MDC Launches Passing Gear Philanthropy Institute to Reshape Southern Philanthropy

Sketch of hands raised in various colors

Family foundations have long been a philanthropic mainstay on the Southern landscape, making pathbreaking investments to advance a region that lags the nation in the overall level of foundation assets. Today, the South still needs more philanthropy and different philanthropy to close the gaps and open the possibilities of our region and its people.

As a regional nonprofit focused on helping the South become a place where “all people can thrive,” MDC and family foundations have long been partners to spur compassionate, just, and innovative communities that work well for their people. Our approach is called “Passing Gear Philanthropy,” inspired by foundation executive Paul Ylvisaker’s writings. Passing Gear Philanthropy teaches that moving wisely into the future requires deep understanding of our past and present, and careful deployment of a full range of philanthropic capital. The process involves working closely with foundation boards and staff through a tailored methodology grounded in data, history, culture, systems analysis, and powerful philanthropic frameworks. For over fifteen years, MDC has been privileged to work with family foundation trustees and staff in the Carolinas, Florida, Tennessee, and others to address inequities in their communities. We’ve been gratified to see family foundations roll up their sleeves to tackle the root causes of chronic disparities in education, income, health, and other factors holding back people stuck at the bottom of the economic ladder.

Until now, MDC has advised foundations individually on how to improve their strategic grantmaking, so it moves beyond charity to creating sustainable, long-term change. Those foundations have redirected more than $1 billion to address the upstream causes of persistent challenges. Now we are expanding that work to position more Southern foundations to break down systemic barriers to equitable opportunity and catalyze shared wellbeing for all people in the region. We hope family foundations will once again be part of this movement.

MDC is currently accepting applications—due May 20—for a new initiative called the Passing Gear Philanthropy Institute. The Institute will attract six Southern foundations to prepare them to work in their own communities and collectively with other Passing Gear alumni to address the barriers that restrict opportunity and equity for our region. Over the next five years, MDC hopes to shape a network of at least 20 Southern grantmakers actively employing Passing Gear principles and deploying philanthropic capital to address the region’s systemic barriers.

MC Belk Pilon, president and board chair of the John M. Belk Endowment, a family foundation with assets of more than $345 million in Charlotte, N.C., says Passing Gear Philanthropy was essential to setting the Endowment’s goals. Its board and staff went through a Passing Gear engagement with MDC in 2013 and had a follow-up engagement last year.

“We walked through this amazing historical perspective,” Ms. Pilon says. “We then looked at the [education] pipeline and looked at where young people and returning adult populations were dropping out of the system. One key finding was people could get into college, but they couldn’t stay in.”

The Belk Endowment has made systems-change in education a focus of its work— improving college access, college completion, and workforce relevance, with particular attention to community colleges. That led it to support, along with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Goodnight Education Foundation, a major, systemic effort to improve postsecondary attainment in North Carolina called “myFutureNC.” The result was a goal of going from 1.3 million North Carolinians with a high-quality postsecondary degree or credential to 2 million by 2030. The focus was the entire education continuum, and it was led by the heads of the University of North Carolina system, the N.C. Community College System, and the State Superintendent of Public Instruction.

“Our key lesson [of PGP] is that history builds upon itself, systems aren’t irrevocably broken, and they’re producing the results they were designed to produce,” Ms. Pilon says. “So, the big question for us now is how do we create new systems that produce different results.”

The Passing Gear Philanthropy Institute will be based on MDC’s Passing Gear methodology. Each participating organization will identify a leadership team of board and foundation staff, and MDC’s process will accelerate and deepen 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 institutional values and DNA.
  • Sharpening strategy to combat structural inequities—a customized philanthropic leadership strategy, aligned with each foundation’s vision, that deeply integrates Passing Gear principles.
  •  Aligning internal capacity and practices—enhanced institutional culture and practices that help foundations operationalize and execute their 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 will culminate with participants completing an implementation plan rooted in a strong equity analysis. Participants will benefit from 28 days of in-depth, one-on-one coaching; three on-site visits; and two full-cohort, multi-day convenings, and more. Our experience provides eight months of work with Passing Gear Philanthropy principles and practices. The Institute is fee-based and start-up funding has been provided by The Kresge Foundation, The Duke Endowment, the Ford Foundation, the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation, and the Marguerite Casey Foundation.

To learn more about the Passing Gear Philanthropy Institute and request an application before the May 20 deadline, visit the MDC website.