Getting Brave and Bold about Responsive Funding in These Times

Jennifer Choi

“There is not so much a right or wrong way as there is a brave and bold answer to the questions we are raising …”

– Sherece West-Scantlebury, President & CEO, Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation at the 2017 Council on Foundation’s Annual Conference

Newly released surveys from the Center for Effective Philanthropy and Exponent Philanthropy show that many grantmakers are considering changes or have already made adjustments in their work as a result of last fall’s elections.

And in a recent conversation, Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO) shared that GEO’s members have mostly responded in two ways: by making public statements pledging their continued support for the communities and populations with whom they work and/or by creating rapid-response grantmaking initiatives to quickly provide funds towards protecting communities most negatively impacted by the administration’s policies.

So if we’re considering new approaches to funding because our new political landscape demands it, what will we do differently this time?

And will it be enough?

Be brave and bold

During the Council on Foundations’ annual conference last month, Sherece West-Scantlebury, president and CEO of Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation in Arkansas, urged participants to view this time in our history as an opportunity to step out of our comfort zones in grantmaking.

My NCRP colleague Aaron Dorfman, Cathy Cha of Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund, Jacqueline Martinez Garcel of the Latino Community Foundation, and Lateefah Simon of Akonadi Foundation shared in The Chronicle of Philanthropy how some foundations are already doing this. For example, the Omidyar Network allocated $100 million over three years to strengthen trust in civic and democratic institutions. The California Endowment earmarked $25 million over three years to protect the health safety net in response to threats of repealing the Affordable Care Act. The Meyer Memorial Trust is providing supplemental general support grants to five community-based groups on the front lines of ensuring equal rights in Oregon.

As your foundation is looking at ways that it, too, can respond to the moment, consider one simple idea: be bold, thoughtful, and inclusive. 

This is an opportunity to be smarter and more creative about to and with whom we fund. Is rapid-response funding truly brave if we are just funding the same old safe bets?

If you’re able to provide additional support to grantees, are you being bold by limiting what they can and cannot do with the funds you’re providing?

Are you seeking out members of your grantee community so that your goals and strategies reflect the needs of the communities and issues you care about?

Foundation dollars are still a drop in the bucket in the face of a disappearing government safety net. We must be savvier about where and how we invest.

Vikki Spruill, CEO of the Council on Foundations, says that various kinds of foundations play different roles in the funder ecosystem, and that “when you put that tapestry together, you have a powerful way to solve problems and advance social change.”

I would further challenge us to think about how these roles translate to what part of the shared risk each type of funder can own — and to look to local and regional leaders to serve as powerful partners to authentically engage community constituents for long-term change.

For example, we learned from our As the South Grows initiative that from 2010 through 2014, the Alabama Black Belt and Mississippi Delta region received just $41 per person in philanthropic support. Compare this to the national rate of $451 per person and $1,966 per person in New York City.

Yet, despite the philanthropic disinvestment, Southern communities have locally built upon assets like culture, heritage, and trusted leaders to deploy long-term strategies that have both informed policy and legislative debates, and mobilized people around the environment, health, racial justice, and other critical issues.

Strategic collaborative initiatives such as the Just Transition Fund — a coalition of local, regional, and national funders founded by the Appalachia Funders Network — raised just under $500,000 to help grantees addressing low-income populations devastated by the declining coal industry leverage the power of the network to win over $12 million in additional federal grant dollars from the POWER+ initiative for their work. The Just Transition Fund and the Appalachia Funders Network have successfully changed the narrative around funding in Appalachia toward one of assets and shared power instead of regressive politics and need.

And given the racially-charged, exclusionary rhetoric and policies from the current administration, this region will be of critical importance. Philanthropy can learn from our Southern colleagues because they have been down this road before, and they know the way.

A long-awaited change?

Historically, many funders have shied away from long-term systems-change grantmaking to improve the lives of those living in poverty. Our “Pennies for Progress” report analyzing foundation funding from 2003 to 2013 showed that while foundation assets grew by more than $300 billion in that decade, philanthropy fell dismally short in supporting critical advocacy work in areas such as health care access, climate change, immigration reform, reproductive rights, and voter rights and civic engagement, among others. Funding for systemic change was stuck at a dismal 10 percent of all domestic grantmaking for the whole decade.

The new political climate has caused many foundations coming from a traditionally risk-averse and bureaucratic decision-making culture to reconsider current practices and examine innovative grantmaking approaches, treading uncharted waters.

Could this current moment represent a much-needed tectonic shift for the sector?

There is a lot of tough work ahead, but we can make a profound contribution if we ask ourselves how and for whom we frame responsive and collaborative funding for systemic change.

If we can be brave on behalf of others and for each other, we can forge the meaningful political will required in this particularly challenging new climate to make the change our communities deserve for generations to come, regardless of any present or future administration.


Jennifer Choi is vice president and chief content officer of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP). Follow @ncrp and @jennychoinews on Twitter.

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