By Chynna A. Phillips, Senior Director of Policy and Research at the Sisters of Charity Foundation of South Carolina
To change the world, we must begin with ourselves. As a statewide grantmaking entity committed to reducing poverty by ensuring that South Carolina is a place where all people can thrive, this quote helps to illuminate our path in forming a deeper commitment to addressing our mission.
The result of years of intentional internal work was a call for a greater level of action-oriented leadership. Our path continues to evolve and includes a wide range of steps that infused the wisdom gained from past efforts, restructuring of our funding strategies, ongoing organizational learning of diversity, equity, and inclusion, and a reenergized commitment to our values.
The Sisters of Charity Foundation of South Carolina has strengthened our voice in advocacy because of these strategic internal shifts, ensuring that our commitment to advocacy is not fleeting but interwoven in all aspects of our organization.
Our multiyear Antipoverty Advocacy Agenda focused on economic mobility, health equity, and human dignity, was informed by and is grounded in the truth provided by our community stakeholders, the historical context of poverty within the Deep South, and the findings from our most recent research study done in partnership with the Rural & Minority Health Research Center at the University of South Carolina. Our Foundation examined the multifactorial phenomenon of poverty and produced The Structural Factors Associated with Poverty.
As a believer that good research should motivate action, I would like to share how our Foundation continues to be inspired to act on the knowledge gained from that research.
Our Internal Work
The need for our research study was directly correlated with the themes gathered from the community barriers articulated within grant applications from the years prior. Nonprofit leaders overwhelmingly described issues that were part of a system of disadvantages to the various populations they served.
Inspired by this finding, the 2020 research study was given the goal “to identify, acknowledge, and examine the systemic and policy factors that lead to, reinforce, and exacerbate poverty specifically for residents of South Carolina.”
This study helped to further articulate the state of poverty within South Carolina. For example, in 2015, 26.1% of all counties in South Carolina were identified as persistent poverty counties, while 52.2% were identified as persistent child poverty counties. To be defined as persistently impoverished, by the USDA’s Economic Research office, over 20 percent of the county’s population had to experience poverty consistently since 1980. This meant that for many families in our state, poverty spanned over three generations. The most vulnerable counties were more often rural and had high numbers of minority residents.
Generational poverty was further underscored by the fact that, across all South Carolinian counties, less than 5% of people born into low-income households were able to achieve upward income mobility. And for those making progress stagnant wages and benefits maintain the economic status quo and limit families’ ability to be financially stable. Earnings and wage gaps between various racial and ethnic and gender groups also contribute to this inequality.
What we found to be empirically supported, and as no surprise to many within the community, is that the solutions to the identified issues were not as simple as the creation of a program or a policy. The path forward required effective policies, programs and the creation of a larger ecosystem of support to advance antipoverty efforts.
After further reflection on this information, it propelled us forward to a phase of critically assessing how we were interacting with each other, used information, advanced or informed narratives about those experiencing poverty, and ways we can build generative partnerships with our community members to achieve our mission.
Evaluating Our Impact
For many urban areas within our state, the data shined a light on their daily reality; communities were beginning to look different but at the expense of many long-term residents. In 2016, the state had the highest eviction rate in the nation at 8.9% compared to the U.S. average of 2.3%. Two South Carolina cities appeared in the top 10 evicting large cities in the U.S.—North Charleston was ranked first with an eviction rate of 16.5% and Columbia was ranked eighth with an eviction rate of 8.2%. While there are groups committed to this topic and others raised within our report, what were we doing to elevate their efforts?
As a foundation, these data points made us question the types of programs we were supporting, the areas in our state that we were investing in, and whether the partnerships we had would generate the impact we were hoping to have. We know that our success can be measured in more than just one way, and we sought to move beyond the conventional expectations of Foundations.
Internally, we continually challenge our assumptions of what it means to be a philanthropic agency that supports advocacy and antipoverty efforts. Our internal shifts, lean into a reimagined way of supporting our community partners. With our grantmaking serving as our core function, we look for other ways to utilize our various forms of capital. We hold each other accountable to the belief that an effective Foundation wields its social, moral, intellectual, reputational, and funding capital (S.M.I.R.F). Our advocacy strives to expand on these additional points pushing existing conversations forward or helping others to question their ability to drive impact.
Building our Ecosystem
One can easily be overwhelmed by the need in our state, looking at the scale of childcare needs in our state (as of 2019, 42% of South Carolinians lived in a childcare desert), the number of grocery store closures (105 closures from 2016-2020) which illuminates the existing food apartheid, record-breaking eviction rates yet low affordable housing, and a reduced level of economic mobility for those experiencing poverty.
While daunting, our Foundation accepts and is inspired by the truth that we cannot address these issues alone. It requires everyone to see their role in helping to reduce it and our connection to each other. With this belief system, we continue to find ways to include as many voices as we can in the process of creation. Our policy work is not siloed but a small part of a larger tapestry weaved from the insights gained through community gatherings, honest feedback from grantee partners, and relationships built while working in coalition with grassroots leaders.
Conducting internal conversations parallel to our research aided in our ability to gain buy-in from our leadership, increased board engagement, and developed a stronger connection to the work ahead. The work toward building a thriving ecosystem of change required us to practice the same vulnerability that we ask of our grantee partners. As we began to gain clarity on our blind spots and ways we have supported or operated counter to our mission, we began sharing this learning with others. We found that this transparency helped us build trust and develop new partnerships.
Since the unveiling of both our agenda and our research, we have shared the findings with multiple organizations and elected officials across the state, members of our staff and board have testified for the passage of just laws connected to our mission, we have elevated our reach by informing op-eds, worked with board members of value-aligned agencies to build their understanding of why advocacy is important, and begun building a robust network of leaders committed to being a part of an ecosystem of care for those experiencing poverty.
The Work Ahead
Moving from concept to action takes time and our strategy continues to morph into something that further reflects the communities that we serve. We find healing knowing that transformation does not happen linearly but in iterative cycles. Rooted in our core values and guided by our Advocacy Agenda, we remain flexible to the wide range of ways we can assist our expanding ecosystem. The work is in constant motion because it is infused with the character of the community and the people we are called to serve.
The Sisters of Charity Foundation of SC’s next poverty study is scheduled to be released in 2024 and will focus on solutions generated by those experiencing poverty and value-aligned practitioners most proximate to this community.