Looking back and looking ahead

The success that Greenville County enjoys – a strong economy with plentiful international investment, diverse arts offerings, relatively positive relationships among diverse people, world class parks and trails – is a result of intentional planning and partnerships over the last half century.

In the spring of 2013, MDC, Inc., a think-tank from Durham, NC, led a group of Greenville community leaders through a review of our history and a consideration of our future. Participants recognized that oftentimes, philanthropy played an important role in key projects.  Philanthropic investments supported construction of the Swamp Rabbit Trail, Falls Park, Liberty Bridge, and the Peace Center.  But the challenges that face Greenville County residents moving forward may be bigger than philanthropic dollars can address.

Funders present at that session felt it important to continue the conversation about the role of philanthropic investment in the community’s future.  They established the Greenville Partnership for Philanthropy to help them respond to – and proactively address – Greenville’s biggest challenges and opportunities. Under the leadership and financial support of the Community Foundation of Greenville, Hollingsworth Funds, Inc. and the United Way of Greenville County, GPP first convened funders for discussion and planning in 2014.  The January 2017 GPP membership meeting reviewed the work that has taken place in the nearly three years since that first discussion.

Looking Back

Early on, GPP members identified three purposes for the association: networking, education, and collaboration to improve Greenville, or, as the mission statement puts it, “pursuing opportunities for positive change.”

Networking.  Simply getting to know other funders was a major reason most GPP members began participating in GPP.  Philanthropy can be solitary work: most organizations that employ staff have only one person responsible for philanthropy and many others are volunteer driven.  Funders felt it important to get to know other people who were engaging in similar work.  GPP has over twenty local funding organizations as members and typically has thirty representatives in attendance.

Education.  There have been nineteen membership meetings since 2014, covering the following topics:

  • Education
  • Homelessness
  • Health
  • OnTrack Greenville and the Social Innovation Fund
  • Child Welfare
  • Food
  • Homelessness in-depth
  • Smarter Grantmaking (with Grantmakers for Effective Organizations
  • STEM Education
  • Affordable Housing
  • MDC’s State of the South report
  • Transportation
  • Capacity building
  • Environment
  • Rural Greenville County
  • Community Engagement
  • Arts
  • Affordable Housing: findings from City of Greenville housing study
  • Faith and Philanthropy

At the January meeting, members noted how their knowledge of these topics has progressed over time.  For instance, in the session on affordable housing in September 2015, most members had their first exposure to the definition of affordable housing being a monthly mortgage payment or rent that is 30% of a person’s income.  Their understanding of housing solutions expanded to include not just nonprofits to help with home ownership (such as Habitat for Humanity), but also rental properties, larger scale apartments funded through Low Income Housing Tax Credits, and local policies that support a balance of housing types in the market. Now, because of continued conversations in the community and additional education through GPP, funders can see opportunities for philanthropic investments to support a variety of housing types as well as investments of time and advocacy to make additional housing possible.

Collaboration.  “Pursuing opportunities for positive change” was included in the mission statement back in 2014 as a catchall for the collaboration that many envisioned would help improve quality of life in Greenville County.  When GPP was formed, members emphasized their desire to preserve their autonomy in funding decisions and focus, but as one member acknowledged, “I’m not sure what we might collaborate on, but if we don’t get together, we can never collaborate.”

The opportunities quickly presented themselves.  The United Way and Greenville County Schools received a Social Innovation Fund grant for middle grades success requiring an annual $2.2 million local match, and GPP members rose to the challenge in a way that has received attention nationwide.  Funders have become involved in supporting transportation and mobility by investing in a study of public transit and health and human services by the Piedmont Health Foundation and in helping Greenlink – the local public transit system – purchase much-needed intelligent transit systems.  And continuing work on affordable housing in the City of Greenville engaged funders in a new role for many – advocacy for public policies and investments to support housing for those with the lowest incomes.

Using all forms of philanthropic capital

These new activities for funders in Greenville County – advocacy, technical support, creating relationships – were inspired by one of the insights shared by MDC back in 2013.  David Dodson, President of MDC, reminded funders that foundations and other donors often think of their money as their only asset; they believe their one tool to solve social problems is a grant check.  But Dodson pointed out that foundations have other forms of capital, including social relationships and networks, their ability to take a moral stand on an issue, intellectual resources that they can share or commission to shed light on a topic, their reputation which they can lend to an organization or initiative, and lastly (and sometimes least important), financial resources.  GPP members often refer to these assets as SMIRF, and many feel that adopting a SMIRF approach to philanthropy has expanded their potential for impact (this article in Nonprofit Quarterly does a nice job of elaborating on these forms of capital in philanthropy).

Looking Ahead

Participants at the January 2017 meeting spent time in small group discussions considering what might be ahead for GPP and its individual funder members.  Their conversations were far-reaching, and a few members shared highlights.

  • We have lots of great initiatives in Greenville County that get started with great fanfare, but they need “legs” to make an impact. With many needs and opportunities, how do we maintain momentum and not dilute our efforts?
  • How do we quantify what “positive change” looks like? What began as a catchall term for potential GPP activities has become something that members feel we can collaboratively achieve.  But how do we define it and know when we’ve achieved it?  And who should be a part of defining in?
  • The capacity building and leadership development work with nonprofit organizations is critical and should continue, because these nonprofit leaders are the “hands and feet” doing the front-line work.
  • What is the target of change? It’s easy to fund and support programs that change others, but sometimes the changes needed are within.  This can be cultural change, process change, or understanding and shifting existing power structures between funders and nonprofits, between communities and more.
  • Part of understanding change results from developing intentional listening skills, especially at the grassroots level. Continued listening to residents in targeted neighborhoods will help the philanthropic sector better understand issues and what our place in partnering to solve them can be.

Members shared a few suggestions on upcoming sessions:

  • Consider our “SMIRF” assets and explore what each of us has to offer
  • Look at a former topic in depth, considering results at the systems level, the organization level, and the individual level
  • Educational sessions on veterans, advocacy and philanthropy, applied theatre, conflict resolution, and more

GPP aims to both respond to community needs and to be a catalyst for community change.  And GPP does this through its members.  The continued conversation with and participation by funders serving Greenville County will continue to build a stronger philanthropic sector and a better Greenville for everyone.


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