Equity Centered Philanthropy and Leadership Project

Equity Centered Leadership and The Equity Centered Leadership Institute

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Project Overview

Philanthropy is society’s social venture capital. Addressing equity and social barriers to shared well-being require 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 their assets to address the issues of fairness and opportunity in their communities. We called 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.

MDC expanded its Passing Gear Philanthropy practice in 2020 with creation of the Passing Gear Philanthropy Institute, a cohort of four grantmaking organizations building upon their understanding of Passing Gear practices to help them move more of their investments upstream to create systemic change.

Much has changed since our work began nearly 20 years ago. Even prior to the social and civil rights movements of 2020, it was apparent that for philanthropy to do this work, a more honest assessment of the sector’s role in supporting structural inequity, in addition to the historic data impacting our communities, needs to be faced and dismantled before a systemic impact can be achieved. For this reason, Passing Gear Philanthropy has evolved into Equity Centered Philanthropy, which seeks to support a relational, ethical, and collaborative process of people and institutions fostering positive change that addresses the systemic impact of racial equity at the intersections of economic, gender, and other types of equity.


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 ambitious 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.

If you are interested in more on this program, please contact, Senior Program Director, Kerri Forrest.

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Kerri Forrest, Senior Program Director

Email Kerri Forrest