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Local Funders Consider Response to the New Political Landscape

Monday, April 24, 2017   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Amy Seasholtz
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Local Funders Consider Response to the New Political Environment

By Karen Race, Grants & Communications Manager, Claneil Foundation


In the wake of the 2016 Presidential election, proposed changes at the federal level have been swift and drastic. In an effort to understand how funders are adjusting to this new political environment, Philanthropy Network conducted a survey of its members in early February 2017. Forty-three member organizations provided responses, and although the survey was conducted only a few weeks after the inauguration, it is clear that the region’s funders want to be poised and ready to support their grantees in the most effective ways possible.

 

Of the survey respondents, 68% believe they will make changes to their programs in response to proposed changes and those already taking effect. The top change that funders are considering is through supporting advocacy efforts on specific issues. This reflects an awareness on the part of foundations that grantees need more than just financial support– they also need the voice and power of their funders.

Of course, grantmaking is still a powerful way to make change, and some local funders have acted quickly to utilize their funding power in responsive ways. While it is still early in the process, a few shared with us their approaches, as well as lessons learned so far.


Focus on the Facts

Ann Marie Healy

“[Our grantees] need more capacity. It’s important for us to listen, and to be their voice.”

-Ann Marie Healy

Immediately following the election, many funders began to gather and have conversations about possible responses to the real and perceived threats to their grantee organizations.  “I noticed a lot of panic,” said Ann Marie Healy, executive director of FIRST HOSPITAL FOUNDATION, a private foundation whose funding focuses on healthcare access. “I realized that it was going to be very important to focus on the facts rather than speculation.”

Healy observed that the majority of the foundation’s grantees were still as focused as ever on the day-to-day work of serving their communities. “My assumption was that everyone was in a panic,” she said. “But the reality is these organizations are dedicated, and are going to continue to do their regular work because their communities need them.”

In order to focus on the facts, Healy invited Antoinette Kraus, the founding Director of Pennsylvania Health Access Network (PHAN), to speak at a special meeting of First Hospital’s board at the end of February. Healy felt Kraus’s broad and deep knowledge of healthcare access, government, and how consumers interact with these systems, would provide a sound context for this important conversation.

“Antoinette presented on what they were seeing in the field and shared her thoughts on what foundations could support, which included policy and advocacy,” said Healy.

As a result of this meeting, the board of the First Hospital Foundation approved a $200,000 rapid response grantmaking fund.

Although it is still early in the process, Healy reports that she is already hearing from organizations being impacted by the immigration executive orders and other proposed policy changes.

Healy explains: “They need more capacity. It’s important for us to listen, and to be their voice.”

 

Use Existing Structures – But be Flexible

Mailee Walker

“Ideas for these grants will come from listening to our existing network of grantees, peer funders, and trusted thought partners.”

- Mailee Walker

 

At its annual planning meeting each February, the board of the CLANEIL FOUNDATION focuses on how to improve its grantmaking strategies and processes.  In early 2017, the board had just completed an 18-month process to revise its grant programs.  While the board members were looking forward to the implementation of the enhanced grant programs this year, some also wondered if there was room for the Foundation to be more flexible in its grantmaking during these uncertain times.

The Foundation also happened to have a surplus in its grantmaking budget due to the recent re-design of its multi-year grant programs, which would not be fully vested for another four years.

“The timing of our surplus funds was fortuitous,” said executive director Mailee Walker. “The board was very supportive of allocating a sizable portion to responsive grants.”

The Claneil Foundation board approved setting aside approximately $330,000 for Timely Designated Grants, which will allow the Foundation to make responsive, one-time grants addressing the impact of significant changes in government funding or policies on underserved individuals, families and/or communities.  Grants will relate to one or more of the Foundation’s issue areas: education, hunger & nutrition/food system, health & human services, and environment. 

“Ideas for these grants will come from listening to our existing network of grantees, peer funders, and trusted thought partners,” said Walker.

The review and approval process is designed to be thoughtful yet efficient. Bi-weekly calls are held to review incoming requests, as well as to exchange knowledge on what is being discussed in the field. This ongoing conversation helps the Foundation remain informed while being as responsive as possible to the needs of the community it serves.

 

Recognize the Unique Role Funders Can Play

Jennifer Leith

“I hope funders will remain open-minded, because new needs are going to be emerging all the time.”

-Jennifer Leith

At a board meeting scheduled for two days after the election, the DOUTY FOUNDATION’s executive director Jennifer Leith said: “Nobody was ready to talk about it.

But by the board’s next scheduled meeting in January, Leith says everyone in the room was ready to discuss how to “respond nimbly, given the potential threat to the areas and communities we fund, such as immigration and reproductive rights.”

As a smaller foundation, it may have been understandable if Douty decided to conserve its resources, and remain focused on regularly-scheduled grantmaking efforts; however, Leith explains that was not an option.

“As a funder, if you have been invested in a community that’s being threatened and you don’t act, everything you have done will be undone,” she said.

Leith had been approached quickly by organizations serving immigrants and refugees with requests for support of Know Your Rights convenings, and she felt it was critical that Douty designate money from its budget to respond to these kinds of emerging needs.

Douty’s board agreed. They have designated $20,000 to rapid response grantmaking, which represents approximately 10% of the foundation’s operating budget.

“We received our first request on a Thursday, and we had approval by Monday,” says Leith. “Our board acted fast and over a weekend in order to respond to the needs of our community.”

Douty is relying mainly on its own network and word of mouth, as well as the stewardship of its board, to learn about what is needed in the community. Leith sees her role as executive director as an important connector between the non-profit community and the board.

“We are in a unique spot as funders,” she said. “We can direct conversations and issues that we hear from grantees to our boards. I hope funders will remain open-minded, because new needs are going to be emerging all the time.”

 

Looking Ahead

Policy debates and major cuts in funding are not new, and this is not the first time foundations have had to consider how to respond to the ever-changing priorities in Washington. Perhaps the major difference now is that foundations are recognizing the many ways they can play a role, and advocating for new approaches. The sector has seen an increased focus on the importance of collaboration, as well as on the ability of foundations to provide support to organizations beyond the grant dollar. 

It is clear from the experiences of those who have started implementing changes in their programs that flexibility, a willingness to learn about new issues and the ability to adapt to developments in real time will be vital in the effort to fully support our non-profit partners.


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