SECF's Blog

Engage, SECF’s blog, is a space for SECF members, staff and partners to share their thoughts on the latest trends and best practices in philanthropy. Engage is also used for important announcements about upcoming SECF events and programs.

Do you have a story or insight you’d like to share with our members on Engage? Contact David Miller, director of marketing and communications, at or at (404) 524-0911 to discuss your idea.

Member Highlight: Upendo Shabazz

Category: Member Highlight, 
Author: Southeastern Council of Foundations


One year ago, Upendo Shabazz was in a role that suited her extroverted nature: As leader of Allegany Franciscan Ministries’ Common Good Initiative, she got to work in the community with individuals and organizations in three underserved Florida communities.

The COVID-19 pandemic upended all that – being out in the community, at least physically, was no longer an option. But that’s when she discovered her pandemic mantra: “TRUST THE WORK.”

“This saying has shaped my entire scope of work this past year,” she said. “I work in community on the ground with residents, stakeholders, government and philanthropy. When the pandemic began, I had to ‘trust’ that everything we set in motion through the Common Good Initiative would continue. I had to let go of the power and allow the power of community that we had invested in to cultivate.”

It turned out that multi-year investment paid off – the Common Good Initiative had helped build relationships and capacity that allowed organizations to respond to the pandemic in ways they might not have before, helping local businesses secure federal loans and ensuring connections developed with business and faith groups persisted despite the need for physical distancing.

The Initiative is shaping up to be a Passing Gear philanthropy success story, an example of how foundations can use multiple forms of capital to achieve a greater impact than through grantmaking alone. That work is one reason why Upendo was a natural choice to lead a module at SECF’s recent Philanthropy Essentials program called Maximizing Impact with Large-Scale Strategies.

“Traditional grantmaking will always be a strategy to addressing basic needs and will continue to be a measure for charity,” Upendo said. However, large-scale strategies often involve listening, learning and leading – convening – and development of an ideal that represents the ‘solution.’ This type of approach becomes less about activity and more about building relationships that become vested in a collective outcome.”

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Member Highlight: Chynna Phillips

Author: Southeastern Council of Foundations


Foundations on the Hill is a can’t-miss event for Chynna Phillips, research and policy director of the Sisters of Charity Foundation of South Carolina and a self-described policy nerd.

Like other veterans of Foundations on the Hill (FOTH), Chynna is disappointed she won’t be able to travel to Washington, D.C., for this year’s event, which kicks off March 16. But she sees some advantages to virtual advocacy.

“We have the opportunity to show our commitment,” she said during February’s Public Policy 101 webinar. “We’re not saying, ‘OK, because of COVID we’ll just see you next year.’”

Instead, Chynna and the rest of the South Carolina will be connecting with lawmakers and key staff members, letting them know about the vital work of philanthropy in the Palmetto State over the past year, reminding them of the sector’s priorities and building relationships that can pay dividends in the years ahead.

During the February webinar, Chynna noted that a meeting with Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-SC), a member of the Democratic House leadership, convened by the foundation, the SC Grantmakers Network and Together SC, helped ensure the charitable sector was on the minds of lawmakers when shaping COVID relief legislation in the early days of the pandemic.

“We had 400 nonprofits on a call with congressman Clyburn and he was able to say, ‘I remember when you came up,’” Chynna recalled. “Later on, he was on the floor, and he talked about that meeting. If it wasn't for FOTH making us comfortable in those spaces, I'm not sure how that would have went.”

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Hull Fellows Highlight: Wesley Prater

Author: Southeastern Council of Foundations


Before entering philanthropy, Wesley Prater worked on behalf of retired citizens in Ohio. He analyzed health policy in Washington, D.C. He has also studied at institutions like Yale University and Ohio State University.

Through it all, however, he’s only called one place home – Mississippi, where he now works at a program officer for the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

“I have been fortunate to live in different parts of the country throughout my adult life and travel around the world, but there is no place I love more than my home state of Mississippi,” he said. “The strength, intelligence, success, and love I have witnessed from Mississippians gives me more hope than ever for the state’s future.”

Though based in Michigan, the Kellogg Foundation has made Mississippi a priority place for its investments as part of its work to advance racial equity. Wesley’s work there has focused on health care policy and advocacy efforts.

“The W.K. Kellogg Foundation has a long history of supporting racial justice and racial equity not only in the South but across the globe,” Wesley said. “The past year has reinforced the importance of our work to continue working with communities to address the critical needs of children and families, support the nonprofit sector, and tackle issues around racial injustice.”

While his previous work and studies prepared him well for much of his current role, Wesley came to the Kellogg Foundation without much experience within philanthropy. He said SECF’s Hull Fellows program has helped him better understand the sector’s role in helping communities.

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Hull Fellows Highlight: Monique Pitts-Taylor

Author: Southeastern Council of Foundations


Scholarship programs have been a part of the philanthropic toolbox for decades, allowing foundations to provide direct aid to young members of the community seeking a college education.

The importance of these programs has become more apparent than ever in recent years, as long-standing educational disparities in America, particularly those affecting Black communities, have received long overdue attention.

For Monique Pitts-Taylor, the scholarship director at the Community Foundation of Central Georgia, this work is deeply personal and motivating.

“The pandemic did not reveal a new call for racial justice, it just intensely magnified what others have looked away from for many years,” she said. “As an African American female, I have always saw the need for racial justice and equity in my area of work. Being a scholarship director, I have always felt that it is my duty to ensure that all eligible students are given the equal opportunity to compete for funding for college.”

The passion Monique brings to her work has also motivated her to develop herself as a leader – she recently finished a year of work in the 2019-20 class of Hull Fellows.

“I was motivated to participate in the Hull Fellows program because I wanted the opportunity to learn and grow with a diverse group of leaders,” she said. “I saw this program as an opportunity to meet new people and learn new ideas in this awesome world of philanthropy.”

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Hull Fellows Highlight: Danielle Gray

Author: Southeastern Council of Foundations


Throughout its history, the Hull Fellows program has developed a deserved reputation for propelling its participants to leadership roles within Southern philanthropy – sometimes, the process even begins before the fellowship is over.

That’s exactly what happened to Danielle Gray. When she joined the 2019-20 Hull Fellows class, she was a program officer at the R. Howard Dobbs, Jr. Foundation in Atlanta. By time she finished her Capstone Project, she was associate director of The Zeist Foundation.

Having settled into her new role, Danielle says she’s excited to work with The Zeist Foundation board during a period of transition.

“We will be onboarding the first group of Next Generation trustees, moving toward a paperless office, and re-evaluating internal systems all while operating in a time that is anything but business as usual,” she said. “I am excited to dig in on all these fronts, but I think I’m most excited about helping with the Next Generation transition and working with them to not only establish their roles as trustees, but also lay a foundation that continues to engage and prepare subsequent generations for board service through informal participation in philanthropy and community.”

That’s a heavy workload, but Danielle is well equipped to handle it. She has already worked for two family foundations and, thanks to the Hull program, has a nearby mentor with similar experience: Lynn Pattillo, president of The Pittulloch Foundation. 

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Hull Fellows Highlight: Margy Thomas

Author: Southeastern Council of Foundations


Much of Margy Thomas’ life and career has been devoted to her hometown of Warrenton, Virginia, a town of about 10,000 people situated between the fringes of exurban Washington, D.C., and the state’s rural Piedmont region.

Her dedication to Warrenton eventually led her to the PATH Foundation, a health legacy funder focused on access to health care, child wellness, mental health and senior services. As a program officer, Margy is able to put her extensive public health education and experience to work – while earning her master’s degree in public health, she even worked with the local government in Warrenton on a Health Impact Assessment.

Already armed with expertise, experience and deep bonds to the community she serves, Margy decided in 2019 to take her development to the next level by signing up for SECF’s Hull Fellows program.

“I was eager to apply to the Hull Fellows program after experiencing the rich hands-on educational opportunities at SECF conferences and regional meetings,” she said. “I wanted to improve my abilities as a leader and build connections across the philanthropic sector.”

The Hull experience, Margy says, has given her a much deeper understanding of philanthropy’s work and how it can be most effective in a community like Warrenton and the three-county region the PATH Foundation serves. 

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Hull Fellows Highlight: Sarah McBroom

Author: Southeastern Council of Foundations


Sarah McBroom holds a title showing up with increasing frequency across Southern philanthropy: equity officer.

In that role, she provides leadership for the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation’s efforts to pursue economic, educational, social, ethnic, and racial equity for everyone in Arkansas. But to help others effectively, Sarah knew she needed to develop herself as well – thankfully, she knew exactly where to go: SECF’s Hull Fellows program.

“I was excited about the opportunity to connect with leaders across the southeastern states to build relationships in the hopes of building a better future,” she said. “I am passionate about building an inclusive, prosperous, and equitable American South. I believe philanthropy has a powerful role to play in that movement, but it will require us to learn, grow, and reimagine together as a sector.”

Sarah’s learning journey over the past year has been aided by her Hull mentor: Christine Reeves Strigaro, executive director of The Sapelo Foundation. Both have brought to their jobs a significant focus on equity, particularly in rural communities.

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Hull Fellows Highlight: Kendra Jones

Author: Southeastern Council of Foundations


Over the past year, Richmond, Virginia, has been a hub of philanthropic activity and innovation thanks largely to the work and partnership of three SECF members: the Community Foundation for a greater Richmond, the Robins Foundation and the Richmond Memorial Health Foundation (RMHF).

In Richmond and elsewhere, the impact COVID-19 pandemic has not landed evenly. Communities of color have disproportionately paid the health and economic costs of the crisis – an issue of chief concern to Kendra Jones, RMHF’s director for health equity, arts and culture.

“We know that the people we serve have incredible power, lived experiences that we can learn from and they persevere despite the system that was created to oppress them,” Kendra said. “However, they need resources – and we share our resources with them by the means of financial, intellectual and social capital.”

As director of the foundation’s Health Equity and Arts (HEArts) program, Kendra has helped offer community members opportunities for creative expression that help people be heard, bridge divides and collaborate on solutions to inequity.

“Communities have been able to advocate for criminal justice reform, neighborhood and pedestrian safety, to destigmatize mental illness, and so many other issues that affect their ability to achieve health equity,” she said.

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SECF Member Highlight: Kristen Keely-Dinger

Category: Member Highlight, 
Author: Southeastern Council of Foundations


This is the last in a series profiling the new members of SECF's Board of Trustees announced at the 51st Annual Meeting following a vote by SECF members.

Kristen Keely-Dinger was already intimately familiar with SECF and its staff by time she was approached to serve on the Board of Trustees – she was months into her service as chair of last year’s Annual Meeting.

In the midst of that experience, the decision to accept a nomination to the Board was an easy one, she said.

“After having the opportunity to work with the staff and the planning team at SECF for this year’s annual meeting and watching the flexibility and the adaptability of the staff, I felt confident that I could learn from and contribute to the organization in meaningful ways,” Kristen said. “I am also a big supporter of the Equity Framework that SECF has adopted and am excited to learn from my peers and the team at SECF as we continue to implement the framework throughout the organization.”

Equity has been on Kristen’s mind frequently in the past year. As the president and CEO of The Healing Trust, based in Nashville, she has helped lead a transformation in the foundation’s work – a transformation that accelerated in the wake of this summer’s racial justice protests.

“Almost all our grants now and going forward will be unrestricted. Our partners need to know we trust them, and we understand that they also need the same flexibility to respond to their changing environment,” she said. “The pandemic has both highlighted and exacerbated the needs of historically uninvested in and marginalized communities and has underscored the urgency of our work on equity.”

Kristen says her experience as a foundation CEO will also affect her work on the SECF Board.

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SECF Member Highlight: Deanna James

Category: Member Highlight, 
Author: Southeastern Council of Foundations


Every member of the SECF Board of Trustees brings a unique perspective to the table – as the saying goes, “if you’ve seen one foundation, you’ve seen one foundation.”

Still, it would be hard to argue that Deanna James brings a point of view all her own to the SECF Board, which she joined in December following approval by the SECF membership. After all, James leads a foundation that serves an island, St. Croix, that is part of the larger U.S. Virgin Islands territory.

“Territory” is how James politely describes the U.S. Virgin Islands. She prefers another word that better represents the amount of political power, or lack thereof, she and other St. Croix residents have.

“Hailing from a U.S. colony, my community's political status has relegated American citizens residing in the U.S. Virgin Islands to 'other' or 'less than', by law. I think that reality has uniquely heightened my awareness and sensibilities relative to systemic inequity everywhere,” she said. “I live inequity and exclusion.”

Of course, inequity and exclusion are conditions seen throughout the Southeastern region. That commonality is what drew James to SECF membership and, now, to agreeing to serve on the Board of Trustees.

“The opportunity to connect with and build capacity for philanthropic organizations serving underserved, under-resourced communities, particularly in the rural South, was irresistible,” she said.

Serving on the Board will allow James more opportunities than ever to connect with fellow SECF members, particularly fellow Trustees.

“My overarching goal is to learn from and to share with fellow directors and members,” she said. “I'm also intent on identifying and connecting with small place-based philanthropies that are possibly building innovative practice around how to do philanthropy differently – more intrinsically rooted in community.”

This year – not just the pandemic,  but also and extremely active Atlantic hurricane season – have emphasized for James the value of place-based philanthropy.

“Just as most rural communities have learned after every major natural disaster, the closer philanthropy is to the ground, the more effective and responsive it will be!” she said.

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Mission: The Southeastern Council of Foundations serves, connects, strengthens and champions philanthropy and philanthropic infrastructure in the South.