How the Southern Power Fund Enhances Traditional Funding

The caller asked Benson to check his email. His organization, Community Resources for Enduring Wellness, was receiving the grant. The new Southern Power Fund was funding black-led grassroots groups like Benson. The nonprofit was not required to apply. The fund already knew about the organization’s work and its potential and wanted to help.

Benson, then a senior at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, was majoring in psychology. She was busy with classes when the call came. In no rush to open the email, she assumed that “if we’re lucky, a $1,000 grant will tell.”

The crew needed significantly more money to get up and running.

“$40,000!” After opening the email several hours later, Benson groaned with joy and disbelief. “It took the crew from an idea with a 501(c)(3) to an actual organization that could position itself to receive funding.”

Benson was called by Ash-Lee Henderson, co-executive director of Tennessee’s famed Highlander Research and Education Center. Highlander is one of the organizations that helped launch the Southern Power Fund as the nation grapples with the coronavirus pandemic and the killing of Floyd. Highlander, along with Southerners on New Ground, Project South and Alternate Routes, were responsible for distributing the grants.

The Southern Power Fund wanted to raise at least $10 million to send to grassroots organizations, no strings attached, to meet immediate community needs. The goal was to get funding to small, predominantly black-led groups quickly, which the foundation often overlooks. The group plans to develop an ecosystem of grassroots organizations and connect them with experts who can help them fill gaps such as fundraising skills.

The fund saw the potential to create long-term sustainability while developing a rarely used approach to philanthropy.

The fund exceeded its target, raising $14 million primarily from the foundation. The Ford Foundation, which gave $4 million through Southerners on New Ground, was the largest donor. The JPB Foundation, financed and led by philanthropist Barbara Pickover, provided $1 million, while the Democracy Frontlines Fund, the JPB Foundation, Resource Generation and the Solidarity Network each gave approximately $1 million through their donor networks.

So far, the Southern Power Fund has awarded $9.7 million to grassroots organizations. Most of the roughly 250 grants were for $40,000, and beneficiaries received wide discretion in how the funds were used.

“It gets money out of the hands of institutional philanthropy and into the hands of people who really know what’s happening and are working — in ways that aren’t restrictive,” Henderson said. “There were a lot of intra-critical crises and many of the organizations we funded were social safety nets that were literally saving people’s lives.”

Nat Chiok Williams, executive director of the Hill-Snowdon Foundation, which supports nonprofits fighting for social and racial justice, said that the non-stringent approach is rooted in the use of philanthropic dollars by Black-led grassroots organizations. Ways has the drive to say more. . The foundation gave $75,000 to the fund.

Williams said, “It’s the resistance of foundations to support social justice, social change, etc., that really penetrates and does something about the inequalities that almost all foundations list in their mission, which they want to change.” Huh.” “What they often support is more aligned with charity, which, despite its best intentions, maintains the status quo and does not bring about change.”

Research shows that philanthropists routinely fail to fund the types of groups the Southern Power Fund is committed to supporting. A 2020 report from Bridgespan Consultancy and Echoing Green, which provides support to leaders of emerging social enterprises, found that nonprofits led by people of color are awarded less grant money than white-dominated groups. and there are more restrictions on the amount of money they can receive. use.

Fundamental events last year, which prompted the country to examine the longstanding socioeconomic dimensions of racial inequality, drew attention to the issue of funding. Henderson said many people with large funding groups may have been shocked by the disparities, but grassroots groups were not.

“It was a catalytic moment for philanthropy,” Henderson said of Floyd’s murder. “The philanthropist had to see that we had been telling the truth for years. It must be shameful that there were so many cumulative black deaths to prove philanthropy that there was a level of distress that needed attention. “

Benson’s group and most nonprofits that receive support through the Southern Power Fund were not required to apply for grants. Chantel Fischer-Born, project director of Out in the South, an initiative of Funders for LGBTQ Issues, provided expertise to the fund, which also includes nonprofits in an area worthy of support.

“These groups were doing something beautiful and wonderful and creative and important that is a whole lot less,” Fischer-Born said. “We only want to move resources in a way that is actually useful to the organizers on the ground.”

Crew is using part of its grant to build a database of Black health and wellness providers, an idea that partially grew out of Benson’s personal need for help.

She posted on social media last year how she was struggling emotionally. Benson described it as more than just feelings of pandemic isolation. The pandemic and the racial inequality that Floyd’s death exposed led to his distress.

Benson, who enrolled in a master’s program in public health, said she was angered by the issues of health disparity by African Americans dying from the coronavirus at higher rates. When people asked her if she knew of any black psychologists and other mental-health professionals, she began to compile a list.

She spent several days working on the list, primarily searching the websites of health systems and other providers in South Carolina. Then he posted what he found on social media.

Now CREW is using the grant, the first grant it has ever received, to build an online database that will be expanded to include other Black health-care and wellness providers, eventually also in North Carolina and Georgia. Some of the grant will be used to gain professional expertise in compiling and designing searchable databases.

“The goal is to really be like the Green Book of public health for black people,” she said, referring to a guidebook widely used by black travelers during isolation to find safe places to eat and sleep.

Latia Curtis of Greenville, SC, was distraught by the events of last year for the same reasons as Benson, as well as issues of racial wealth inequality. Curtis, who owns a makeup and hair service for film, television and print clients, said the crew’s new enlistment has helped her find a new therapist.

“I wanted a black female doctor,” Curtis said. “I went to a white therapist who could understand superficially, but wasn’t able to help me find language to deal with astral aggression and those kinds of things.”

In Alabama, as in other parts of the country, people were released from prison last year in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Once released, they often could not rely on a heavily tense social safety net, according to Rodracia Russo, executive director of the Ordinary People Society, or TOPS.

In addition, Russo said, people who lost their jobs because of COVID-19 were finding it difficult to take unemployment benefits, and food pantries were overwhelmed. TOPS saw a gap and tried to fill it.

“We wanted to make sure the communities we serve needed them,” she said.

The 20-year-old group, based in Dothan, Ala., is using its grants to provide housing, food, personal hygiene products and social services to 50 people released from prison. The grant is also paying for a staff member to handle the increased caseload at the group, which in 2019 totaled about $535,000 in revenue, according to data from the Internal Revenue Service.

“One of the biggest lessons of the Southern Power Fund is that it showed us that when you put trust in the hands of people who are doing the truthful work on the ground, we can help our people,” Rousseau said.

The Southern Power Fund uses an approach to grant-making that does not adhere to most philanthropic criteria, such as an extensive application process and detailed reports on how the funds are spent.

“We’ve seen firsthand how events and advocacy in the South can change lives and impact the entire nation,” said Jerry Maldonado, who is a grant-making director at Ford for projects that focus on specific cities and states. supervises, wrote in an email.

In the meantime, grantees say the faith Southern Power Fund showed in creating no-strings funding motivates them to change how they use the money.

Not only has Benson hired an accountant and other professionals in South Carolina, she’s also building relationships with more experienced nonprofit leaders in hopes of learning from them. This is the first time the crew has dealt with a budget, and Benson knew that this novice position left him vulnerable to mistakes.

“I first wanted to make sure I was a good manager of money,” Benson said. “My main concern was that we are able to make the most out of this money to make this organization and this project as sustainable as possible.”

In Alabama, Rusa said his organization takes photographs and video of the activities of grant-funded programs. He and his colleagues then share them on social media as a way to document how the money is being spent.

Henderson recalled the pleasant surprise of several grassroots leaders when she called them to tell them about receiving grants last year.

“That was my favorite part of the whole darn thing,” Henderson said.

Many grantees were convinced that the grant news was a prank.

“They couldn’t imagine there was a fund that would have ties to the grassroots and radical legacies and traditions of Southern organizing that was actually giving them money without strings attached.”


This article was provided by Chronicle of Philanthropy to The Associated Press. Oliveira is a senior writer for the Perkins Chronicle. Email: The AP and Chronicle receive support from the Lilly Endowment for its coverage of philanthropy and nonprofits. AP and Chronicle are solely responsible for all content. For all of AP’s philanthropy coverage, visit


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