Investing in a Region of Opportunity: The Delta Philanthropy Forum
The Mississippi Delta serves as a vital region to the middle and southern parts of the United States. At its sum, it is composed of eight statesAs defined by the Delta Regional Authority, those states are Alabama, Arkansas, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri and Tennessee. See dra.gov/about-dra/dra-states. and contributes to the region’s diverse cultural landscape and economy. Since 2016, the St. Louis Fed’s community development (CD) staff has engaged more than 500 community stakeholders from across the Arkansas and Mississippi DeltaFrom the St. Louis Fed’s perspective, this refers to the 38-county region in Arkansas and Mississippi. to better understand the unique needs of this region, and to build awareness on topics ranging from the credit environment for small-business development, to the role of housing as an economic development driver, and sourcing financial resources for community and economic development.
Based on these forums, the CD department began analyzing capital flows in the region, along with barriers and enablers to investment. As we examined public and private investment data in the region, we also convened with funders who were interested in understanding capital needs and ways to make a deeper and sustained impact. What began as a relationship-building exercise among funders has transformed into a network of philanthropies focused on collective action to build a thriving Delta. This article provides highlights from our analysis of the Delta, and how it has informed the efforts of the Delta Philanthropy Forum (DPF) to advance a thriving and a racially equitable region.
Understanding the Delta
Our work focuses on 38 Delta counties across Mississippi and Arkansas that are composed of slightly over a million people. Between 2000 and 2010, this area saw tremendous population loss (almost 80%). Since then, the decline has slowed, but even in recent years, only fourGreene and Craighead counties in Arkansas and Yazoo and Desoto counties in Mississippi had positive population growth between 2010 and 2015-2019. of the 38 counties saw positive population growth.
Poverty is high in the region. Most counties, except Desoto County, Miss., have a higher poverty rate than the national median and the average rate for the two states. This poverty rate is not equal across racial groups. On average, 35% of all Black people live in poverty compared to 14% of white people. This is significant because Black people compose almost 44% of the population.The population change and poverty data is based on the US Census and the American Community Survey and was downloaded using policy map.
Understandably, this narrative of the region impacts how capital flows into it and how funders view its potential for growth.
Leveraging the Delta’s Potential
Despite its challenges, the Delta is rich in assets which, with greater leverage, can advance economic growth and vitality. It is anchored by the Delta Regional Authority, a Congress-approved agency charged with making strategic investments to improve economic opportunity. The region also benefits from substantial community development financial institution (CDFI) dollars. For example, from 2010 to 2020, annual CDFI program dollars into Greenville, Miss., and Helena-West Helena, Ark., averaged about $48 million and $43 million, respectively.Data are from Community Investment Explorer 2.0; this reflects overall funding from the federal community development financial institution program. In addition to federal agencies and CDFIs, there is a substantial mix of funders, both national and regional, within the Delta. Harnessing the potential in these actors to coordinate strategy and deepen impact influenced the development of the DPF.
Since its first gathering, the DPF has grown to more than 30 funders, intermediaries and other supportive partners who are investing in the region through capital, research and capacity-building. In 2019, the group enthusiastically agreed to develop a formal network that could strengthen individual and collective philanthropic efforts in the Delta. Our Community Partnerships and Investment (CPI) team stepped in as a neutral convening partner to facilitate the group toward action.
In 2020, the DPF entered the year with opportunities ahead for collective action but then faced a number of crisis points, including COVID-19, racial injustice and economic insecurity. Following national calls for racial justice and the initial impact of the pandemic, especially on communities of color, the group decided its vision would be to advance a thriving and racially equitable Delta.
To achieve this vision, the DPF identified two pillars of work. First, the group identified the need to support the capacity for both people and systems. As our analysis demonstrated, the disparities in the flow of capital to nonwhite communities affects the ability of organizations and leaders to respond to urgent challenges like the pandemic, or to build needed infrastructure like broadband. There is opportunity for this group to develop an understanding of these needs, and take actions to strengthen the institutions and individual leaders in the region. Second, the DPF acknowledged that sustainable investment depends on informed and aligned funders. Under the second pillar—collective impact and collaborative funding—the group will foster relationship-building among funders. These actions will work to deepen trust and create shared learning, especially as these groups tackle issues like equity within grant-making.
Shifting the Narrative about the Delta
Though barriers exist, there is a richness of opportunity and a spirit of resilience in the Delta. Local and national stakeholders are positioning communities to absorb needed federal recovery dollars and sustainable capital coming to these rural areas. Through these strategies, the DPF strives to transform the deficit narrative and highlight the region’s strengths. It prioritizes community partnerships and is creating a mechanism for continuous input and feedback from Delta communities. The goal of the CPI team is to walk alongside communities—to be responsive and provide needed resources within this transformation process.
We hope to inform strategic investments in the Delta that can further support the innovation and resilience present within this region.
Notes and References
1 As defined by the Delta Regional Authority, those states are Alabama, Arkansas, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri and Tennessee. See dra.gov/about-dra/dra-states.
2 From the St. Louis Fed’s perspective, this refers to the 38-county region in Arkansas and Mississippi.
3 Greene and Craighead counties in Arkansas and Yazoo and Desoto counties in Mississippi had positive population growth between 2010 and 2015-2019.
4 The population change and poverty data is based on the US Census and the American Community Survey and was downloaded using policy map.
5 Data are from Community Investment Explorer 2.0; this reflects overall funding from the federal community development financial institution program.