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

Note: This post is the fifth 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: Kentucky.

Kentucky Philanthropy Snapshot

First SECF Member: Foundation for the Tri-State (joined 1980)
Newest SECF Member: Lawrence and Augusta Hager Educational Foundation (joined November 2018)
Number of SECF Members: 21

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

Voices from Kentucky

Mason Rummel
President & CEO
James Graham Brown Foundation

What are the most significant ways the philanthropic landscape in Kentucky and the Southeast has changed during your career?

When I was asked to help the James Graham Brown Foundation in Louisville organize its grants process, I had to ask what a foundation was. It was supposed to be a three-month exercise while the foundation Board of Trustees figured out a transition plan to become a professionally-staffed foundation. But 30 years later I have seen such remarkable, if not extraordinary, change in how both foundations and communities evolve it is hard to believe I am in the same field.

In the late 1980s and 1990s, foundations generally operated in isolation. Though not technically competing, these institutions operated privately and independently and with little-to-no communication among colleagues, much less with the organizations they funded. Donors forums were rare, and the exchange of information was a valuable currency, more often saved than spent. I attribute it to culture more than to a best practice or specific business strategy. Foundations were fearful of being overwhelmed with requests and leadership did not want to have to say “no.” So, while they were generous with their grants, they huddled within their walls and avoided too much exposure if possible.

Today it is a different world. Strong networks of grantmakers and nonprofit organizations are everywhere; training and leadership development programs thrive; communication among funders, providers and other sectors is considered essential to improve our communities and reach the goals each has set. We have become a philanthropic community of learning, of sharing and of mutual support. Our sector believes in its relevance and no longer hides in fear of having to make tough decisions. Instead, we work in partnership with our fellow grantmakers, nonprofits and sector leaders.

Transparency in our practices and decision-making has helped build a culture of trust. In short, we have come to learn that we cannot do anything alone, no matter how large our endowments are or how powerful our boards may be. We have learned that a little humility and a willingness to open our institutions to new perspectives can improve our quality of life in unexpected ways. We have come a very long way in the three decades I have been working in this field. It has become a way of life – no longer a job.

Kristin Collins
Associate Executive Director
Foundation for Appalachian Kentucky

What do you expect to be the biggest issues facing your organization and/or Kentucky philanthropy in the next 10 years?

One of the biggest issues facing philanthropy that we see as an Appalachian Kentucky-based community foundation is the “trickle down” philanthropy that happens across rural places. Recent research from the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy shows that only 6 percent of grants from foundations in the United States goes to rural places. National foundations spend $4,000 per capita annually in places like New York and San Francisco. In Appalachian Kentucky, that number goes down to $12 per capita annually. Not trusting those that are impacted to make decisions about what they need only harms those living in the communities that need the most help.

The Foundation for Appalachian Kentucky is a trailblazing institution solidly grounded in a rural development philanthropy model and with communities of people committed to tackling some of our most complex social problems. Focused on building communities of people with the capacity to execute on place-based solutions and the ability to leverage the resources needed, we are beginning to see new systems emerge. We are putting power and control back in the hands of the people who live in our communities. For this work to be successful, our state, regional and national philanthropic partners must give up some level of control and trust the decision-making to community members.

Likewise, our work requires that we consider a broad spectrum of asset building, including multiple forms of individual and community health and wealth. Gaining political, social and civic capital for individuals and institutions representative of marginalized communities across Appalachian Kentucky is as essential as creating access to financial capital. Building a base of people committed to initiatives and who have the skills, knowledge and political will to promote those initiatives, cultivating the donors and funding sources to implement community-led strategies, and then bringing all of those assets together is what will move real change across our region. Strengthening cross-sector partnerships between philanthropy, local, state and federal public partners, local private partnerships, and strengthening relationships beyond our borders is what will keep the needle moving.

This is the work Kentucky philanthropy, especially our state’s rural place-based philanthropy, must do. I believe that if we are successful over the next 10 years, we will see stronger, healthier, more just and vibrant places throughout Appalachia and Kentucky where everyone – regardless of geography, gender, class or race – share in equal opportunities.

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 1908, philanthropist Andrew Carnegie made what would be his largest grant toward undergraduate education in the form of a $200,000 matching challenge to Berea College in Kentucky. It came after that state’s legislature banned racially-integrated education – a ban that extended to Berea College, which had practiced open admissions since its founding in 1855. Berea used the funds to establish a new educational institution for African-American students and to pay the tuition of students who transferred to schools like Fisk University and Hampton Institute. (President Theodore Roosevelt was among the prominent national leaders who wrote letters to solicit the required matching funds.)


Southeastern Council of Foundations
100 Peachtree Street NW, Suite 2080
Atlanta, GA 30303

Visiting SECF:
All staff are working remotely at this time but can still be reached via email and by calling (404) 524-0911.

Monday-Thursday from 9:00am–6:00pm (ET)
Friday from 9:00am–12:00pm (ET)

Phone: (404) 524-0911
Fax: (404) 523-5116

Mission: SECF strengthens Southern philanthropy, welcoming our members to listen, learn and collaborate on ideas and actions to help build an equitable, prosperous South.