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Southern foundations convene for inaugural Passing Gear Philanthropy Institute

The cohort includes community foundations and health-conversion foundations from Alabama, Kentucky and North Carolina and South Carolina.

Passing Gear Philanthropy inaugural cohort photo
Passing Gear Philanthropy inaugural convening cohort and MDC staff

Accepting the challenge of removing the historic, baked-in barriers that are holding back too many people in their communities, 30 board and staff members from foundations in Alabama, Kentucky, South Carolina, and North Carolina participated in the opening convening of MDC’s inaugural Passing Gear Philanthropy Institute.

View a slideshow of Institute highlights (to the tune of the Staple Singers’ “I’ll Take You There”)

The cohort includes two community foundations—Coastal Community Foundation in Charleston, S.C., and the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham (Ala.)—and two health-conversion foundations, The Greater Clark Foundation in Winchester, Ky., and Impact Alamance in Burlington, N.C. During the three-day convening at the end of January, the teams looked deeply at what holds the status quo in place in their communities, what can change it, how change happens, and how they can most wisely use their assets and influence in partnership with others to create truly equal opportunities for everyone.

Foundation staff and trustees, working together, focused on their capacity to “Read Reality Truthfully” and “Take Action Responsibly” to understand how to address complex factors that work to perpetuate inequity and limit shared well-being. Working with their coaches—experienced foundation professionals, themselves—the staff and trustees began the work of strengthening  their organizational capacity to support their Passing Gear aspirations.

Evaluative comments and conversations since the convening show that the cohort sees PGPI as a way to build capacity and courage for hard, local, transformative work. They have embraced the core concepts and vision of PGPI with enthusiasm.

“The convening was transformative for our team,” wrote one participant. “The real challenge,” wrote another, “is integrating it into everything we do and getting all staff engaged in this framework.”

As those foundations continue their work, MDC is preparing to receive applications for the second cohort of the Institute for 2021-22, working toward its goal of creating a peer network of at least 20 Southern grantmakers employing Passing Gear principles, addressing systemic barriers, and sharing what they’ve learned works and doesn’t work.

“The commitment and momentum of these Southern foundations to use all of their philanthropic wherewithal to address historic barriers is inspiring, both to their peers and to MDC,” said MDC President David Dodson, who helped create the institute. “Having long written about Passing Gear, to see this next expression is heartening.”

A highlight of the convening was the ongoing storyboards created by organizational guru and artist Ken Hubbell, which highlighted the goals of the institute, the concepts and activities during the convening time, and each team’s reflections and priorities as they evolved.

Storyboards created by artist Ken Hubbell highlighted concepts and activities as they evolved during the convening

The institute is grounded in more than 10 years of Passing Gear Philanthropy engagements MDC has had with foundations around the country, guiding grantmakers to redirect more than $1 billion in assets to address the “upstream” causes of persistent challenges in education, health, and career development. That work led the Southeastern Council of Foundation to commission the 2017 State of the South report “Philanthropy as the South’s Passing Gear: Fulfilling the Promise”—sparking an investor in that report to note that the move from report to action is just what a donor likes to see.

The two community foundations in the 2020-21 cohort serve places with histories of racial violence, exclusion, and inequity, and say they are eager to build their institutional capacity to redeem that history. The two rural foundations serve communities where power is tightly held and inequities prevail in health, education, economics, and opportunity.

The cohort began their engagement in fall 2019, when they formed their teams, reviewed and questioned their core concepts and resources, and started the relationship with their PGPI coach. At January’s opening convening, they looked at the gaps between their aspirations and their capacity and the alignment and courage required to fill those gaps.

The work of the Institute continues through June, with the foundation teams working with their coaches to decide where to best focus their efforts to reach identified outcomes. The cohort will gather again at the end of June to highlight lessons learned, reflect, and inform the peer network that is being created.