Reshaping Southern Philanthropy to Build a More Equitable Future

  • Applications for 2021 Institute cohort accepted in spring 2020.
  • Questions? Watch an informational webinar
  • Submit an interest form to receive information on the 2021 cohort

After 15 years equipping individual foundations to invest in solutions to the South's most pressing challenges,  MDC  expands its approach to reach cohorts of Southern foundations through the new Passing Gear Philanthropy Institute.

Our goal: shape a network of at least 20 Southern grantmakers actively employing Passing Gear principles and deploying philanthropic capital to address enduring systemic barriers and catalyze shared wellbeing for people in the South.

MDC’s Passing Gear Philanthropy process has helped major foundations develop the focus, strategy, capacity, and culture the South requires to advance equity in education, community development, health, and family economic security.

The Passing Gear Philanthropy Institute is building the network by creating annual cohorts for five years. Each cohort will be open to four to six grantmaking organizations and will prepare those organizations to work individually and collectively with other Passing Gear Philanthropy alumni to address barriers to opportunity and inclusion.

Participating foundations in the 2020 cohort are:

The Institute is fee-based. Start-up funding for the Institute has been provided by  The Kresge Foundation, The Duke Endowment, Ford Foundation, Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation, Ford Foundation, and the Marguerite Casey Foundation.

THE INSTITUTE: Coaching and Equipping Southern Foundations a Year to Act Individually and Together on Structural Inequities

The Passing Gear Philanthropy Institute draws on MDC’s high-impact methodology deployed with large foundations since 2004.

Each organization participating in the Institute identifies a leadership team of board and foundation staff. MDC’s rigorous process accelerates and deepens their grantmaking practice by strengthening four critical areas:

  • Building a contextual analysis and vision rooted in equity – an aspirational vision grounded in a rigorous equity analysis and deep understanding of your institutional values and DNA.
  • Sharpening strategy to combat structural inequities – a customized philanthropic leadership strategy, aligned with your vision, that deeply integrates Passing Gear principles.
  • Aligning internal capacity and practices – enhanced institutional culture and practices that help you operationalize and execute your philanthropic leadership strategy with fidelity to Passing Gear habits and behaviors.
  • Creating a culture of reflection and learning – joining a network of other equity-oriented funders that support each other’s continuous learning, knowledge development, and field building to address structural barriers and advance shared wellbeing.

The Institute culminates with participants completing an implementation plan and forming a sustaining network to support continued peer learning.

THE INSTITUTE MODEL: Individual and Collective Learning and Coaching

The Passing Gear Philanthropy Institute uses the same proven, comprehensive approach to developing cohorts that MDC uses with mature, high-impact foundations with the added benefit of peer support and learning.

Each participant benefits from:

  • 28 days of in-depth, one-on-one coaching and group facilitation led by a Passing Gear coach with significant experience in strategic philanthropy.
  • Two full-cohort, multi-day convenings to open and close the Institute experience.
  • Three on-site visits from your Passing Gear coach.
  • Access to Passing Gear Philanthropy faculty, including expert Passing Gear practitioners, thought leaders, and Passing Gear alumni.
  • Access to and co-creation of MDC’s Passing Gear Philanthropy Sourcebook and Resource Guide.
  • Post-institute peer-to-peer learning opportunities through the Passing Gear Learning and Action Network.

Combined, the experience provides eight months of contact with Passing Gear Philanthropy principles and practices.

INSTITUTE COMPONENTS: Self-Assessment, Knowledge, Analysis and Strategy

The Passing Gear Philanthropy Institute guides participants through an intensive process to assess where they are, plan where they want to be and identify strategies, principles, and practices to get there.

Through the Institute's coaching, peer learning, and resource materials, participants experience the following components of the program:

  • The Passing Gear Philanthropy Self-Assessment – Completed before the first convening, the self-assessment enables MDC to customize its approach for coaching based on your foundation’s specific needs and in collaboration with your leadership team.
  • Community History Examination – An in-depth look at community and regional history and grantmaker contributions to that history to gain better understanding and learnings about institutional and community strengths, needs, and patterns of engagement with systemic barriers to opportunity.
  • Data Analysis – a detailed analysis of demographic, social, and economic data to describe the future context in which grantmakers will act and shape an aspirational vision.
  • Strategic Priority Development – Creation of strategic priorities that rooted in an equity analysis and embedded in a “play to win” philanthropic leadership plan.
  • Internal Capabilities Audit – A close examination of your internal capacity to execute on your philanthropic leadership strategy, identifying the core and distinctive capabilities required to successfully implement your strategy.
  • Passing Gear Philanthropy Integration – Coaching and examination on how to integrate Passing Gear philanthropic practices, mindsets, and behaviors into your core internal capacities, from organizational structure, staff capabilities, and board governance to creating a culture of learning and reflection.

Selection Criteria

MDC seeks participants that demonstrate the following:

  • Deep Sense of Urgency: Belief that the equity challenges facing our region can (and should) be solved; willingness to explore and more deeply understand systemic forces impeding access, opportunity, and equity for all in your community and across the region.
  • Commitment to Rigorous Self-Examination: Willingness to “read reality truthfully” and earnestly grapple with difficult questions related to organizational effectiveness and culture; willingness to examine and refine institutional assumptions, mental models, strategy, ways of working, and culture.
  • Appetite to Lead: Commitment to address structural barriers to equity and shared wellbeing in the South; preliminary understanding of the unique role your organization might play in addressing these challenges; desire to strengthen your role as a catalytic investor, working collaboratively with communities; desire to deploy assets creatively and courageously to address systems, culture, and power to enhance shared wellbeing.
  • Commitment to Continued Action and Reflection: Commitment to continuously sharpen strategy and improve operations through data-informed strategies; desire to be a part of a larger movement to expand the number of equity-oriented investors in the South.

Cost: $50,000

For the 2020 inaugural Institute cohort, MDC, owing to  foundation sponsorship, offered the full Passing Gear Philanthropy experience traditionally offered during our one-on-one engagements for the discounted price of $50,000.

This participation fee covers all associated programmatic costs of the Passing Gear Philanthropy Institute: lodging and meals at both convenings; 28 days of expert coaching to develop a robust equity analysis, enhanced strategy informed by Passing Gear principles, strengthened internal capacity, and a philanthropic leadership action plan; telephone consultation; videoconference sessions; and program support from MDC's Passing Gear Philanthropy team.

Cost of travel to and from the two convenings is not included.

2020 Institute Timeline

April 5, 2019—Application opens   REQUEST AN APPLICATION
July 31, 2019—Application closes
August 30, 2019—Participants announced
September 20, 2019—$25,000 deposit due
October-November  2019—Organizational self-assessment completed by participating  grantmakers to facilitate matching with a Passing Gear coach
December 2019—Orientation call with Passing Gear coach to begin relationship-building and provide an overview of the January convening
January 2020—Kickoff convening in Durham, NC (dates to be determined based on participant preferences)
January-June 2020—Virtual and on-site coaching from Passing Gear Institute coach
June 2020—Second convening (dates to be determined based on participant preferences)
June-July 2020—Coaching concludes and learning network phase begins with Institute alumni

The application opened on Friday, April 5. Applications were reviewed on a rolling basis. The application closed on Wednesday, July 31, at 5 p.m. Selected participants were notified on Friday, August 30. In the event of oversubscription, MDC offered a waiting list. Prospective participants on the waiting list were notified on Friday, August 30.

Applications for 2021 Institute cohort will be accepted in spring 2020. 

Questions? Watch an informational webinar

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 and careful deployment of a full range of philanthropic assets, including but not limited to financial capital.

Since 2004, MDC has deployed this distinctive, high-impact methodology to position Southern foundations to attack the upstream drivers of social and economic inequity. Working intimately with boards and staff through a tailored methodology grounded in data, culture, systems analysis, and powerful philanthropic frameworks, we have helped shape the mission and strategies of foundations large and small working to advance equity in the South.

Through this work, more than $1 billion in philanthropic assets have been redirected toward addressing issues underlying enduring social inequities.

In 2017, we documented our work and the urgent need to expand Passing Gear Philanthropy in a major report commissioned by the Southeastern Council of Foundations (SECF), Philanthropy as the South’s Passing Gear: Fulfilling the Promise. The widespread interest generated by the report, along with MDC’s track record of impact and SECF’s continuing desire to have more of its members embrace Passing Gear goals and practices, led to the creation of the Passing Gear Philanthropy Institute.

MDC's Passing Gear Philanthropy Alumni Network includes:

Allegheny Foundation (Va.)
Danville Regional Foundation (Va.)
William Caspar Graustein Memorial Fund (Conn.)
Greater Clark Foundation (Ky.)
Humana Foundation (Ky.)
John M. Belk Endowment (N.C.)
Otto Bremer Trust (Minn.)
The Community Foundation for Northeast Florida (Fla.)
The Frances P. Bunnelle Foundation (S.C.)
Thrivent Foundation (Minn.)
Woodward Hines Education Foundation (Miss.)


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