Ensuring that Our Help Does No Harm

Anthony Richardson

As a program officer at the Nord Family Foundation, I have the privilege of meeting with various nonprofit executive directors, CFOs, development officers, program staff, and board members. Depending on the organization’s staff size and skill capacity, it is not uncommon for a single person to be vested with multiple roles. At smaller organizations, executive directors are challenged with overseeing day-to-day operations and doing everything from managing staff personalities to facilitating programs to meeting with donors. Indeed, it is quite a balancing act.

I have also met development officers at various organizations. Their job is threefold: raise money, raise money, and (did I mention?) raise money. They are constantly researching and contacting potential donors, and, in some cases, they are also responsible for grant writing and reporting, external communications, advocacy, and organizational branding as well. Development officers are very savvy; they can identify a community need, locate potential funding streams, and then position their organization to apply for grant dollars to meet that particular need.

For program officers like myself, we receive lots of requests from these development officers. And though there is an earnest desire to work with those in need to create positive change, it’s important for funders to listen and be discerning about what may be most helpful — and what may indeed be unintentionally harmful — to organizations doing challenging work on the front lines.

Here’s a recent experience that has crystalized for me the need for truly listening in service of effective philanthropy.

Lorain City Schools exist in a community in northeast Ohio where the poverty level is above 30 percent, over 88 percent of the students are on free or reduced lunch, and less than 10 percent of people over age 24 have a four-year college degree. The school district is under state control, and the city government is currently deliberating on ways to reduce gaps in service while simultaneously trying to balance the city’s budget on the back of an eroding tax base.

From the outside looking in, leaders of education nonprofit organizations say, “Lorain needs our help!” In most cases, these leaders are very passionate, have good intentions, and truly want to help make things better in the City of Lorain. Since the Nord Family Foundation is the largest private foundation in Lorain County, we often get grant requests from nonprofits like these to fund programs in Lorain City Schools. We currently have four pending grant requests. Each request, however, fails to include the most important variable in the equation: support from key stakeholders within the Lorain City School District.

With potential funding for these programs on the table, I drove to Lorain to meet with district leaders a few months ago. In our conversation, I asked the following questions:

  • Is Lorain City Schools aware of the organization(s) and its work — and does this work align with Lorain City Schools’ Academic Distress Recovery Plan and district goals?
  • Is Lorain City Schools aware of the organization’s grant request to the Nord Family Foundation to conduct programming in the schools?
  • Did the organization contact Lorain City Schools for a letter of support?
  • Is the proposed program duplicative of work currently being performed in the schools?
  • Is Lorain City Schools interested in working with the organization?

The education nonprofits are seeking philanthropic support to fund two mentoring programs, a college and career readiness program, and a conflict resolution program. Through my conversations, though, I learned from one district leader that Lorain City Schools already have federally funded programs, such as GEAR UP and AVID, that are similar to the proposed mentoring and college and career readiness programs. Further, the proposed programs seek to serve the same student population as GEAR UP and AVID. I also learned that the district has an existing partnership with a local nonprofit organization that specializes in youth conflict resolution activities and workshops, meaning the pending conflict resolution program would be duplicative as well.

My meeting with district leaders illustrates why foundation staff must take the time to sit down and meet one-on-one with those they are seeking to help. I often find that such meetings enlighten me in ways unobtainable by simply glancing at a grant application. In other words, the grant application is merely the top layer — when we dig down and perform due diligence, we are more likely to eliminate duplicity and economic waste.

In this instance, a one-hour conversation helped our foundation determine that over $200,000 in grant requests had little value or no use to the school district, saving time and headaches for all parties involved. It saved foundation staff time vetting proposals, but more importantly, it also saved Lorain City Schools the time and effort of trying to accommodate unsolicited and unnecessary programs amid their ongoing journey to improve the school district’s academic performance.

While driving back to the foundation, I kept replaying my conversation with those district leaders. They told me that Lorain City Schools has grant money to fund programs, and rather than the Nord Family Foundation funding programs that can be funded by the district, a better use of philanthropic support would be funding programs that are not currently (or cannot be) funded through federal or state government grants.

When asked about outside nonprofits receiving foundation dollars to “help” the school district, one district administrator said they “hate it” — and while everyone wants to help, to be effective, their desire to do so must be aligned with the school districts’ resources, mission, and goals. Given the current state of affairs at Lorain City Schools and many other low-performing school districts across the country, anything less than effective philanthropy does nothing to help and can be an utter waste of philanthropic dollars.

Anthony Richardson, J.D., is program officer at the Nord Family Foundation in Amherst, Ohio.

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