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Making Big Change at a Small Foundation



The significant actions of very large foundations like Ford and Mellon, both in response to COVID and the imperative to address racism and social justice, have understandably received considerable attention, in both the general press and the philanthropy press. The work that they have been doing has been extraordinary. From Ford announcing an allocation of 10% of their assets - $1 billion - towards  impact investing in opportunities like affordable housing and economic opportunity, and committing $156 million to support arts organizations run by people of color,  to Mellon's recent announcement of a $250 million commitment to reimagine monuments in America, these commitments are big and meaningful.

There are about 120,000 foundation in the US, mostly independent private foundations (as opposed to community foundations and operating foundation). 98% of these foundations are smaller, with assets of $50 million or less. If you use a cutoff of $100 million or less, the figure is probably closer to 99%. 

Why is this important? Because making change happen at these smaller foundation has the potential for collective impact equal to or exceeding the foundations with multi-billion dollar endowments. Yet generally the media do not cover transformative change at these smaller foundations. As a result it can seem like significant change and transformative impact is only possible at really big foundations.

And the irony is that smaller foundation can often be less nimble than the larger foundations. They are more likely to still have family members involved, or to still be very driven by original donor intent. And those original benefactors are, frankly, likely to have had philanthropic interests that were a reflection of their time and social class. Smaller foundations are less likely to be members of Council on Foundations, or even regional grantmaker associations and affinity philanthropy groups (like Grantmakers for Education, or Grantmakers in the Arts). And as a result, they may be less connected to trends in philanthropy and evolving best practices, and more likely to operate via inertia: giving in the same way, and often to the same organizations, that they have been doing for decades. Yet at the local level, in communities far from the major coastal centers, the impact of smaller local foundations is likely to be far greater than the actions of the largest national foundations.

I still remember doing a presentation to a group of foundation CEOs about changes we had made at Bonfils-Stanton Foundation to enhance our communications effectiveness - new branding, transformed website, e-newsletters, social media - all designed to help us advance our mission and tell the stories of our grantees, as well as communicate better with potential grantees and other constituencies. After the presentation one of my foundation CEO colleagues asked - with all seriousness - why we would possibly want to do all this. It would only make us more visible and result in more emails and phone calls and make more work for us, she said. This is indicative of a resistance to change that is still very real at many smaller foundations.

At the Bonfils-Stanton Foundation, where I have now been President for seven years, we have made some really significant changes around how to make our philanthropy - which is largely focused on arts and culture - more equitable and impactful. That effort, while quite transformative, has certainly not garnered the kind of national attention that a Ford or Mellon attract. But how do we light the way for other foundations to follow? How can they learn about steps that their peers - smaller foundations - have taken to make real change, especially around racial equity?

Photo credit in linked article
That is why I was so pleased that Inside Philanthropy recently published a major story about the efforts at Bonfils-Stanton Foundation (this is a subscriber-based publication so you may hit a paywall - if you email me I can send you a PDF of the story). We also published this timeline on our website, and a number of stories on the foundation's blog over the past few years. 

Our work has not been easy, it has not been perfect, and it is far from over. We also operate the Livingston Fellowship Program, a leadership development program for nonprofit CEOs, and in that program have been challenged to respond to calls to better eradicate a legacy of White privilege and embrace anti-racism as a core competency of leadership. We have been doing our best to respond aggressively to this imperative. If there is one thing we have learned in 2020, it is that the only constant in today's world is change. The world is changing rapidly, technology is influencing change, philanthropy is changing (and of course, our climate is changing). I think ten year plans, and even five year plans, are no longer meaningful. We must establish mission and values-based frameworks that allow us to be nimble and responsive. The journey of the Foundation has only been possible because of a dedicated staff team, a Board that has not only been supportive, but has also increasingly pressed for change, and many philanthropy colleagues locally and nationally who have shared their wisdom and models freely and generously. 


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