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Member Stories of Impact

Monday, June 13, 2022 - 8:15 am EDT

In 2017, the BBC dubbed Lancaster, Pa., the “refugee capital of the country,” highlighting its role in resettling more than 20 times more refugees, per capita, than the United States as a whole. To support the needs of more than 1,300 new neighbors, the Lancaster County Community Foundation had been doing its part through multi-year commitments throughout the community. But around that same time, the broader political discourse around refugees and immigrants started to shift – and so did the attitudes of many Lancaster residents.

“There was a growing divide,” said Samuel Bressi, president and CEO of the foundation. He began to realize that “this might not be viewed as something that’s positive by all.” 

But instead of backing away, Bressi and his team galvanized a diverse range of nonprofits, businesses, educational institutions, and individuals to combat disinformation and build a coalition of support. Out of that grew several bridge-building initiatives: community education forums hosted by faculty from Franklin and Marshall College; a refugee-focused community center at a local middle school; dinners between local residents and refugee families; an entrepreneurial support group, and more. But the Foundation’s marquee project was “Here, There is Welcome,” an interactive art exhibit for local residents. It combined data from an in-depth study on immigrants’ contributions to the local economy with unearthed artifacts showing the community’s long history of welcoming outsiders, from slaves traveling the Underground Railroad to members of persecuted religious groups.

“We were able to put stories together of real people who were really contributing to in Lancaster,” Bressi said. “The data is clear that this is a net positive. This is not charity. This is enlightened self-interest for a community who wants to grow and wants to develop.”

Bressi and Dave Koser, the foundation’s director of programs, shared takeaways from the work to build common ground and help make the county more equitable for generations to come. 

  • Make sure you have board support.
    “The more controversial the issues that you’re tackling, the closer you need to keep your board behind you,” Bressi advised, from core values to budgets and operations.
  • Build a coalition through creative partnerships.
    The Foundation worked with various sectors within the community – including the Lancaster Chamber of Commerce, the preservation organization LancasterHistory and Church World Service Lancaster – along with national organizations like the New American Economy Research Fund.
  • Use one bridge to help build another.
    The work with refugees and immigrants also brought to light other needs in Lancaster, Bressi said. “We’re looking not only at refugees,” he said, “we’re looking at individuals who may have been here for generations and may have been disenfranchised and not given the opportunity to thrive.”  In 2022, the foundation committed about $150,000 for Community Bridge Builder Grants supporting “new programs to erase hate and prejudice, and to advance welcoming and appreciation of differing perspectives.”

Like many foundations, the Barr Foundation has been on a years-long journey to center its work on racial equity. Unlike many foundations, however, it has shared not just its grantmaking changes – including a focus on local organizations serving Black communities – but also its process for shifting internal practices and culture.

Case in point: In 2021, Barr announced several changes to its employee leave policies to “underscore trust and flexibility” after a look at long-standing practices through the equity lens led to an uncomfortable realization.

“Our policies, while good-intentioned, reflected a Western, Christian, patriarchal, heteronormative society,” members of a staff-led task force wrote. “This was apparent in how our policies defined family, what holidays we celebrated, and how we differentiated maternity and paternity leave.”

New policies include an expanded definition of family and a gender-inclusive parental leave policy, more flexibility with work time, and added emphasis on mental health for sick leave use.

“One change I see is in all of the decision-making now – it goes back to the values,” said Denise Gillespie, Barr’s vice president of human resources and a member of the task force. “Being more explicit, more transparent... that has carried over from that whole process.”

That 18-month process, from research to some very difficult conversations, led to key lessons that Barr also shares with the field:

  1. Ensure your board reflects diversity in voices, perspectives, and life experiences.
  2. Don’t delegate diversity, equity, and inclusion work.
  3. Commit to authenticity and vulnerability as well as to engaging in challenging and uncomfortable conversations.

Along the way, Barr has built trust, said another task force member, Lynn Harwell, vice president for administration – in each other and in the institution. Seeing Foundation leaders shift their perspectives helped people feel heard, she said, and “helped shift some of the positional power that people just got accustomed to.”

In March 2020, as schools, offices, and businesses shut down across New Jersey and beyond, the Princeton Area Community Foundation worked rapidly to establish the COVID-19 Relief and Recovery Fund. Within three days, the fund had raised $1 million, a testament to the relationships already built and nurtured throughout the state. Grantmaking decisions that once took six months were completed in two weeks, and funds were paid out electronically to get aid quickly into communities.

In the end, more than $5 million in pandemic relief helped support nonprofits that were feeding neighbors, helping with childcare, education, and housing, providing mental and physical healthcare, and more. How did they do it? "We trusted each other," said Marygrace Billek, director of Human Services for Mercer County, where the foundation is based.

Fast-forward to 2022, when COVID-19 is still wreaking havoc across the globe. The foundation has leaned into the importance of trust – and the lessons learned from the early days of the pandemic. In May, it announced a new call for proposals process: Now any nonprofit can use the online portal to determine its eligibility and apply for funds from five separate grantmaking programs at once. And even if there’s not a perfect fit, foundation staff are staying in touch through informational sessions and even site visits. “It’s not just, ‘Here’s a rejection letter,’” said president and CEO Jeffrey M. Vega. “We want really honest, authentic relationships. That's what we're aiming for."

Citi Foundation Progress Makers
Citi Foundation’s 2018-2019 Community Progress Makers tour the Women’s Housing and Economic Development Corporation in the South Bronx. As a part of the program, each organization received $500,000 in core operating support and access to technical assistance and a learning community.

If you ask Brandee McHale, president of the Citi Foundation, what spurred its pivot away from a project-based funding model in 2015 to one that mainly provides general operating support, she boils it down to a mindset shift on trust.

“It's really designed to flip the relationship around, she said, “and recognize that the expertise really lies with our grantees.”

In the three funding rounds since then, Citi has expanded the program, Community Progress Makers, which empowers community leaders with unrestricted funds. And the shift proved prescient when the COVID-19 pandemic drastically increased the needs in communities.

That’s not to say it has been easy. “I think in the corporate space we still struggle with recognizing that we can’t manage our community partners like vendors or clients,” McHale said. “We found ourselves in the first couple of years continuing to rely on the muscle memory we had built up, and asking questions like, ‘How exactly will the money be used?’ and ‘How do we do a cost-benefits analysis?’ ”

She says the way to work through these challenges starts with trust, a philosophy that aligns with the Council on Foundation’s 2021-2025 strategic direction, and she offered a few tips for other funders considering more general operating support and capacity building grantmaking:

  • Recognize that the expertise about communities and their needs lies with nonprofits. Ask them for their vision of the future, and view the funds as a down payment on that future.
  • Make sure program officers are trained to gather and analyze specific financial data so they can build a solid understanding of the financial health of the nonprofits they serve.
  • Look for ways to support grantees beyond the grant funding. Give them access to resources they may not be able to get on their own, like technical assistance, data support, or contacts. Many tech companies are reframing their work with community partners to center around creating more community access to their goods and services.
  • Build a relationship with your grantees beyond the awarding of the grant by conducting regular site visits.
  • Encourage collaboration by creating opportunities for grantees to network and learn from each other.
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2021-2025 Strategic Direction
Building Common Ground
Embracing Better Ways of Operating