exist, we’re not just an aggregator of resources, we realized we are actually here to influence the community in a very positive way. We’re not just a check-the-box, come-when-you-want-to, passive organization. No, we actually live and learn with and in communities. We’re here to work with communities, not to do things to communities. That kind of language and that kind of conversation really helped clarify to a lot of people that this is the type of organization they wanted to be a part of.

This was driven by what happened at Mother Emanuel. There was a relevance gap. When Mother Emanuel happened, then-Mayor [Joseph] Riley called the community foundation and said we really need the community foundation to stand up and help us with this. And we had no answer. We said we don’t deal with these kinds of things. We were used to dealing with natural disasters like hurricanes. We had an organizational memory of Hurricane Hugo. But we had a human disaster that hit our community, and we just didn’t know how to respond. And that created a moment of pause for the community foundation. Who are we? Is it appropriate to respond? Should we have? That led to Question Zero, led us to thinking about what we need to look like in terms of structure. We were sort of out of balance in the donor development versus grantmaking side. So we did a lot of internal restructuring to right-size the organization for the work we’re doing now, which is very powerful work.

All this was through my Passing Gear frame. I realized if we were going to be effective, relevant, and add value, then we had to see ourselves as more than an aggregator of money. I reject the term grantmaking organization. We don’t even use it anymore. We call ourselves a philanthropic organization. We are far more dynamic an organization than that. We have far more capital and resources to bring to the table than that. As a matter of fact, we don’t lead with money, we don’t lead with grants. We accept the inherent complexity of adaptive problems, we like it, we don’t run from that, because we recognize that we have more to bring.

We’re only four percent unrestricted money. The average community foundation is 25 percent. So if we’re going to make big financial commitments, it’s going to be with donor-advisors understanding the importance and relevance of working upstream and moving from retail grantmaking to more systemic, wholesale, or systems-level work, and we’re in that process now. That’s a Passing Gear concept. We teach it, we preach it, and we challenge our donors with it.

What’s their response been?

A lot of them like what they do and how they do it, a lot of them say, wow, this makes a lot of sense, bring me opportunities to work that way. I always say don’t stop giving philanthropy as relief, or philanthropy as improvement, but I do need your help with philanthropy as reform. I need you to do more in terms of civic engagement and social reform. We have to do both. We can’t rob Peter to pay Paul, so we need people running programs that actually feed people and do workforce development, but we also need people working on policy, we need people engaged, sharing data and knowledge. We need to move that upstream. It’s been good, because a lot of our donors have accepted that. The others do what they’re doing, and that’s OK, we don’t need 100 percent, we need a critical mass. Let people do what they do but help them understand what they’re doing.

If I’m in a stewardship meeting with a donor, I look back at the last two to five years. Typically, if they’ve given money to an education program, it’s designed to help reading—philanthropy as improvement, teach them how to fish. I say I can see that you’ve been doing this kind of work with your grantmaking. We frame it—I say, “We would call that philanthropy as improvement. The reason it’s improvement is because you’re teaching a student how to read and not just giving them the answers.” But I say there are limitations to that. What if the rod is broken, what if the pond is empty? That almost always makes them step back and say, Darrin, say more. And then I say that a part of the challenge with these kids who are not reading at grade level is that they are not getting it in those first three to four years. What I’d like you to consider are opportunities to leverage grantmaking here, moving it more upstream. And they say I never really thought about it that way. How do we do more of this? I say some of those are policy challenges—here’s why every child can’t go to a high-quality childcare program in South Carolina. And then we start talking policy. And we would frame that as philanthropy as social reform. And there’s a limit to that, too, so we have to do all of it. It’s not an either-or, it’s a both-and.

When I’ve walked people through that process, nine times out of 10 that donor is contributing more to that donor-advised fund, and they’re far more interested in the systems-level work that needs to be done from a policy and civic engagement standpoint. It’s a powerful tool. Because it actually helps you engage the donor in ways that they have never been engaged. So when they’re out there talking to whomever, they’re using our intellectual capital.

How do you better facilitate opportunities for Passing Gear investments?

Community foundations need to create the vehicles by which people can give to do this work. If you think about a community foundation, they have all these different fund types that are pretty restricted. We’ve created a community partnership program, and it’s a fund that’s unrestricted to do this community leadership work, to fund a convening where we bring organizations and people together to work on some of these systemic issues.

Is it uncomfortable sometimes?

One of the things we’re studying is power. So we’re talking about building power, sharing power, and wielding power as an organization, we’re looking at how we use the power we have as a philanthropic organization for our board and staff. Policy/advocacy is where we’re moving to as a complementary tool to our work. When we talk about the traditions of philanthropy, it’s impossible to deal with improvement and relief without talking about engagement and reform. What’s reform? It’s to dismantle the structures that perpetuate the problems. And that’s policy advocacy. And yes, it becomes very uncomfortable at times. It is this way because of how polarizing our politics are right now. Our focus is on how to create vibrant communities and this requires us to work with elected officials and potential partners of many stripes. We just can’t afford to be partisan on issues of humanity. In this way, I imagine there will be times when we catch criticism from both sides of the political aisle—that will be fine, that will be uncomfortable but necessary.

Does it make you nervous?

Two years ago I was told we don’t do politics. I said we’re not doing electoral politics. We have an election coming up in a couple of weeks and we’re very quiet. We’re not sponsoring any candidate forums. That’s not a place our board wants to be. However, if we’re talking about access to economic opportunity, and we’re talking about affordable housing, we are absolutely talking about the policy-related issues that perpetuate those problems. We are bold to talk about a living wage job. We are bold to talk about zoning and the kinds of things that need to happen to create affordable housing. It’s the board, our donors, and staff—advocacy for us is not just the CEO, it’s all of us informing ourselves on the policy-related issues that can make our work more impactful. My goal is for everyone in our organization—staff, board, and donors—to understand, based on our civic engagement agenda, what those policy issues are and to communicate those very comfortably, whether at a cocktail party or a state-level advocacy day. We ought to be very comfortable understanding the policy issue and how that affects the work we are trying to do. And that’s a work in progress for us. We’re in the process right now of creating a public policy agenda.

Have you seen results yet?

When a person experiences the Coastal Community Foundation, and if they knew us pre-2016 and they know us now (and I’m not taking any credit for this because the organization has really done the hard work), what they’re going to experience is a far more adept community foundation that understands the levers in a community that can help create sustainable change. In Charleston we are becoming more comfortable and honest about our history, we are talking more openly about slavery and the vestiges of slavery, and how that has created inequities for people of color to move forward economically. But we don’t languish there.

Presently we’re in an inflection point in our community. There are 38 new people coming here every day in the Charleston region. So the community is rapidly changing. For us as a community foundation, given the perspective we have, we understand we have to engage these new people, we have to steward the people who’ve been here, and we have to communicate a vision for the community where all people in our community thrive. Passing Gear gives us the opportunity to do that. So culturally, we have changed.

What has happened so far?

There are three other United Ways in our footprint. They are all either working through or considering Passing Gear. The other two community foundations in our footprint have absolutely jumped on Passing Gear. From a collaborative standpoint, we’re working so much better together. Before, we wouldn’t talk to each other, and now we have this common language called SMIRF.

I see that translated to people on places like Hilton Head Island, whom I don’t know, but they know Passing Gear and they know MDC. They’re changing their mindset about how to get things done in the local community. You can’t just fund your way to greatness. People are getting it. You have to respect history, you have to respect culture, you have to leverage the other forms of capital, and communities outside of philanthropy are looking to the community foundation to provide that leadership. And I think that’s powerful.

I’m talking about business and local government. They have been working through issues on their own for a lot of years, and the reality now is that, because of turf, if they’re really going to move forward, they need that objective, truth-telling organization, a foundation, working in concert with other philanthropic organizations like United Ways, to be the convener and leader of multi-stakeholder collaboratives. That gives us the best opportunity to make sustainable, positive, and collective impact. And that’s not the way we’ve done business in the Lowcountry of South Carolina. But it’s changing.