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Woods Fund Rejects Notion of Philanthropic Risk, Acknowledges Risk of Status Quo

December 03, 2018

Grantees of Woods Fund Chicago are working to move $25 million from Chicago's operating budget to support trauma-focused and mental health services for some of the most marginalized and vulnerable residents of the city. Without the investment, people in areas without city-run clinics may lose access to much-needed healthcare services. Winning the budget fight will save people's lives.

NCRP-2013logo-color-no-taglineSouthside Together Organizing for Progress, better known as STOP, is one of the organizations working to secure the $25 million, and it knows what it takes to win. In 2016, the organization was part of the Trauma Care Coalition, a group of community-based organizations that mounted a campaign demanding that the University of Chicago open a Level 1 adult trauma center in its South Chicago neighborhood.

When one compares the value of an adult trauma center (not to mention a $25 million investment) for a community like the South Side with the $30,000 general operating support grants the Woods Fund has awarded to STOP annually since 2005, one quickly realizes that any risk for the funder is slight.

Yet many funders look at community organizing and advocacy as something too risky for them to support. Yes, strategies that seek to change systems and advance equity can create conflict and challenge powerful individuals and institutions, but they are also the drivers of the kinds of long-term solutions that philanthropy considers its raison d'être. Funders must always remember that the perceived risk of investing in systems change strategies led by marginalized people cannot compare to the actual physical, financial, and emotional risks of grassroots leaders.

The Woods Fund makes a habit of the kind of "risky" grantmaking so many other funders avoid. Its 2013 NCRP Impact Award acknowledged its support for grantees like the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights and the SouthWest Organizing Project, which helped win policy changes allowing undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses.

And the foundation not only shares its power and resources with marginalized leaders through its grantmaking but also in the way it goes about its work. For example:

  • It contracted with three of its grantees to test and evaluate a new online grantmaking system.
  • It launched a pilot to support small, emerging grantees and hired a consultant to help the organizations navigate the new system and complete their applications.
  • Its leadership commits at least 30 percent of the foundation’s investments to socially responsible businesses led by marginalized people.
  • One of its core strategies is to invest in people and then get out of the way – behavior that invariably makes some funders uncomfortable.

After a convening of the foundation's grantees in 2017, grantees wanted to continue to share wisdom and advice with each other about how to best leverage community benefits agreements. Woods Fund staff did not attend the convening, but they supported the grantees that organized the event, and the foundation subsequently committed to organizing more of these "peer-shares" in the future.

Another important milestone for the foundation was the decision by its leaders, almost ten years ago, to make a commitment to racial equity. Once the board made clear its decision to commit to goals and practices that advance equity, the rest was relatively easy. The NCRP Impact Award in 2013 merely inspired the foundation to push ahead with its already impressive record of innovative grantmaking.

Based on its record of impact, Woods Fund Chicago's rejection of the notion that investing in grassroots groups equals risk has served it well. Our advice to other funders? Don't be afraid to reframe your idea of risk and acknowledge that, sometimes, it goes hand in hand with movements and community organizing. Think about what you're willing and able to do to ensure that the communities in which you work are health and thriving. And remember: grassroots groups are just as committed to their neighborhoods and communities as you are, if not more so.

Headshot_jeanne_islerJeanné L.L. Isler is vice president and chief engagement officer at the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy.

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