The South has a disproportionate amount of U.S. poverty (one-third), yet only a quarter of the nation’s population lives in the region. We are philanthropically under-capitalized, as the South only has 1/6 of U.S. philanthropic assets. Philanthropy is society’s social venture capital, and addressing equity and social barriers to shared well-being requires more catalytic philanthropy from within the region, for the region.

In 2004, MDC began to work deeply with boards of directors and senior staff of foundations to examine how they could refocus their activities and deploy themselves to address the issues of fairness and opportunity in their communities. We call the resulting process Passing Gear Philanthropy. Inspired by Paul Ylvisaker’s notion of philanthropy as society’s “passing gear” and informed by the concept of “reflective practice” as developed by Donald A. Schön, Passing Gear Philanthropy is grounded in the belief that to move wisely into the future requires deep understanding of our past and present.

Passing Gear philanthropy seeks to engage society’s inventiveness and focus its capabilities on situations where current performance is missing the mark. It cultivates the will, imagination, and know-how to enable caring and concerned people to address contradictions between the ideals we hold and the disappointing realities we confront daily.

The Passing Gear process includes:

  • A unique approach to looking at community and regional history for lessons about leadership, change, and the role of philanthropy
  • Intensive data analysis to fully understand demographic realities, as well as emerging issues and trends
  • New philanthropic frameworks that will deepen understanding of the distinctive levers and limits of private philanthropy as a catalyst for community and systems change, and the tools that private philanthropy has at its disposal
  • Development of strategic priorities focused on lasting change in order to achieve each organization’s mission

The GOAL: More and different philanthropy

  • To partner with foundations and other philanthropic organizations to develop Passing Gear Philanthropy “habits of mind” and skills that will enable them to create long-lasting change in their communities
  • To unleash and inform the philanthropic impulse in all citizens and communities
  • To remind trustees of private donor groups that they are custodians of values as well as resources
  • To empower those whose voices often are missing from public and philanthropic policy


We have guided grantmakers to redirect more than $1 billion in assets to address the “upstream” causes of persistent challenges. Karl N. Stauber, president and CEO of the Danville Regional Foundation, a hospital-conversion foundation, credits MDC for prompting the foundation’s transition from giving small grants to its $5.4 million focus on early childhood education. “It’s the largest per capita commitment to early childhood education that’s ever been made by a public or private agency in the Commonwealth of Virginia,” he says. “That grew directly out of the work that MDC started doing here five years ago.”

Past engagements include:

  • The Danville (Va.) Regional Foundation, which MDC advised during its creation and continued working with for more than 20 years. Read more here.
  • The Woodward Hines Education Foundation in Mississippi, which now serves as a catalyst for policy reform and systems change to raise postsecondary attainment in the state.
  • The Humana Foundation in Louisville, Ky., which is implementing a strategic plan aimed at addressing the upstream causes of the most significant barriers to good health.
  • The John M. Belk Endowment, which has embarked on an ambious program to improve postsecondary attainment in North Carolina.
  • And others, including: Allegheny Foundation (Va.), William Caspar Graustein Memorial Fund (Conn.), Greater Clark Foundation (Ky.), Otto Bremer Trust (Minn.), The Community Foundation of Northeast Florida, The Frances P. Bunnelle Foundation (S.C.), and Thrivent Financial Foundation (Minn.)Our work with individual foundations begins to marshal the huge potential of Southern philanthropies focused on closing the gaps that limit the region’s competitiveness and civic cohesion. We extend the impact of Passing Gear Philanthropy through writing and presentations in the field of philanthropy. Our 2007 State of the South Report on Philanthropy as the South’s "Passing Gear” captured the roles that philanthropy can play in creating a more equitable and inclusive South, and those roles were revisited in our 2017 State of the South report "Philanthropy as the South's Passing Gear: Fulfilling the Promise," which captured how far Southern philanthropy has come in addressing systemic barriers and how far it has to go. And David Dodson, MDC’s former president and currently an MDC Senior Fellow, is a regular speaker at the Southeastern Council of Foundations and other philanthropic convenings.

MDC is expanding its Passing Gear Philanthropy practice in 2020 with creation of the Passing Gear Philanthropy Institute, annual cohorts for the next five years of up to six grantmaking organizations learning Passing Gear practices and to help them move more of their investments upstream to create systemic change. A network will be formed in which participants will work with other Passing Gear Philanthropy alumni to address barriers to opportunity and inclusion.


For more information on MDC and Passing Gear Philanthropy, contact Kierra Clark.