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Member Highlight: Martin Lehfeldt and Jamil Zainaldin


Last week's 50th Annual Meeting also served as the release party for The Liberating Promise of Philanthropy: Stories of Grant-Makers in the South, the new book by former SECF President Martin Lehfeldt and Georgia Humanities President Emeritus Jamil Zainaldin that chronicles the history of philanthropy in the region, from the Civil War to the present day.

Ahead of the book's release, Martin and Jamil answered questions about their work in an interview with the book's publisher, The Storyline Group.


Q: What is The Liberating Promise of Philanthropy about?

Martin Lehfeldt: As the title suggests, it is about grant-makers (i.e., philanthropic foundations) that have been active in the South -- Northern-based ones and, later, those indigenous to the South.


Q: For your purposes, what constitutes the South?

Jamil Zainaldin: Eleven states that were formerly part of the old Confederacy: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, and Tennessee.


Q: How many grantmaking foundations are there in the South today?

Lehfeldt: About 16,000, with combined assets of about $100 billion.


Q: What prompted you to write the book?

Lehfeldt: David Hammack, one of the foremost historians of philanthropy, was compiling a book about foundation activity in various regions of the United States. He asked us to contribute a chapter about the South, which did appear in his book American Philanthropic Foundations: Regional Difference and Change (Indiana University Press, 2018).

We felt there was enough material to merit a full-length book on the topic. When the SECF and the Georgia Humanities Council (a grant-making nonprofit affiliated with the National Endowment for the Humanities) expressed interest in sponsoring a history-oriented book about Southern philanthropy, we were off and running.

We also were keenly aware that Southern foundations had received relatively little or no mention at all in the major studies of American philanthropy. We hope this book will help to correct that omission and make grant-making in the South recognizable as an important chapter in U.S. history.

Zainaldin: That’s also why we have woven the story we are telling into the entire span of American history -- from the founding of the English colonies and the Declaration of Independence to the present -- touching upon other major historical events and developments that influenced modern-era grant-making: the aftermath of the U.S. Civil War, the gluttonous Gilded Age, the emergence of a modern not-for-profit sector, World War I, the building of a national tax structure, the Great Depression and New Deal, World War II, twentieth-century population migrations, the transportation system, and the “long Civil Rights Movement.”


Q: How would you describe the book?

Lehfeldt: It doesn’t fit neatly into a particular category. It has a lot of history in it, but it’s not a history book. It is factual, but it is not thoroughly objective; we express our points of view about philanthropy.

An interesting feature of the book is its series of sidebars -- short vignettes about grant-makers and grant-making that give a very human flavor to the history of philanthropy in the South.

Zainaldin: Another element that makes the book unique is that it devotes three chapters to the history of a regional association of grant-makers, the Southeastern Council of Foundations, which is celebrating its fiftieth anniversary in 2019.


Q: You say that Southern foundations started later than their Northern counterparts. Why is that?

Zainaldin: It took a long time for the South to recover from the devastation of the Civil War and to begin establishing the kind of discretionary capital that can be converted into charitable assets. Unlike in the North, the first significant wave of Southern foundations didn’t come into being until after World War II.

Lehfeldt: The first major Southern foundation was The Duke Endowment of North Carolina, established in 1924. Broadly speaking, indigenous Southern philanthropic foundations (as historians measure these things) are relatively recent arrivals on the scene.


Q: Does it have a particular point of view?

Lehfeldt: Without apologies, it does indeed have a point of view. While we commend all generosity, we also believe that the highest form of giving is the kind that moves the recipient in the direction of self-sufficiency. Our starting point for that contention is a scale of giving that was created by a great twelfth-century Jewish scholar called Maimonides.

There’s a related and powerful statement attributed to Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Philanthropy is commendable, but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary.” We’ve tried to capture the spirit of those remarks with the use of the word “liberation” in the book’s title and by identifying it as a core value rooted in our nation’s founding documents and history.

Zainaldin: If there is one thread that runs throughout the book, though, it is about the selfless work of so many people and institutions in response to the totality of the South’s destruction during the Civil War, such as the building of schools and colleges for newly-freed black Southerners and poor whites. Prior to that time, there was no public education in the South. Without that incredible region-wide effort to create an educational infrastructure from the ground up, it is questionable whether Southern states would have been able to retake their place as full members of the Union.

Not incidentally, that effort was part of a national stream of events which culminated in the modern civil rights movement, as well as important federal judicial decisions and legislation. After 1865, philanthropy and the nonprofit sector became partners in opening the door for a new civil society (and not only in the South).

So convinced are we of this interpretation that we have devoted an entire chapter of the book to the generosity of Julius Rosenwald, the chairman and CEO of the Sears, Roebuck Co. -- who in partnership with Booker T. Washington and his Tuskegee Institute set in motion an effort to build some 5,000 free and professionally staffed public schools for black students in rural areas of the South.


Q: Who should read this book?

Lehfeldt: Old-timers may enjoy the nostalgic feeling of encountering names and events they recall, but this book is really for young philanthropists and “philanthropoids”. We want to give them some feel for the enterprise whose leadership roles they are inheriting. That’s also why we dedicated the book to the Hull Fellows, the alumni of the one-of-a-kind leadership training program that the Southeastern Council of Foundations has been directing for nearly 20 years.


Q: Anyone else?

Lehfeldt: People who care about the building of a civil society. People who want to unearth hidden history. People who want to pursue diversity and inclusiveness.


Q: What impact would you like this book to have?

Zainaldin: First of all, we would hope that grant-makers would ask themselves whether their generosity is indeed promoting self-sufficiency and an inclusive civil society.

We also hope we might whet the appetites of historians, scholars of philanthropy, history graduate students, philanthropic leaders and practitioners, and educators to begin researching and telling the many untold stories of philanthropic activity and the American dream.


Q: Now that the book is coming out, any regrets?

Zainaldin: As authors, you always know the places that you would like the chance to rewrite. But one of our biggest regrets is that we ran out of time and space to tell all of the stories we would have liked to share.

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