A small foundation makes big changes through the power of networking
Thursday, January 3, 2013
Posted by: Amy Seasholtz
By Diana Loukedis Doherty, Manager
The Seybert Foundation
What does "impact” mean for a small foundation? How can a philanthropic institution with a six-figure annual giving budget actually do more to support its grantees' fundamental needs in the midst of a dismal economy? In a significant decision at their November 2012 meeting, the Board of Directors of the Seybert Foundation concluded that three words would guide them toward achieving greater impact: general operating support.
The SEYBERT FOUNDATION, founded more than 100 years ago as the Adam and Maria Sarah Seybert Institution for Poor Boys and Girls, is an independent foundation that makes grants to nonprofits serving disadvantaged children and youth in the city of Philadelphia. The foundation's average grant amount has been just over $3,000 of late, with priority given to those nonprofit organizations with annual operating budgets of less than $1.5 million. Seybert Foundation has long included general operating support as one form of its giving strategy, but the vast majority of its grants were historically program-related. "More often than not, applicants seemed to assume they had to structure a request in the form of a project grant, and we responded in kind,” says Sara S. Moran, who will conclude her second term as Board President in January 2013. "But as our average grant amount decreased and our community's needs rose, we began to re-think our approach and how we could focus our dollars while maximizing the value of the support provided to our grantees.”
"As our average grant amount decreased and our community's needs rose, we began to re-think our approach and how we could focus our dollars while maximizing the value of the support provided to our grantees.”
- Sara S. Moran, President
The Foundation gathered input from the field, polling nonprofits and other grantmakers, and taking advantage of the educational opportunities offered by DVG. "From the day I attended the DVG workshop featuring Kathleen Enright of Grantmakers for Effective Organizations back in 2008. Seybert Manager Diana Loukedis Doherty notes, "I have paid close attention to the emerging rationale for general operating support as a form of capacity building. While well-managed nonprofits have learned to do more with less for years now, a grant can only go as far as the strings attached will allow.” All of Seybert's Board members conduct multiple site visits per year, and whenever the subject of unmet needs arose in those meetings, nonprofits regularly cited the same issue: a shortage of operating support. The Seybert Board considered making fewer, larger grants in order to make a stronger impact on select grantees, but agreed that its real strength as an institution lay in its ability to help scores of smaller, community-based nonprofits through a nimble, focused general operating strategy. With a volunteer Board of Directors and one part-time Manager, it seemed a daunting task to realize this transformation of the status quo.
Doherty tapped the talent of the DVG network to help inform the Board's deliberations, and found links to relevant resources through the DVG website. After months of information-gathering, an impromptu conversation with Sue Heckrotte of the Independence Foundation over coffee before a DVG event led to a meeting with Susan Sherman, President and CEO of Independence Foundation. Sherman generously shared the story of how Independence Foundation's general operating strategy evolved, and how the Board and staff view this form of funding as a critical means of respecting the relationship forged with longtime grantees, recognizing their real struggles to meet basic overhead costs while delivering quality programming. Accounting for the effective use of operating dollars was a serious concern for the Seybert Board, and resources from Independence Foundation, DVG and GEO helped to shape Seybert's new approach to reporting and outcomes, as well.
The process culminated in one of the most meaningful strategic shifts in the foundation's century of giving. In November 2012, Seybert's Board of Directors voted to convert its grantmaking program to one focused on providing general operating support to smaller-sized organizations primarily dedicated to benefit Philadelphia's disadvantaged children and youth. "We are unveiling our new application and reporting requirements in time for our Spring 2013 grant cycle,” Moran explains. "Our website will feature all of the details, but the spirit of this approach is to work with our nonprofit partners in a new, relevant and mutually respectful way, so Seybert's small grants can go as far as possible to benefit the community's true needs.”
-Diana Loukedis Doherty is Manager of the Adam and Maria Sarah Seybert Institution for Poor Boys and Girls, and a Board member of Fourjay Foundation. Both foundations have held DVG membership for more than 20 years. Seybert's new application/reporting guidelines will be posted online at www.seybertfoundation.org.