The Sky Really is Falling…Now What? A New Working Group for Funders

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

By Liz Sak, Executive Director, Cricket Island Foundation

When the financial crisis hit, foundations endowments were hit hard. We all knew the recovery would take time, we just didn’t know how long. According to recently released data from The Chronicle of Philanthropy, spending at the largest foundations is still not expected to return to pre-recession levels until 2015. Closer to home for smaller foundations, in a report we recently helped produce in partnership with the Foundation Center, Diminishing Dollars: The Impact of the 2008 Financial Crisis on the Field of Social Justice Philanthropy, we found that unless the smaller funders who primarily support community-based social change work see five years of above-average investment returns, social justice grantmaking levels through 2015 will remain below 2008 levels. This is all hardly surprising given the slow and unsteady recovery of the economy.

I hear from our grantees almost daily about the challenges they are facing: increased need meets decreased resources. The trend of diminishing dollars for social justice is real in many communities across the country. And, in addition to the pressure of smaller endowments, foundations will face very difficult decisions between funding service provision and investing in advocacy aimed at lasting policy and systems change. Grantees are asking for help and guidance; they are asking for transparency and support. I know mine are not the only grantees struggling, as there are many nonprofits affected by these reductions and the continued loss of funding will create broader instability in low-income communities across the country.

So the question for all of us is “what’s next?” What can we in the funding community do about this perfect storm of bad news for our grantees? The answer is we need to do more and do things differently. We need to find different ways to support our grantees, beyond dollars. The report served as a catalyst for discussionamong foundations concerned with the sustainability of the social justice field. It became clear that we need an organized response to the present and anticipated conditions in the philanthropic sector. A Working Group emerged from these conversations, created by several colleagues concerned about the sector, as a venue for considering what action we can take—individually and collectively—to confront the problem and develop strategies to ensure that the field retains the substance and infrastructure to continue to do important work during these difficult times.

Guided by our primary goal of ensuring the continued and increased strength of work in the social change and social justice sectors during a period of financial constraint and uncertainty, we have identified three focus areas, each touching on a different audience—grantee organizations, peer institutions not currently identifying as social justice funders, and institutions engaged in social justice-related funding (including our own).

Specifically, we hope to:

  • Strengthen grantees’ ability to describe their work in ways that respond to different audiences in order to access other funding streams (capacity building with grantees more broadly);
  • Create opportunities for funders not traditionally engaged in social justice philanthropy to not only learn about the sector and its relevance to their mission, but also provide grantee organizations with a clearer understanding of their philanthropic goals and interests;
  • Consider and adopt ways to amend our own practices to be responsive to the new realities these groups face.

We also, and perhaps most importantly, want to create a space for informal support and guidance on how to drive this work within our own institutions and for supporting others who might be thinking about engaging in this work or who are looking for tools to advocate for a social justice/social change model internally. It will be for funders only and be designed as a safe space for problem-solving and learning about the incredible challenges currently facing the field.

We believe that, as funders, we have greater access and more relationships (as well as a broader perspective) than any single organization might and therefore can serve the field by turning our attention to its continued viability. The time for action is now and we invite our colleagues to share their ideas and join us in this Working Group.

Liz Sak is the Executive Director of the Cricket Island Foundation, a family foundation that funds youth-led social change programs nationally with a particular emphasis on emerging organizations that work with extremely marginalized populations. Ms. Sak came to Cricket Island less than 3 years ago after two decades of experience running nonprofit organizations committed to social change—from a Beacon School in the South Bronx to an arts and youth-led social change group in Manhattan. She brings to the conversation 20 years of experience raising money and exploring partnership models with her funders while running a nonprofit. Her perspective as a philanthropist is wholly informed by these experiences. Ms. Sak is committed to the development of deep and meaningful partnerships with grantees in order to strengthen organizational capacity and create leadership opportunities for social change. Ms. Sak has a B.A. from Lehigh University and an M.B.A. in Nonprofit Management from the Yale School of Management.

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