The Future of Philanthropy is Local

Monday, August 30, 2021 - 11:45 am EDT
Mary L. Thomas

As we continue to navigate a new normal amid a global pandemic, philanthropy has a moral obligation to create spaces for everyone’s voice to be heard, valued, and represented in building common ground to achieve more together. How do we advance the greater good in our community? How do we build trust among donors to tackle old, perpetual problems in new ways? How do we build our capacity to lead in courageous ways in a climate that is more politically charged than ever before? Where is the balance in our dialogue as we work to allow others in? What does the roadmap look like for the future?  These are the questions that plague my mind as I consider my own role in helping to shape the sector that I have grown to love and respect.

I have had the distinct honor and privilege to work in philanthropy for almost 25 years at a community foundation that has been around since 1943—the Spartanburg County Foundation. Promoting philanthropy, encouraging community engagement, and responding to community needs is the fuel that makes this foundation thrive in new and innovative ways. I have seen it evolve. I have witnessed our business model transition from acting like a bank to now standing tall as a community leader. The Foundation not only facilitates grantmaking by ordinary citizens, but we've also worked in partnership on projects addressing community need from interfaith dialogues to economic development.

We have learned many lessons over the past two decades, and the most important lesson is that we cannot do this work alone. Alone is not sustainable. Alone is not transformative. Alone is not creating a better future for all. We must work together with our donors and partners from all walks of life in Spartanburg County. Together is powerful. Together is scalable. Together is collective impact. Together is accountability. And together is collective capability. 

Our greatest challenge in expanding philanthropy is also our greatest opportunity—building understanding around data-driven solutions, solutions that help to build a new narrative about  the power of philanthropy. These solutions will inform the public’s perception of philanthropy beyond dollars, demonstrating the significant power that we possess to change policy, advocating for inclusivity in our giving, and articulating a message that anyone can be a philanthropist.  

We know this to be true in our own foundation’s efforts through initiatives such as Women Giving for Spartanburg, a giving circle comprised of 150-plus local women of all ages who invest in issues through collective giving. In just 13 years, this group has poured over $3M back into the community. It’s not just about the money, but the power of pooling resources together, building consensus on the greatest needs, and investing in causes that need philanthropy’s attention. In 2021, the group awarded six local organizations grants of $25,000 or less. These grants may seem a lot smaller than the mind-boggling amounts that people associate with philanthropists, but I can attest that their impact in the community will be exponentially greater. 

Other efforts to build community from within produce similar results, but with a different focus—capacity building at the grassroots level. Since 2004, the Spartanburg County Foundation has graduated 400-plus grassroots leaders through the Grassroots Leadership Development Institute. These neighborhood leaders participate in a seven-month institute, building their leadership competencies to influence policies and advocate for change at the local, state, and national levels. It is at the grassroots level where change is being realized and the power of philanthropy is manifested.

Expanding philanthropy’s opportunities to thrive begins with trust and committing ourselves to relationships that lead to systemic change. Connecting donors to causes that they care about requires building trust. Creating and maintaining others’ trust is not easy, but it is necessary to build a better future for all at every level.

It is up to the philanthropic sector to be more open, more transparent, and more inclusive in the spaces we occupy to advance our future work. If we lead with big data and advocate for what is just and fair, then perhaps the philanthropic landscape of tomorrow will be a true testament of what happens when we forget about our asset size and focus on the true value of impact that we are making in the distinct roles we get to exercise each day.

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2021-2025 Strategic Direction
Public Policy
Strengthening Communities