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7 Things One Family Foundation Is Doing to End Poverty

March 29, 2019

End_povertyThe Skees Family Foundation (SFF) is just one of the more than 86,000 private foundations in the United States, and with a corpus of just over $2 million, we're consistently the smallest foundation in the room at any peer gathering. Undeterred by the magnitude of the challenge, however, we've invested $1.7 million over fifteen years in efforts to end poverty. Along the way, we've learned a few things about how to leverage our funding:

1. Philanthropy of the hands. We named SFF after the grandparents (my parents) who struggled to feed their seven children but always added a dollar to the church basket and could find an hour when needed for community volunteering. Hugh and Jasmine believed in giving whatever they had: Hugh donated blood to the American Red Cross and volunteered for Habitat for Humanity and the Dayton International Peace Museum, while Jasmine sang in the church choir, crocheted prayer shawls, and visited with surgery and hospice patients. They taught us that so many of things we take for granted — abundant food, clean water, shelter, good health, security — were not ours because we deserved them but because of a combination of luck (being born in a stable, prosperous country) and hard work. They also taught us that all humans are created equal, deserve equal access to respect and opportunities, and are part of one big family. Their legacy — of humility, gratitude, and belonging — may seem idealistic in today's polarized world, but it's the core value on which all of our own families and careers, as well as our philanthropic collaborations, are based.

2. Diversity of viewpoints. SFF unites more than forty family members ranging in age from nine to ninety-one. We are Republicans, Democrats, and Socialists, occupy different places along the gender spectrum, are of many different ethnicities and nationalities, and work at a range of occupations, from nurse and nanny to soldier, salesman, accountant, Web developer, and writer. Each family member is invited to collaborate on an annual grant to an organization that reflects his or her passion for a cause — whether it's self-esteem training for at-risk young girls in California, tutoring and job skills development for young men in Chicago looking to make a new start after time spent in a gang or jail, or business skills training for a beekeeping women’s co-op in Haiti. As well, members of each of our three generations convene biannually to select grant partners with expertise in a specific area — whether it's mental health, veterans' issues, or survivors of trafficking — that are near and dear to their heart. When it comes to our major multiyear grants, we encourage loving debate by members of our all-family volunteer board, with a focus on programs that have the potential to reach the greatest number of people and to create a holistic ecosystem of respect and care.

3. Unity around a core value. Coming together on video chats and conference calls, at family reunions and our annual Skees Family Foundation retreat, we are pleasantly reminded that while we may look and behave differently, deep down we embrace the same ambitious goal: to end global poverty by doing what we can to support equal opportunity for all. "Our interest in human rights and social justice," says foundation director and CFO Sally Skees-Helly, "probably can be traced to a dominant gene passed down through the generations." It's not that our family is unique or special; rather, we believe what we believe because we are humanists and Christians, Americans and global citizens. Too often, people choose to see the world in one of two ways: as something finite that must be fought over and guarded from others, or as a place of abundance where all can thrive. We choose the latter.

4. Our mission serves our core value. Fifteen years on, we've honed our mission to support social enterprises (through impact investments) and innovative nonprofits (through unrestricted multiyear grants) working to provide access to education and jobs to underserved people, in the U.S. and around the world. We strongly believe that the gaping needs we see around us should be addressed now. But the feedback we consistently receive from our nonprofit partners and their clients is that most poor people simply want their kids to be able attend a good school and to be able themselves to secure a job that provides them with dignity and economic security.

5. Building community. The website that broadcasts our audacious intention to end poverty within our lifetimes also serves to unite a community of like-minded believers. A hundred nonprofits that have received grant support from SFF and five social-sector businesses in which we've invested can see profiles of their organizations — and in some cases their own dedicated page — on the site. Five hundred people subscribe to our biweekly blog, "Seeds of Hope," where they read stories of unsung heroes who are changing the world. It's always good news, and it is what keeps us, and others, optimistic about the future. In part because of the great response from readers, we’ve begun work on a social-mission book series that extends the reach of our community far beyond our immediate network of grantees while helping us raise funds for additional job-creating programs.

6. Listening to feedback. Since the foundation's earliest days, we've asked our partners how it's really going and how we can better support them. The rawest feedback always is shared during site visits — whether in Appalachia or Africa — when the people with whom we are meeting are too tired to be polite. In addition, we've formalized an annual process for gathering candid partner reviews by a third-party contractor, and we've made significant changes to our intake processes, eliminating applications and mandatory follow-up reports and taking steps to match partners doing similar work for mutual learning and lesson sharing. Formalized review platforms such as GrantAdvisor and Great Nonprofits also help keep us honest and self-aware.

7. Taking risks. We believe that the immense privilege and responsibility entailed in shepherding $2 million of charitable giving (along with a legal regime that allows foundations to move quickly and try new things) requires us to act. We desperately want to do something meaningful to address inequity and poverty, and, without losing our heads, we have positioned ourselves as first-in funders for many nonprofit startups and impact investments in our priority areas, education and job creation. Because our dollars are few, we feel they can do the most good at the beginning of a project. Operating this way requires us to constantly survey the landscape, keep up with the latest innovations and information, and do our best to discern what is working and what is merely trendy. We consider it a win when programs began to scale, and other funders follow in our wake. But what it always comes down to is people. People who are willing to lead ethically and ferociously; people who can innovate new ways to reach the underserved where they are; people who listen to community members and deliver from the resources available to them exactly what is needed. Just as all human beings deserve a chance to attend a good school, secure a good job, and build a life of security, freedom and choice, we believe all humans are capable of working together to make this vision come true.

Headshot_suzanne_skeesSuzanne Skees is the founding board chair of the Skees Family Foundation, which supports innovative self-help programs in the U.S. and developing countries. Her latest book, MY JOB, Book 2, More People at Work Around the World, is available on Amazon.

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