$$ for Change

Black and white photo of Black man reading a newspaper

Milton Tripp

Magazine cover with white text reading "North Carolina's bitterly contested 1984 US Senate race between Jesse Helms and Jim Hunt will easily go down in history as one of the meanest, ugliest, and most divisive campaigns ever. North Carolinians could not read a newspaper, watch TV, or open their mail without being bombarded by political rhetoric, mudslinging, and pleas for money."

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 13 No. 1, "The Jesse Helms Machine." Find more from that issue here.

One cold September night in 1981, I sat huddled as deeply into three thick blankets as I could get, shivering and watching the excellent documentary Fundi in the unlikely setting of an open-air cabin (screens for windows) at a religious camp outside Hendersonville, North Carolina. At some point during the film I looked around and marveled at the 15 to 20 people suffering along with me. I figured any organization that could attract people that dedicated — or insane — had a good chance of surviving. That organization was the Fund for Southern Communities, and it has survived — and succeeded — beyond my wildest expectations. From its origin as a gleam in the eye of a few fundraisers tired of trudging off to the Big Apple to extract a few dollars for Southern progressive causes, the Fund has grown into a formidable and highly respected foundation that goes far beyond the traditional foundation role of disbursing grants; it brings people together from every stratum of Southern society, and perhaps above all else it offers many people a wellspring of hope — hope to overcome political, social and economic injustices; hope to keep working towards the concept of a just community; hope to keep going amid the myriad of obstacles confronting anyone engaged in grassroots community organizing. 

The Fund for Southern Communities is a public charity that receives tax-deductible contributions “to provide financial support, technical assistance and human resources to grassroots organizations working for social and economic justice” in North and South Carolina and Georgia. The Fund started in 1980, and annually has made grants to organizations:

·      working against discrimination based on race, sex, age, religion, economic status, sexual preference, ethnic background, or physical or mental disabilities;

·      struggling for the rights of workers;

·      promoting self-determination in low-income and disenfranchised communities;

·      protecting the environment and developing “appropriate” technologies like low-cost solar-energy uses;

·      creating alternative arts and media; or

·      promoting peace and responsible U.S. foreign policy. 

In 1984, the Fund made 32 grants totaling $55,000 to groups as varied as Busy Needle Inc., a worker-owned sewing cooperative in Hendersonville, North Carolina; the Harambee Singers of Atlanta, civil-rights veterans who tap the rich oral tradition of Africa to relate black culture and history through songs; and the South Carolina Committee Against Hunger in Columbia, which organizes local anti-hunger groups, helps communities establish food production and distribution systems, and conducts its own public hearings on abuses in public food programs. 

But defining the Fund merely as a grant-making foundation misses much of the life and vitality of the organization. For the Fund for Southern Communities is in itself a community — an amalgamation of grassroots activists, young professionals, and more affluent donors. Fund members from each of these different constituencies put in countless hours holding public relations and fundraising events, assisting grantee groups, evaluating potential grantees, and making the difficult choices of who gets the money. Annual meetings shift quickly from an announcement of a new endowment for the Fund to an impassioned tale by a Fund grantee working to overcome racial discrimination in southwest Georgia. 

To understand how this community has emerged, and its significance for the future, a little history is in order. 


The story of the Fund begins with Atlanta native Alan McGregor, who started a politically active career through extensive involvement in anti-Vietnam War activities. In 1980 McGregor was working for the Southern Coalition on Jails and Prisons — and was often beset with the Herculean task of raising operating money for the coalition. He recalls, “We were heading to New York two or three times a year to raise money; almost all the money was coming out of New York foundations.” 

Of course, there was nothing new about this state of affairs; Southern progressive organizations have been raiding the New York foundation world for many years. Much of the early funding for Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference came from New York foundations, as did funds for the Southern Regional Council and the Voter Education Project. Organizations like the Institute for Southern Studies (publisher of Southern Exposure) and many others have received large chunks of their budgets from Northern foundations. 

These organizations jumped on the Northern foundation bandwagon largely because there was no money available in their backyards. Though progressive philanthropy is not very prominent anywhere in the U.S., there is at least some tradition of politically liberal giving in the North. No such tradition exists in the South. There are foundations that have contributed significant amounts of money to progressive causes; North Carolina’s Z. Smith Reynolds and Mary Reynolds Babcock foundations spring to mind. But these are exceptions to a very real rule, and consequently organizations in need of large donations have had to look north for assistance. 

McGregor started discussing how to change this state of affairs with fundraiser colleagues like Bob Hall (of the Institute for Southern Studies) and Tony Dunbar (then of Amnesty International). They unanimously agreed that a local source of funds for Southern political work was needed. They focused their concern on the needs of grassroots organizations. As McGregor recalls, “The smaller grassroots organizations really had no access to money in the South because there were very few funders they could go to. They couldn’t afford to go to New York to raise money. So the idea began to germinate about starting a fund that would primarily be controlled by activists but would be a collection point for individual donors’ money, and grants would be made to smaller grassroots groups that had no access to funding from other places.’’ 

McGregor soon looked up an old high school buddy, Ray Weeks, who had worked with him previously on fundraising for the Vietnamese Children’s Fund and who had recently taken over a prosperous family business. Weeks’ imagination was headed in a similar direction as he was looking for a way to use his wealth to promote positive social change. Weeks quickly became enthusiastic about the project and helped McGregor organize a small nucleus of friends who set about investigating how to set up a new vehicle to fund social change. 

Not long thereafter, during his next foray into the New York funding world, McGregor found the lead he had been looking for: Robin Hood Was Right, a book published by an organization called the Funding Exchange. 

The Funding Exchange is an umbrella organization for a handful of newly developed foundations across the country. Beginning in the early ’70s, younger members of several affluent American families — many of whom were politicized during the civil rights, antiwar, and women’s movement days — started to put their wealth to use in creating social change. Soon they formed new organizations like the Haymarket People’s Fund of Boston and the Vanguard Public Foundation of San Francisco — highly innovative foundations in that they had members of grassroots organizations sit on their grantmaking boards and decide how to divvy up the bucks. By 1980, there were six such foundations, each located in a major metropolitan area, each funding progressive and radical causes that the more traditional funding community refused to support. 

The Funding Exchange extended a friendly greeting to McGregor and company, but were cautious about the chances for success, primarily because of the dearth of progressive funding then existing in the South. Each of the Funding Exchange outfits can tap the resources of a large supply of affluent would-be donors, many from families with a history of giving to progressive causes. Finding even moderately liberal heirs of affluent families in the South was an arduous chore. 

With these thoughts in mind, a small group of community activists, interested middle-income people, and potential donors gathered in South Carolina in January 1981 to decide what to do next. They quickly reached agreement to set up their own fund, and to a large extent followed the precedent established by the members of the Funding Exchange, adopting operating guidelines to assure that members of grassroots organizations and significant numbers of women and blacks would be represented on the board of the new organization. They set two primary criteria for awarding grants: (1) they wanted to support projects that were devoted to empowering oppressed people; and (2) they wanted to fund groups that did not have access to funding from more traditional sources. 

The new organization differed from the Funding Exchange model in two important respects. First, the group decided the new foundation should be regional in nature, awarding grants in the Carolinas and Georgia. The other similar foundations had generally limited themselves to working in specific metropolitan areas. Because there was no strong concentration of donors for the Fund to tap into, this decision made it possible to support work in a wide territory, especially in many of the hard-pressed rural areas of these three states — and to approach a wider variety of potential donors. 

Second, the new fund incorporated a membership association into its operations. For the most part the other community funds involved two constituencies: the donors themselves and the would-be grant recipients. The association concept gave young middle-class people — many of whom had curtailed their political activism somewhat as they started their careers — a stake in the new fund. The concept was that these members would promote the fund, recruit new donors, solicit grant applications, offer their skills to grantees, and run many of the events like annual meetings necessary to the life of the new organization. 

McGregor remembers: “We felt one of the things the Fund should do was break down the barriers between people; if we could get together an organization that included low-income people, workers and middle-class folks, and wealthy people interested in social change and get them working on a common agenda, that process alone would be as valuable as the money we raised. We also wanted a mechanism for bringing our members — who at first were primarily white, well-educated people — back into grassroots politics. A lot of our friends had gone into professions or were going into careers. They thought about politics, but political action wasn’t really part of their agenda anymore. We wanted to create the Fund to get politics back on their agenda. 

“The difference between our Fund and the others is that we would have that middle-range person. We wanted the Fund to be controlled by a very diverse membership, and we’ve worked hard over the years to make that a reality.” 

In testimony to how seriously this organizing group took the task at hand, they decided that members of the foundation should pledge two percent of their time or income (or a combination of the two) to work that supported the fund. Many of them joined up on the spot. 

From this nucleus of members sprang the Fund for Southern Communities. Ray Weeks contributed seed money for McGregor to establish an office and begin setting up the Fund. McGregor devoted months to visiting other funds, contacting donors, building an organization. And the early members worked tirelessly to spread the word and create a viable association. Their efforts culminated in the chilly weekend described earlier; at this first annual meeting of the Fund the original board was elected, a set of working principles was adopted, and the newly recruited members from the three states got to know each other better. 

That first year the Fund raised enough money to award 22 grants totaling $24,297. The process was not easy, for the need for hands was great and the available money meager. One board member emerged from the grantmaking meeting to say, “I lost a year of my life this weekend.” But the Fund had officially arrived, and had established a solid base on which it could grow. 

In fact, it has grown fast enough that the Fund hopes to award $85,000 to $100,000 in the first few months of 1985. More and more donors have started supporting the Fund; McGregor encouragingly notes that some are even seeking him out now. The foundation is now part of the Funding Exchange network. And the number of grant applications has increased steadily over the years as more groups have become aware of the Fund. 


Much of this growth is attributable to the Fund’s excellent staff. Alan McGregor has served as the executive director since the organization’s inception. He has spent long hours visiting potential donors, raising money from other foundations, and working with the membership to produce the events that keep the organization growing. 

He was soon joined by Midge Taylor, a forceful organizer with long experience in nonprofit groups. Taylor says she was attracted to the Fund because “it was providing money to groups that I had already learned did not have access to traditional funding sources. ... It was supporting the kinds of causes I believed in.” Her approach to the job reveals her determined spirit: “I saw the job announcement, came over and told Alan that this was my job, I wanted it, and he should give it to me. So he wound up giving it to me.” Taylor has proved invaluable in streamlining the difficult process of grantmaking and providing excellent services to the Fund’s grantees. 

Recently Claudia Combs joined the staff as an administrative assistant; she had previously worked with the Federation of Southern Co-ops, and has already set about organizing the Fund’s massive paper flow. 

The Fund has also benefited from the excellent board members it has recruited over the years. The variety of experiences and interests they bring has allowed the Fund to look for unusual grantees, to take chances on projects other foundations would view more skeptically, and to develop an appealing and broad-ranging vision that has attracted widespread attention. 

A few capsule profiles suggest this diversity: Polly Penland of Waynesville, North Carolina, is one of the founding members of the Fund; she works as a clinical social worker and also works on preventing rape and domestic violence. Legal Services attorney Sandra Jones of Beaufort, South Carolina, specializes in voting rights issues and is active in the South Carolina Black Voting Rights Campaign. Montezuma, Georgia, community activist Geneva Reese was a founder of the Concerned Citizens of Macon County, an early Fund grant recipient, and has put in countless hours working on issues from electricity and telephone shutoffs to simply trying to get the right to meet in town-owned buildings. 

Recently the board has added new members like Atlanta’s Robin Hanes Kent, an art therapist, artist and philanthropist; Chapel Hill’s Joe Herzenberg, an historian and long-time activist around gay-rights issues; and Augusta’s Addie Scott Powell, who serves as project director for the Allied Services Cooperative, an innovative Fund grantee project which has brought community members together into a series of guilds of workers in household services, clerical work, and the like. 

Still, much of the credit for the Fund’s success has to go to its membership. This devoted cadre — including folks like Tony Clarke-Sayer of Asheville, Elana Freedom of Durham, and Alison Spitz-Garbe, Beth Brand es, and Judith Blarney of Atlanta — has put in countless hours setting up fundraising parties, planning annual meetings, encouraging potential grantees to apply for grants, and recruiting new donors and members for the Fund — often with little reward or recognition. 

With this compilation of talents, what has the Fund actually accomplished? First, of course, the Fund has been able to assist an extremely diverse set of organizations across its three-state region. Says Midge Taylor, “We’ve become a resource to the community because the community has a direct influence on how the organization will develop. . . . People understand we are willing to take risks, that we do want to support new projects, that we want to support small-budgeted projects.” 

McGregor adds that the Fund is accomplishing its goal of funding groups in dire need of help: “I think our grants are often inspiring to groups that are really struggling about whether they’re going to make it or not, particularly in low-income communities where the pressures against organizing are so tremendous. Our grants, as small as they sometimes are, allow groups to say, ‘We’re something real and tangible, and we can go forward with this.’ That helps them get together, go find some more money, and get their work done.” 

Many Fund grantees praise the support they’ve received. Bonnie Wright (now a Fund board member) directs Durham’s Self-Help Credit Union, a creative financial institution that makes loans to worker-owned businesses and sees as its mission promoting locally based economic development. Wright comments, “The Fund made a grant for our very early development when no other foundation would even look at us. I thought it was pretty innovative that the Fund was willing to take that kind of risk.” Now the Credit Union has received support from a set of other foundations, church groups, and the like, but Wright says that initial seed money paved the way for the credit union’s development. 

In fact, one of the Fund’s major accomplishments has been its ability to gain further support for many of its grantees. Says Taylor, “We have not overlooked that important carry-over process. We help groups get started and then also assist them with raising additional funds from other foundations because we know that our grantees will still need further help beyond the limits of our grants.” 

The relationship between the Fund and its grantees has evolved far beyond mere grantmaking. Besides involving its grantees in its membership and on its board, the Fund provides an array of technical assistance to would-be grantees. Taylor says, “People call us up and ask us about fundraising strategies, they ask us about other foundations, they ask us about general organizational development like board composition and training, they ask us accounting questions — some of which we can’t answer because we’re still looking for the answers ourselves. But it’s rewarding to see that the community is looking upon us as a valuable resource.” 

The Fund is also looking to expand its range of services to donors and other members. Holding annual retreats devoted to helping “donors deal responsibly with the opportunities provided by wealth” is one way. Recently several Fund donors conducted a workshop providing advice to women with inherited or earned wealth. 

In April 1984, the Fund sponsored the first “Southeastern Seminar on Socially Responsible Investing.” Held in Atlanta, the event was devoted to providing its 100 participants with information on how to invest their money in ways consistent with their political and social values — investment avenues such as money-market funds that invest only in socially responsible corporations, and innovative new outfits like the Self-Help Credit Union. The seminar was a huge success, and another is now planned for Chapel Hill in early 1985. 

By combining these services with its highly professional grantmaking structures, the Fund has won deep-seated loyalty from many of its donors. Says one, “I think the Fund is the perfect place to make my donations. I don’t just give money; I get to meet the people I’m supporting and get a feel for what’s happening around the issues I’m interested in.” 

The Fund has also earned a great deal of respect and support from other members of the foundation world. George Penick, assistant director of North Carolina’s Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation, which has made a grant to help the Fund cover its administrative costs, says, “There is very little money in the South to help emerging groups go through that painful time of organizing and development; a lot of times that issue is either not well-known or not popular, and it’s difficult to get any funding for it. 

“Even foundations like us that like to fund grassroots community-based organizations don’t always know about these groups because they either don’t know about us or don’t feel they’re developed enough to come to us for support. So we feel the Fund can be our eyes and ears for many of these new groups.” Penick cites the case of the Self-Help Credit Union, to which the Babcock Foundation recently gave a grant and which it also supported with a large noninterest- bearing deposit. “It’s very rare for us to make a commitment of that size. But there aren’t many groups around with the skill and creativity of the credit union, and it wouldn’t have gotten started without the Fund.” 

Penick also feels the Fund has increased the amount of progressive philanthropy existing in the South. “The Fund gives donors in the South an opportunity to give their money to issues they believe in in an organized way. I think it’s actually encouraging money to be given to these issues that wouldn’t be given otherwise. People wouldn’t know about the issues or wouldn’t know about the groups working on them, and therefore they wouldn’t contribute anything. 

“So it’s meeting both needs. It’s helping the donors to give to the groups they want to support in the South, and it’s giving emerging groups access to funds that they wouldn’t otherwise know about. It’s a perfect matching of the two interests.” 

Given this level of accomplishment, where should the Fund be heading in the next five years? Says McGregor, “I think the Fund should step back and say, ‘This is a great idea. It’s working and it has a lot of potential. We need to think big about this.’ I think we can see some rapid growth. So my vision is that in a few years we could be giving out around $200,000 instead of $60,000. I’d also hope we could start doing more technical assistance work with our grantees.” 

Taylor echoes this latter concern: “I’d like to see us operating a very sound technical assistance program to respond to questions about organizational development and the like and to do workshops about issues that are most important to grantees, like tax exemption and better fundraising for groups.” She also would like to see enough growth in grantmaking funds to allow for emergency grants to groups in dire need and for larger grants to those organizations which need support beyond the usual $2,000 grant size. 

As a combination grantee and board member, Bonnie Wright is intent on keeping the Fund growing: “What the Fund does is great, but it’s a small dent in what needs to be done, and more money can help.” She also emphasizes the need to develop the membership base: “I think one thing that’s really special about the Fund is the support of people from all over the three states, everything from fundraising to grant evaluation to administrative help. I think that’s really important.” 

In one way or another, everyone emphasizes maintaining the Fund’s unique sense of community. Concludes McGregor: “The trick is to grow while holding onto the beauty of being a democratic organization — which I think is the most unique part of the Fund — to maintain the diversity of the organization, and to use that quality of the group to keep the Fund real special.” 


Having dutifully omitted myself from this narrative since the opening paragraph, I feel it’s necessary to offer a more personal perspective on why the Fund has so much appeal for its members and supporters. 

By now you’ve probably guessed that I do not qualify as the most objective reporter on the Fund and its activities. I have been involved in the Fund since its inception, first as a member and now as the chairperson of the Fund’s board. 

At first the Fund appealed to me mostly as a funding vehicle, a mechanism to get more money to groups working on issues I was involved with or concerned about, one more addition to the set of foundations I looked to for a few thousand dollars for utility organizing or anti-nuclear work. 

Over time I’ve come to view the Fund from a far more mystical standpoint. Without really realizing the transition, I’ve found myself on a regular basis climbing onto a soap box and sermonizing on behalf of the Fund, preaching the gospel to as many of the unconverted as I can find. 

Like many of the Fund’s members, I no longer have the time to be involved in the far-flung grassroots efforts I used to dabble in constantly. Publishing a newspaper leaves me time to read about them, but precious little time to participate. 

Working with the Fund keeps me in touch with the people still struggling across the Carolinas and Georgia. In recent years I’ve interviewed would-be grantees trying to increase black voter registration in eastern North Carolina, fighting a hazardous waste facility in the middle of a heavily populated neighborhood in Greensboro, and working to end the persistent discrimination gays and lesbians face in receiving adequate medical care. I’ve served on the board with a solid group of Fund members, donors and grantees and other community activists — all dedicated to making hard decisions about where to spend the Fund’s still scant resources and eager to see that the Fund grow as large as possible. 

Election day was particularly painful here in North Carolina this year, and the staff of The North Carolina Independent (where I work) straggled into the office looking as enthusiastic as the survivors of a hurricane. I was surprised to find myself feeling much less depressed than my colleagues; soon I realized it was because I had Fund parties to plan, board business to attend to, potential donors to contact. I knew that the same folks who had applied for money the previous year were still out there working away despite the re-election of Helms and Reagan, and that they still needed money and support from the Fund. 

For most everyone involved in the Fund, some version of that enthusiasm and commitment seems to serve as the primary motivation. The Fund provides a lot more than just financial resources for grantees; it ties together a disparate group of politically active Southerners into a community attempting soberly and deliberately to create social change. 

My sketch of the Fund’s history and current operations perhaps skims over some of the very real challenges that the organization faces: working to keep its people-oriented democratic feel as it expands, figuring out how to keep growing and bringing in more money, making sure that the members have a strong enough role in the decision-making of an organization that by its bylaws has a majority of community activists on its board. But the organization has regularly struggled to overcome these tensions and difficulties, and despite a few pains and woes along the way grows stronger with each passing year. 

Part of the reason that the Fund can survive such tensions is that it offers people so much in return for their work. Alan McGregor concludes, “I think at heart the Fund is educational. People who are directly involved — who come to the annual meeting or are on the board or work on membership activities — learn a tremendous amount about different people. When we have a fundraising meeting in northwest Atlanta, we attract people who rarely hear about grassroots organizing in southwest Georgia. The Fund has a unique ability to bridge that gap, to get over to million-dollar houses in northwest Atlanta and talk about grassroots politics. 

“It was really exciting to me to have a grassroots organizer from a small Georgia town stand up at the annual meeting and talk about how the black community was being harassed by the mayor because they were becoming a political threat, and needed a few thousand dollars to keep their project going — then an hour later have someone stand up and say we’re having a conference for women with inherited wealth to talk about the problems of having money. To have those two conversations in the same meeting an hour apart is very significant — to have people understanding each other on those levels. 

“That’s no solution to all the world’s problems, but it’s certainly a unique way to expand people’s vision of the world. Our newsletter goes to thousands of people who learn about grassroots politics. We raise the credibility of these groups in the public’s eye. That’s part of bridging the gap between the various cultures of the South.” 

Addie Scott Powell told the annual meeting when she was nominated to the board of directors: “I believe that people can learn to solve their own problems themselves.” The Fund is committed to helping people from all walks of life become involved in those solutions — and it’s working.