How Southern Power Fund upends traditional grantmaking

Clara Benson, the founder of a South Carolina nonprofit that connects Black residents to health and wellness resources, received an interesting call last September.Benson was told by the caller to check her email. Community Resources for Enduring Wellness was the organization that received the grant. The Southern Power Fund gave money to Black-led grassroots groups such as Bensons. The nonprofit did not have to apply. The fund was already aware of the potential of the organization and wanted to assist.Although Bensons charity, CREW, was recently granted IRS charity status, the organization had no budget. Benson had created a list of South Carolina's Black mental-health providers, which she shared on social media. This list was created in response to people seeking help in coping with the racial inequities that were revealed by the coronavirus pandemic, and the killing of George Floyd by the police.Benson was a Rock Hills Winthrop University senior and was studying psychology. When she got the call, she was already busy with classes. She didn't rush to open the email that she believed would inform her of a $1,000 grant, if lucky.CREW required significantly more money to get started.After opening the email, Benson was overcome with joy and disbelief. CREW went from being an idea with a nonprofit 501(c),(3) to a functioning organization that could get funding.Ash-Lee Henderson was the co-executive Director of Tennessee's Highlander Research and Education Center. He had called Benson. Highlander was one of the groups that helped to launch the Southern Power Fund, as the country was still reeling from Floyd's murder and the coronavirus pandemic. The grants were distributed by Highlander, Southerners on New Ground and Project South, as well as Alternate Roots.The Southern Power Fund wanted at least $10,000,000 to be raised to send to grassroots groups, with no strings attached, to meet immediate community needs. The idea was to quickly raise money for small, predominantly Black-led organizations that foundations often neglect. The group aimed to create an ecosystem of grassroots organizations, and connect them with experts who could assist them in areas such as fundraising skills.Continue the storyThe fund was created to provide long-term sustainability and a rare approach to philanthropy.Fund raised $14 million more than its goal, mostly from foundations. The Ford Foundation was the biggest donor, giving $4 million through Southerners On New Ground. Barbara Picower, philanthropist and financier of the JPB Foundation, gave $1 million. The Democracy Frontlines Fund, JPB Foundation and Resource Generation each contributed about $1 million through their respective donor networks.The Southern Power Fund has so far awarded $9.7 Million to grassroots organizations. The majority of the 250 grants were for $40,000 and the beneficiaries had a lot of freedom in using the money.Henderson stated that it takes money from institutional philanthropy to people who are actually aware of what is happening and do the work in a way that is not restrictive. There were many intersecting crises, and many of our organizations were the social safety nets that literally saved people's lives.Nat Chioke Williams is executive director of Hill-Snowdon Foundation. The foundation supports nonprofits that fight for social and racial injustice. The fund received $75,000 from the foundation.Williams stated that foundations are resistant to supporting social justice, social changes, etc. at a level that penetrates and does something about inequities almost all foundations list as things they want to change. They support charities that maintain the status quo, even though they may have good intentions, and don't bring about change.Research has shown that philanthropies often fail to support the type of groups Southern Power Fund is committed funding. Echoing Green and Bridgespan, which supports leaders of emerging social businesses, released a 2020 report that found that nonprofits headed by people of color receive less grant money than groups with white leadership. Additionally, the money they do get has stricter restrictions.The funding issue was brought to national attention by the seminal events of last year. Henderson stated that while many people with large funding sources may have been shocked at the disparities, grassroots groups were not.Henderson spoke of Floyd's death as a moment that triggered philanthropy. For years, philanthropy needed to realize that we had been telling the truth. It is shameful that it took so many Black deaths to show philanthropy there was a crisis.The grants were not required to be applied for by Bensons and most of the non-profits that received support from the Southern Power Fund. Chantelle FisherBorne was the project director at Out in the South (an initiative of Funders for LGBTQ Issues) and provided expert advice to the fund. She also advised on non-profits in the area that were worthy of support.Fisher-Borne stated that these groups were performing some amazing, creative and important work that was completely lacking in resources. We want to make sure organizers are able to use the resources we have.CREW will use part of its grant for the creation of a Black database of health and wellness professionals. This idea was partly inspired by Bensons need for assistance.Last year, she posted on social media about her emotional struggles. Benson said it was more than feeling isolated from the pandemic. Her distress was caused by the racial inequalities that Floyd's death and the pandemic highlighted.Benson is enrolled in a masters degree in public health and expressed outrage at the health disparities caused by African Americans who contract coronavirus at higher levels. She began compiling a list of Black psychologists and mental-health professionals when people asked her about them.She spent many days compiling the list, mainly by looking at the websites of South Carolina's health systems. Then, she posted the information on social media.CREW now uses the grant, which is the first ever it received, to build an online database. It will eventually be expanded to include other Black wellness and health-care providers in North Carolina and Georgia. A portion of the grant will go to professional assistance in creating and maintaining a searchable database.She said that the goal is to make the Green Book of Public Health for Black People a guidebook that Black people used to find safe places to eat, sleep and rest.Latia Curtis, Greenville, S.C. was devastated by last year's events. She had similar reasons to Benson and also for issues related to racial wealth inequalities. Curtis, who owns a hair and makeup service for print, film and television clients, said that the CREW resource group has helped her find a new therapist.Curtis told me that I wanted a Black woman as therapist. I had previously been to a white psychologist who understood superficially, but was unable to empathize with me and help me find the right language to handle microaggressions.People were released from prison in Alabama last year to stop the spread of coronavirus. Rodreshia Russaw (executive director of TOPS), said that once released, many people couldn't rely on a highly strained social security net.Russaw stated that people who lost their jobs because of Covid-19 were finding it difficult to receive unemployment benefits and food pantries were overcrowded. TOPS recognized a need and sought to fill it.She said that she wanted to ensure that the communities we serve had what they needed.The grant will be used by the 20-year-old Dothan-based group to provide housing, food and personal hygiene products to 50 prisoners who have been released. According to Internal Revenue Service data, the grant will also pay for a staff member to manage the increased caseload of the group. It had revenue of $535,000 in 2019, according to Internal Revenue Service data.Russaw stated that one of the most important lessons from the Southern Power Fund was that it taught us that if you trust the people doing the real work on the ground we can help our fellow citizens.The Southern Power Fund has a unique approach to grant-making that isn't consistent with most philanthropic norms. This includes a lengthy application process and detailed reports about how the funds were spent.We've seen firsthand the impact that organizing and advocacy can have on the South, Jerry Maldonado, Ford's director of grantmaking for projects that are focused on specific states and cities, said in an email.Grantees feel that the Southern Power Fund's trust in them, which provided no strings funding, has motivated them to use the money with care.Benson in South Carolina hired an accountant and other professionals. She also established relationships with experienced nonprofit leaders to learn from them. CREW is operating with a budget for the first time, and Benson was aware that this new status made her vulnerable to making mistakes.Benson stated that I wanted to make sure I was being a good steward for the money. My primary concern was to ensure that this money is used to the maximum extent to make this organization as sustainable as possible.Russaw in Alabama said that her organization captures videos and photographs of grant-funded activities. As a way to document how the money is spent, she and her colleagues share them on social networking.Henderson recalled the pleasant surprise of many grassroots leaders when Henderson called them to inform them about the grant.Henderson stated that this was my favorite part about the whole thing.Many grantees believed that the grant announcement was a joke.They didn't know there was a fund with connections to the Southern grassroots, radical legacies, and traditions of Southern organizing.___The Chronicle of Philanthropy provided this article to The Associated Press. Olivera Perkins, a senior writer at The Chronicle. The Lilly Endowment provides support to the Chronicle and the AP for reporting on philanthropy. All content is solely the responsibility of the Chronicle and AP. All APs philanthropy coverage can be found at