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

Note: This post is the tenth 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: Tennessee.

Tennessee Philanthropy Snapshot

First SECF Members: Lyndhurst Foundation, The Benwood Foundation (joined 1972)
Newest SECF Member: Marlene and Spencer Hays Foundation (joined September 2018)
Number of SECF Members: 29

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

Voices from Tennessee

Pete Bird
President & CEO
The Frist Foundation

What are the most significant ways the philanthropic landscape in Tennessee and the Southeast has changed during your time in philanthropy? 
Reflecting on 36 years in philanthropy, The Frist Foundation has undergone more than one metamorphosis. First it was a corporate foundation, then an independent, and now a family foundation. That has given us a unique perspective on nonprofits and philanthropy and the extraordinary changes that have taken place in less than four decades in a mid-sized city. Here are some:
  • In the 1980s, most of the charitable giving in our community was done in isolation. Corporations were focused on their own goals. Individuals viewed charitable giving as personal and private. Today we have an active Donors Forum and a lively community of donors who meet regularly to talk about community goals and compare notes.
  • In the 1980s, there only a handful of professionally staffed foundations, none in Middle Tennessee. Now there are at least 15 of them, sharing best practices and often convening community meetings focused on topics ranging from childcare to mass transit.
  • A generation ago, charitable giving focused on individual agencies. Are they well-managed? Do they have strong boards? Is their budget in the black? But today, many donors are focused more on outcomes and whether grant money is really helping improve the lives of people.
  • More than ever these days, donors are encouraging their grantees to work together -- to co-locate, to collaborate, even to join a collective impact effort.
  • Finally, all of our work is now informed by "big data" -- information on populations and trends that can tell us how we're doing as a community and whether philanthropy is helping.
In short, it's a big connected world that we're working in these days, and we're excited to be a part of the partnerships.

Kristen Keely-Dinger
President & CEO
The Healing Trust

Tell us about the state of philanthropy in Tennessee today – what are the biggest opportunities and challenges you see as you assess your state and region and the work of its philanthropic community?

The Healing Trust is a regional health legacy foundation funding in Middle Tennessee. In the past 10 years, the foundation evolved from funding only one-year program-related grants to using over two-thirds of our yearly grant funding to make unrestricted grants, with at least one-third being multi-year support for systems change advocacy work. The environment shifts so rapidly now for our partners that we recognized that they need as much flexibility as possible in the funding that they receive. From a community standpoint, our region continues to experience huge growth. We face a magnification of issues, from diminishing opportunities for affordable housing to growing health inequalities being experienced both in our urban and rural areas.

To quote recent public testimony from Nashville’s congressman, Jim Cooper, “Tennessee is one of the unhealthiest states in America, and we lead the nation in per capita hospital closings. Both of these tragedies are partly the result of our refusal to expand Medicaid.” He then shared that Tennesseans’ cancer rates continue to climb, children are more likely to die here than if they lived in 40 other states, people addicted to opioids are rarely able to access treatment, and that 85 percent of all maternal deaths in Tennessee in 2017 were preventable.

Many of the states in the South, including Tennessee, decided not to expand Medicaid, and that has left us grappling with what to do as a health funder and how do we do it in an equitable way. These policy decisions create huge opportunities and challenges for our philanthropy sector. What we have learned is that none of us alone can make a dent in these issues. We must work together, as a philanthropic sector and as a community. We also know government must play a role in creating good public policies to help address these widening disparities. 

To that effect, we incubated Tennessee’s Sycamore Institute to help equip policymakers with data to inform their decisions. We also sought to be part of collaborative efforts with philanthropy and nonprofits. For example, our philanthropic community is considering a pooled funding effort to ensure that historically undercounted populations are reached in the 2020 Census guided by the work of those already on the ground. Local philanthropy is also discerning how we can leverage our investment portfolios to help a local affordable housing provider so that we do not continue to lose affordable housing options in our community. 

We believe many other foundations are coming to the same realization and are working together to be more responsive to our communities. We love the collaborative spirit that has evolved and hope that philanthropy will continue to diversify, to grow its collaborative efforts and to fund upstream, attacking root causes of issues.

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!

It seems that the only major philanthropic grant “Commodore” Cornelius Vanderbilt made during his lifetime was the $1,000,000 gift used to establish the university in Nashville that still bears his name – a contribution intended, in his words, to “strengthening the ties which should exist between all sections of our common country."

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