Opening Doors for Community Philanthropy

May 7, 2019

By Paul S. Grogan, President and CEO

This essay originally appeared in the April 2019 edition of the Chronicle of Philanthropy.

For many decades, the philanthropic mission of the Boston Foundation, like that of most community foundations, was simple: Find well-run organizations, timely causes, or opportunities, and support them. If the selected programs looked like a good philanthropic investment, they probably were.

That mission, by and large, served its purpose. The Boston Foundation supported hundreds of great projects and organizations, played an important role in essential projects, and built a reputation as Boston’s primary philanthropy. In the last decade, however, like many other large foundations, we took a step back and challenged ourselves to prove that our approach was really working, especially in the context of the data-rich 21st century. The goal for our board, staff, and an increasingly savvy pool of donors evolved from "helping a good cause" to "having a real impact."And so, in 2009, the Boston Foundation unveiled a new strategic approach with five "impact areas"  to focus on: the arts, education, health, housing, and economic development. Specific, measurable goals were developed in each of the areas.

Discovering a Downside

The result of our focus on data and impact has been overwhelmingly positive for our grantmaking. Today we have much greater insight into the ways that philanthropy can make a real, measurable impact. The groups we support are changing the landscape in public art, higher education,  children’s health, and other areas. But the approach we’ve taken over the past 10 years has had a downside. Our new focus meant we were less available to support important work that wasn’t in line with our strategic priorities. Newer organizations had fewer opportunities to tap our resources for needed funds.

This became evident as we prepared for a milestone — our centennial — in 2015. As we researched our history, one of the major themes that emerged was the numerous times the Boston Foundation had been "there at the beginning" in support of great ideas and new nonprofits.

For the Centennial, we published a book celebrating the more than 100 well-known organizations that might not exist today were it not for early support from the Boston Foundation. They include iconic Boston institutions such as WGBH-TV and the New England Aquarium, as well as newer, sometimes experimental entities such as Year Up and Hack.Diversity. We looked at how support from the Boston Foundation helped start the area’s first community health centers, the first community-development corporations, even the cleanup of Boston Harbor.

We’re exceptionally proud of these there-at-the-beginning efforts. As we compiled the list of many such "firsts," however, we realized our new mission approach could limit the availability of our support to future innovators with new ideas, as well as our responsiveness to many community nonprofits that seek to solve longstanding problems and meet emerging needs. We couldn’t miss the irony that we had made what we were celebrating in our centennial that much harder to repeat.

A Compromise Approach

Seeing the unintended impact of our revised mission approach created a split among our board members. Some recounted the anger and frustration many longtime grantees expressed at finding themselves shut out under the new strategy. Others hailed the new measurable standards for success in our five priority areas and believed we should stay the course. After a lengthy board retreat, we devised a third option.

In 2016, the Boston Foundation started the Open Door Grants program, setting aside $2 million a  year in discretionary funds for renewable grants of up to $50,000 that any nonprofit organization in Greater Boston could apply for. We organized workshops and mounted a campaign to reintroduce ourselves to former grantees who had felt locked out of our support under the new mission-driven approach.

Now in its third year, the program has been an unqualified success. More than 200 nonprofits in communities across Greater Boston have received grants. Some are past grantees who saw a renewed opportunity for support. Some are nonprofits facing an increase in demand for their services amid an ever-changing political, social, and economic landscape. Others are small grantees for whom a $50,000 grant could make a huge difference. And a number of them are start-ups or new ventures taking on issues, large and small, in innovative ways. The door to the Boston Foundation is once again open.

As we continue to concentrate our grantmaking in our areas of priority, we now have a flexible pool of funds to complement that work. The approach is a victory for the Boston Foundation and for the metropolitan area’s nonprofits.

Greater Responsiveness

Opening the doors wider leads to more grant applicants, and with that comes the need to ensure that we remain accessible, responsive, and transparent to this broader set of nonprofit partners. We streamlined our grant application to ease the burden for applicants. Since applications for these grants far exceed the amount of money available, we make sure that organizations whose Open Door Grant requests were denied receive feedback on their proposals. We also aim to provide guidance where needed in the application process. We survey our grantees and applicants regularly to ask how we can do better. While we still expect measures of success from our grantees, we strive to adapt our frameworks to whatever stage of work they’re in.

Through it all, one thing has remained constant: Our Open Door Grants, like all of our grants, are flexible. Open Door applicants can apply for the type of support they need most — whether for general operating support, to build their internal capacity, or to carry out a specific project.

Community foundations can play a dual role. We can respond to our region’s greatest challenges and opportunities through focused investment while simultaneously providing flexible, timely support for ongoing and emerging community needs. Our "course correction" on the path from responsive foundation to strategic grant maker will continue. For now, "reopening the door" has enabled us to positively affect today’s major issues while also investing in creative approaches to solving tomorrow’s problems.

Applications for Open Door Grants are accepted twice each year, with deadlines of August 1 and February 1. Guidelines and other information for the August 1, 2019 cycle will be available at in late May 2019.