Our Journey to Community-Based Philanthropy 

May 1, 2024

By Orlando Watkins, Vice President and Chief Program Officer
and Candace Burton, Program Officer, Safety Net Grants

For a number of years now, the Boston Foundation has been on a journey to reimagine the role we can play in building a more equitable and just Greater Boston. We knew our approach would be data-driven but also that it would involve listening to and valuing the voices of those who know our community best.

Our journey aligns with the national movement toward trust-based philanthropy, which emphasizes building strong, collaborative and open relationships with our nonprofit partners and, above all, relying on community expertise in the process. For TBF, it has meant a commitment to paying more than lip service to the goal of sharing power.

Orlando Watkins and Candace Burton
Orlando Watkins and Candace Burton

A key step in this direction was a unique program called Boston Neighborhood Fellows, which funded leaders doing grassroots work in the community. Launched in 1990 by The Philanthropic Initiative, it was run by TBF from 2017 to 2023. In 2019, we turned to the fellows for valuable decision-making advice that improved the effectiveness of our strategic approach to grantmaking. 

Then, in March of 2020, the pandemic hit—and our response to it informed and transformed our approach to everything we do. Within a week of the first lockdown, TBF began raising money through a COVID-19 Response Fund to support the nonprofit organizations meeting the critical basic needs of communities disproportionately affected by the virus.  

We relied on those nonprofit leaders closest to the community to advise us. Our goal was to deploy the funding as quickly and efficiently as possible—so we simplified our application process, making it easy for organizations to apply for and receive the funding. The grants were for general operating support so that our nonprofit partners could decide where the funds would be most useful. Over the next two-plus years, the Foundation and our community of donors raised and distributed more than $18 million. 

In June of 2021, still deep in the pandemic, Lee Pelton became President and CEO of the Boston Foundation. He brought with him a passion for civic leadership and a powerful message: The ultimate goal of all of TBF’s work would be achieving equity for the people of Boston—and that could only be done through deep community partnerships and authentic leadership. TBF has condensed the essence of Lee’s vision with the phrase: “Move Equity, Move Boston.” 

Our Safety Net Grants Program

Last year, based on the lessons we learned during the pandemic—and knowing that its impact would be felt for years—we created our Safety Net Grants program. It supports social service organizations that are responding to the essential needs of marginalized communities and vulnerable residents in Greater Boston. Essential needs are defined as resources that preserve and restore health, wellness, safety and belonging for individuals or families in crisis. 

The program has an open online application process. Applications are short but have no word limits. Budgets can be submitted in any format. The grants are $50,000 for two-year general operating support paid in annual installments of $25,000. To date, $2.2 million in grants have been made and another cycle is set to start soon. 

Safety Net Grants rely on participatory grantmaking—the practice of centering affected communities in decisions by giving them the power to decide which organizations to fund. We began by using a mixture of staff and community reviewers to guide our decision-making process.  

Now, as we enter our third funding cycle, community reviewers are completely responsible for the decision-making process and make the final recommendations before the grants are approved by our Board of Directors. Our goal is to deepen this practice going forward. 

We also recognize that community reviewers’ perspectives and ideas have value and that, like any experts, they deserve to be compensated for their time. As a result, reviewers are given a stipend for their time and input. 

Usually, a journey is defined as the act of traveling from one place to another, but for the Boston Foundation, it’s a continuing process of learning and trusting the people who know our community’s needs best. It’s a journey that will only deepen over time as we seek to fulfill Lee Pelton’s transformative vision of a truly equitable Boston.  

"For TBF, (our journey) has meant a commitment to paying more than lip service to the goal of sharing power."

Safety Net Grants

Part of our Amplifying Community Leadership pathway, Safety Net Grants are two-year, $50,000 general operating support grants designed to support social service organizations that respond to essential needs for marginalized communities and vulnerable residents in Greater Boston.