by Kiesha Davis

Do you ever think of how much young people could accomplish if we listened to them empathetically? I mean, really listen? Take for example the traditional dynamic of funder and grantee relationships. The prevailing practice in the philanthropic community is to play in to the position of power with grantees, often with little intentionality to the grantee organization’s true needs. In such instances, nonprofit leaders heed the aims and desires of the funder, rather than the true aspirations of the organization and the interests of the communities those organizations commit to serve.

But let’s explore a more novel way of thinking – how about if a funding organization – say Memphis Music Initiative (MMI) took on the mantle to turn the funder-grantee dynamic on its head? As a grantmaker, MMI honors the musical legacy of Memphis and fosters innovation in the cultural landscape through the lens of Memphis youth of color in under-resourced communities.

Often nonprofits need what funders sparingly allow which is organizational and infrastructure funding support. Need expanded staff to engage the community in your work? Done. Need funding to purchase instruments for music instruction? Got it. Just reflect on your true needs to support the will and mission of your work and MMI will partner with you to get the genuinely needed work done.

How about creating space and time to learn and build relationships with peer organizations working in music engagement – specifically for black and brown youth? We facilitate specific conversation and knowledge sharing spaces for funded partners through our Institute of Nonprofit Excellence to do just that. The goal is to fill those spaces with information and data to help leaders of partner organizations dig deeper into the nuts and bolts of organizational development, providing leaders with the opportunity to grow in their skill set and take those learnings back to their organizations. On the other side of those conversations, we hope to see higher quality program implementation. Leaders also support one another in safe conversations that illuminate that their organizations are not in the work of fostering creativity in youth alone and aim to forge lasting peer to peer relationships that will lead to coordination in service delivery. We are seeing some early wins, recently on a site visit one executive director shared how supported she has felt from the engagement offered by MMI. She offered how many new connections have been fostered as a result of her participation in the cohort and noted how those bolstered connections will help with addressing organizational priorities like building community awareness of her organization’s programs.

One of the exciting opportunities on the horizon for our intentional and responsive approach to grantmaking is the launch of community based grant review panels. We aim to support the arts ecosystem in Memphis in a manner that is rooted in community driven goals focused on amplifying community assets and capacity for resilience. We believe one of the best ways to do that is through bringing together influencers from the communities in which we aim to support – including youth, musicians and other stakeholders that are invested in the legacy of Memphis music and the success of youth. There is purpose in the presence of people of color, speaking to the experiences of those who often go unheard. The urgency of inaugurating the grant panels later this year illustrates the importance of community voice in determining how resources are allotted in support of aspirations that are authentic to those who reside there. Far too often, neighborhoods that are considered underserved go without the empowerment deserved to influence their own fate, to express the values that matter most and have resources dedicated to making that desired transformative change.

This is how MMI, as one colleague routinely says “does philanthropy, differently.”

To see transformative change tapping in to the creative residence of Memphis youth, it will take an unconventional approach. To move the trajectory of the urgent issues facing Memphis youth – 26% of youth from the most underserved communities in Memphis won’t graduate from high school and less than 5% of Memphis youth have access to after school music programming, compared to 15-20% in peer cities nationally. Further, a recent report from the Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings highlighted the incidences of disconnected youth in Memphis. Of the nation’s 100 largest metro areas, only two have a higher percentage of disconnected youths ages 16-19 than Memphis. The study identifies disconnected youth as those who are not working or in school, hold less than an associate degree, are living below 200 percent of the poverty line and not living correctional facilities or other group quarters. The report goes on to show that African Americans are by far the largest group failing to connect.

But there is evidence to show that high quality arts and music engagement can help to turn those statistics around. According to recent data released by Americans for the Arts, students with access to high levels of arts involvement are less likely to drop out of school by their sophomore year. According to the National Association for Music Education, youth that engage in music training have improved knowledge and reasoning and those that participate in musical groups have greater self-confidence, connection to team work, improved social skills, and increased concentration. At MMI, we strive to explore and expand opportunities such as these because the untapped potential of Memphis youth is well worth it.


Kiesha Davis is the Director of Grantmaking and Capacity Building with MMI. Davis joined Memphis Music Initiative in October of 2016, to lead the stewardship of MMI’s grantmaking strategy supporting music engagement organizations based in Memphis, Tennessee. She brings to the initiative extensive experience in building and fostering grantee relationships notably with black led community-based organizations, amplifying collaborations to address community level outcomes for youth and expertise in developing large scale multi-million dollar grantmaking frameworks.