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With Smart Philanthropy, Anything Is Possible

February 06, 2017

Collaboration-puzzle-piecesThere are no limits to what philanthropy can accomplish if we dream big, take risks, and set aside our egos and look for ways to work collaboratively.

"That's ridiculous," some of you may be thinking."Philanthropic dollars are a drop in the bucket. The best we can hope to do is to fund effective programs and improve as many lives as we can."

The truth is, that kind of small-ball thinking is horsepucky, and we need to put it aside if we want to transform and improve our society and the world. Indeed, there's an urgent need, right now, for foundations and high-net-worth donors to invest serious money in organizations on the frontlines of transformative social change.

Think back twenty years ago, to 1997:

  • Gas was $1.22 per gallon.
  • Bill Clinton had just been inaugurated to a second term as president of the United States.
  • The Lion King had debuted on Broadway.
  • The Spice Girls had a song at the top of the pop charts.

Did anyone in 1997 believe that less than twenty years later full marriage equality for same-sex couples would be the law of the land? It didn't seem remotely possible.

But then, in 2000, leaders of the Evelyn and Walter Haas Jr. Fund, a California-based philanthropy, began to think about how the foundation could best support work to advance the rights of and dignity for gay people.

In 2002, the fund made a $2.5 million investment in the Freedom to Marry campaign — at the time, the largest investment ever made by a foundation in support of gay rights.

The investment by the fund got the ball rolling. In 2004, the fund, recognizing that it couldn't possibly push the campaign to success by itself, helped create the Civil Marriage Collaborative with a handful of committed, like-minded funders from across the country.

It took visionary leadership and trust to make the collaborative a reality. And working together over the next dozen years and in close partnership with the other organizations, the funders of that effort helped accomplish what had once been unthinkable.

It wasn't easy. Changing society is tough work. Even as the campaign secured many wins, it also had to deal with setbacks. But the funding partners stuck by each other and their grantees, keeping their eyes on the prize and building momentum by winning an increasing number of victories at the state level. And then, on June 26, 2015, in Obergefell v. Hodges, the Supreme Court made marriage equality the law of the land.

It was a great day for the country and the culmination of a long campaign in which funders and nonprofits worked together to make society a little more fair and just.

I'm sure many of you have a story about how the court's ruling has impacted your life. For me, it was being able to attend the wedding of my sister a little over a year ago.

And here's some more good news. These same kinds of strategies work just as well at the local and state levels.

In 2012, for example, a group of California funders launched the California Civic Participation Funders to support nonprofits in the state working to strengthen civic participation in communities of color and among other underrepresented populations. The funders involved in the effort were focused on different issues — some on health, some on immigrant rights, others on criminal justice or women's rights — but they knew that having robust civic participation from groups that traditionally have been marginalized was essential if they hoped to see success on their issue. So they decided to work together, in close partnership with their grantees, to boost civic participation in four California counties.

That work is paying off.

Last summer, for example, citizens of San Diego voted in favor of an Earned Sick Leave and Minimum Wage Ordinance that immediately raised the minimum wage to $10.50 and then raised it again on January 1,to $11.50 per hour. San Diego is not known as a progressive bastion, and very few people would have guessed that San Diegans would vote in favor of such an ordinance. But with years of sustained investment by California Civic Participation Funders, what was once unthinkable became reality. And thousands of low-income families are going to benefit.

Because I've been studying this stuff for years, I thought I'd share six things that funders should keep in mind if they are looking to maximize their impact:

The first and most important is to invest heavily in advocacy, civic engagement, and community organizing. For philanthropy, that is where the leverage lies. Research has shown that for every dollar invested in nonprofit advocacy, community organizing, and civic engagement, families and communities get $115 back in benefits. The Public Welfare Foundation, based in Washington, D.C., tops NCRP's list of funders who invest heavily in these kinds of strategies.

Second, you need to use targeted strategies, even when you have universal goals. To help everyone in your community, you need to employ a different strategy to reach the Latino community than you might use to reach whites or African Americans. You may also need different strategies for women and men. Be intentional. The Lumina Foundation, in Indianapolis, does this well. Lumina's overarching goal is universal — to raise college attainment rates in the U.S. to 60 percent by 2025 — but it uses different strategies to reach different groups.

Another critically important thing is to provide multiyear general operating support. Big changes don't happen over the course of a year. Research has shown that flexible, multiyear support correlates directly with greater effectiveness and impact and helps builds trust between funders and their grantees. Don't believe me? In 2015, the Ford Foundation announced that it intends to double its commitment to providing long-term general operating support. What would it take for you or your foundation to double the amount of general support you provide?

The fourth thing is to collaborate with other funders — and encourage and help your grantees collaborate. None of us, not even the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, has enough money to solve the biggest, thorniest problems on its own. We've got to work together if we want to have real impact and move the needle on tough problems.

Funders also have to invest in long-term movement leadership. At the end of the day, individuals are the ones who drive social change. When funders invest in the leadership of social movements, it invariably leads to profound and lasting benefits. Leadership by and mobilization of marginalized communities is essential to success. If you need ideas or an example of a funder that does this well, check out the Levi Strauss Foundation, which runs a terrific leadership program for social justice leaders in the San Francisco Bay Area.

My sixth and final piece of advice is that you give special attention to issues of race and gender. The presidential election campaign made it abundantly clear that racism and sexism are still huge problems in our society. Effective philanthropic strategies recognize that fact and work to promote greater equity. Again, if you're looking for an effective model, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation has been a national leader in this area.

So there you have it. We're facing huge challenges as a society. But big change is possible, and philanthropy has a critically important role to play in bringing about that change.

Headshot_aaron_dorfmanWe just need to dream big, take risks, and work collaboratively. When we do, everyone benefits.

Aaron Dorfman is president and CEO of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP). This post is based on a talk that that Dorfman gave a couple of weeks ago at the annual conference of the Minnesota Council of Foundations and is reprinted here with the permission of NCRP. Follow them on Twitter @ncrp.

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