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“Open Space" Philanthropy

“Open Space" Philanthropy

On the coast of South Carolina, the Frances P. Bunnelle Foundation is using place-based philanthropy to build a space for debate and action.

Last week, the Foundation hosted a conversation with public, private, and faith leaders on the role philanthropy can play to catalyze community change in Georgetown County. As profiled in the Coastal Observer, the focus ranged from poverty, to race, to the area’s changing demographics. MDC President David Dodson and I facilitated the event in the Foundation’s Bunnelle Center, a space devoted to conversations like last week’s.

Eight years ago, “the people in the room wouldn’t have even known each other, much less said what they did,” said Nancy Bracken, a senior program officer at the Foundation. Bracken cited several causes of the more open environment:

  1. The bridge-building, hospitable style of the staff, particularly Executive Director Geales Sands, who both welcomes people into the Foundation’s space and spends time in all parts of Georgetown County
  2. An intentional effort to build on the efforts of the late Frances Bunnelle, who gave quietly but also cared deeply about the Georgetown County community
  3. The Bunnelle Center, a devoted physical space for community convening and conversations
  4. A collaborative, community committee-informed approach to grantmaking and to strategy
  5. And food. “Cookies help” bring people together

The result, said Dodson, who has worked closely with foundations for more than 30 years, including 10 years leading MDC’s work with Passing Gear Philanthropy, is a concept he calls “Open Space Philanthropy.”

“There are very few undiscussables (at the Bunnelle Foundation),” he said. “I don’t see that in many Southern philanthropies.”

Ambassador James A. Joseph, former president of the Council on Foundations and MDC chair emeritus, suggests that a foundation’s role should extend beyond funding, and include five forms of capital: social, moral, intellectual, reputational, and financial.

Communities work better when they have high social trust, a particular challenge in Georgetown County, a place of physical and economic separation. Waccamaw Neck, the beautiful beach community, is increasingly full of well-off retirees, while much of the rest of the county has a higher poverty rate and lower median income.

As the Georgetown community works together to envision a better economic future, difficult conversations will have to involve all of Georgetown County. In opening up space, and welcoming community members as equals, the Bunnelle Foundation has begun to catalyze that conversation. With Open Space Philanthropy, the Bunnelle Foundation is deconstructing barriers with powerful social capital.