Big Change Ahead

by Tamara Lucas Copeland

With job losses, home foreclosures and other symptoms of the recession taking a stern toll in the Washington area, grantmakers in the region have worked hard to support efforts by nonprofits to help families ride out the storm. But grantmakers have learned a lesson from this recession, one they won’t soon forget: they need long-term strategies aimed at achieving true systemic reform – not just short-term projects that fix symptoms, but “big change” to fix big problems. Doing that requires that they mobilize the full scope of their assets – not just their dollars, but their unique capacity to bring people together to share ideas and marshal their resources.

A recent survey of Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers members confirms that local philanthropies have taken a hit during the recession, not surprising given that their investments were rocked when the bottom fell out of the stock market. They’ve had to reduce their grants this year as a result, and they expect to do even more of that next year.

Even with all that working against them, grantmakers have begun to implement a new style of giving, one that takes dead aim at the causes behind deeply rooted problems. Such grantmaking is the subject of Washington Grantmakers’ new report, Beyond Dollars: Investing in Big Change: How Washington Area Grantmakers Are Creating Lasting Impact. Focusing on a series of case studies, the report identifies four distinct elements of grantmaking that goes “beyond dollars” to achieve big change:

  • Capitalizing on timing and momentum. By coordinating local and regional action with national initiatives, timing action to coincide with groundswells of public sentiment or moments of crisis, grantmakers are translating a vision for change into on-the-ground progress.
  • Being a strong voice for change. By creating a platform for affected communities to engage in the policy dialogue, and sharing information with the media, policymakers and others, grantmakers are creating energy to drive change.
  • Leveraging key resources. By supporting research, combining their knowledge and experience, and using their dollars to open the door to national and government funding sources, local grantmakers are creating the building blocks for change.
  • Building true partnerships. By bringing organizations and individuals together in new collaborations, grantmakers are strengthening the agents of change.

Put into action in recent years, those strategies have made a real difference in the lives of our neighbors in the Washington area. For instance, as The Community Foundation’s September 11 Survivors’ Fund accumulated $25 million from more than 12,000 donors, foundation leaders asked: what will it truly take to help people heal? The Fund locked arms with Northern Virginia Family Service to pursue a case management approach. The two organizations’ intensive, seven-year partnership resulted in a model system of care – case management combined with financial support – which proved better at addressing complex long-term needs than “quick distribution” approaches.

Despite the recession, local funders are continuing such transformational grantmaking. Building on its continuing commitment to direct services, The Community Foundation’s Neighbors in Need Montgomery Fund recently announced support for a new systemic approach to delivering emergency services in isolated neighborhoods in Montgomery County to ensure services are reaching those who most need them. A partnership between IMPACT Silver Spring and the Montgomery County Department of Health and Human Services, the Neighbors Campaign hopes to leverage other community resources to sustain long-term recovery for those in crisis; create a new, sustainable network of mutual support in isolated neighborhoods and increase the number of people embarking or staying on a path toward secure employment and greater economic empowerment. Later this month, The Community Foundation will announce a new round of Neighbors in Need grants aimed at strengthening the safety-net infrastructure and system through which safety-net services are provided.

Grantmakers are continuing to provide dollars to feed the hungry and provide medical care for the poor, and in countless other ways to care for those in need. But they’re also taking aim at the broader causes of such problems, using all the tools available to them. The saying goes that if you give a hungry person a fish they’ll eat for a day, but if you teach them to fish, they’ll eat for a lifetime. What grantmakers are beginning to do is more akin to restocking the river with sustainable species of fish! Such strategic grantmaking is where foundations are headed, indeed, where they absolutely must go. The recession won’t prevent that. In fact, it makes the transition all the more imperative.

Tamara Lucas Copeland is President of Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers.

The report, Beyond Dollars: Investing in Big Change, is available for download.