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11 States in 11 Months: Southern Philanthropy in... Virginia



Note: This post is the eleventh and final in a series that will run throughout our 50th Anniversary year. Each month, we'll focus on philanthropy in one of the 11 states in the SECF footprint, using both current and historical data while highlighting a variety of voices. This month's state: Virginia.


Virginia Philanthropy Snapshot

First SECF Members: The Lincoln-Lane Foundation (joined 1974)
Newest SECF Members: Charlottesville Area Community Foundation, Mary Morton Parsons Foundation, The Robert G. Cabell III and Maude Morgan Cabell Foundation (joined May 2019)
Number of SECF Members: 27

Learn more about Virginia foundations from SECF’s Southern Trends Report!


Voices from Virginia

Brennan Gould
President & CEO
Charlottesville Area Community Foundation

As a community foundation, we are a steward -- of resources, of relationships, of a vision for who we can be together. Here in Charlottesville and Central Virginia, this calling has taken on a new urgency over the past few years. It has led us to revisit the belief, often expressed by the founders of our organization, that in order to thrive together, we must value and invest in one another.

Charlottesville is more than a hashtag. It is more than a single weekend of violence. We are a community of people who love this region and call it home. We are also grappling with our long, often difficult history around the control of resources, narratives, policies, and practices, and how that history has shaped our present day. As a foundation, we believe we can only realize lasting community solutions by engaging honestly and courageously with our history. We also believe it is important for us to re-examine and refine our philanthropic practice. 

As part of that process, we have resolved to center equity in our work. For us, this means we are engaging in a thorough self-assessment to understand how power operates both within our organization and through our philanthropy. We hope to leave a legacy of decision-making that deepens belonging, builds agency, and broadens ownership. By centering equity, we are not saying to certain people, “You don’t matter.” Instead, we are saying to more people, “You do matter.”

For us, equity is about fairness, access and equal opportunities. We are concerned about systems that get in the way of fair access, and we know there are many. We made the decision to focus our learning on one system to start, and we plan to expand our study to others. We are starting with an explicit, but not exclusive, focus on race.

When we talk about race, we are talking about a system that affects everyone and that, by design, distributes benefits and burdens unequally. Race is a social construct, but one with real-life impacts. We are explicit about race because we care about the lives and well-being of everyone -- people of color and white people. In a social system that was designed to treat people differently based on racial identities, we believe it’s critical that we know how that system functions so we can help our community partners advance strategies that support all residents. It is tempting to avoid this difficult work, and yet our stewardship of this region requires us to understand how the system of race gets in the way of the thriving region we aspire to be. 

Our organization’s founders understood that regardless of whether we all personally know one another, our collective futures are intertwined. As a community foundation we are stewards of that interconnectedness. Our community members bring different perspectives and resources to the work of caring for our region. Some share generously from their abundance. Others bring lived experience and expertise about what is needed to navigate and disrupt barriers to success. Others bring vision for how to broaden access and expand opportunity. Still others bring dreams that have yet to be shared with those able to bring them to fruition. Each contribution matters. It is only together, and with careful intention, that we can realize the inclusive, prosperous, and resilient communities we aspire to be.


Jessica Mullen
Program Officer
Obici Healthcare Foundation

What do you expect to be the biggest opportunities and challenges facing your foundation and/or Virginia philanthropy in the next 10 years?

As I thought through what the biggest opportunities could be in Virginia philanthropy over the next 10 years, I realized they are also our biggest challenges. Virginia passed Medicaid expansion in January 2019 with great excitement. However, expansion of Medicaid has not cured all. It has created new issues. Many philanthropic organizations, including Obici Healthcare Foundation (OHF), are working hard to support organizations to help navigate people through the enrollment process and the need to re-enroll each year. OHF is working closely with our grantees to understand the new needs of our community that have developed since the expansion. That leads me to one of our opportunities: striving to be true partners with our grantees. My fellow program officers at OHF are striving to create strong, trusting relationships with our grantees to better understand what they truly need to support our community, not just what they think we (OHF) want to see. 

I asked my colleague, Fiona Charles, about her thoughts on the question posed to me. She pointed out that another great opportunity for OHF and other funders in Virginia is a call for partners to embrace their communities yet move outside of constricting power dynamics and divisionism. OHF is dedicated to building capacity in Western Tidewater and pushing our grantees to work with issue experts and technical assistance teams outside of their usual network. Since we are in Southern philanthropy, many of you already know how difficult it can be to get our community to work with people outside of themselves. This is a great example of how an opportunity is also a challenge. Many of our organizations are reluctant to trust people outside of our region. I am excited to note that I think some of this way of thinking is changing. As we build trusting relationships with our partners, we are seeing their defensive nature soften. They are listening to our message of support and allowing us to meet them where they are in order to help strengthen their missions.

As I write this, I believe this is a very exciting time to be in philanthropy. I believe we have incredible opportunities to support our communities during a time of uncertainty and flux. 


Philanthropic Phactoid

Thank you to former SECF President & CEO Martin Lehfeldt for providing this and other "phactoids" about the history of philanthropy in the region!

In 1796, President George Washington, possibly the richest American in his day, saved Liberty Hall Academy (the institution in Lexington, Virginia, that would become Washington & Lee University) from insolvency by an endowment gift of $20,000 in James River Canal stock.
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