As MDC partners with communities to advance equity and opportunity, philanthropic capital is always a needed revitalizing force. Because philanthropy is largely immune to the political pressures of government and the bottom-line pressures of business, it is uniquely suited to provide long-term vision and change in our communities. Yet in many cases, charitable assets are deployed without intentional focus on equity and opportunity for all. It is imperative, then, that foundations develop the insight and tools necessary for long-lasting change.

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.

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


  • 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 partnered with community foundations, hospital legacy foundations, family foundations, independent foundations, both urban and rural, as well as United Way organizations, to make strategic resource choices grounded in the history and needs of their communities.
  • 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.”
  • 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 president, is a regular speaker at the Southeastern Council of Foundations and other philanthropic convenings.


For more information on MDC and Passing Gear Philanthropy, contact Joshua Mbanusi.