Funding collaboratives address deeper community problemsNonprofit Journal Project: Feature

If a school needs a playground or an agency needs a new van, a foundation can cut a check and be satisfied it made a difference.

But when it comes to big, complex, persistent problems like racial inequities in criminal justice, helping a major city get back on its feet after hard times, or investing in community businesses that contribute to a sense of place, the challenge is much greater because the problem has several interdependent factors that need to be addressed.

Increasingly, foundations are turning to funding collaboratives that bring to bear the interests, resources and expertise of a wider set of funders to address these deeper, more persistent problems.

One recent success has been the Michigan Justice Fund, headed by Director Ashley Carter of the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan. The initiative was actually conceived by the Hudson-Webber Foundation in 2018, and brought together people impacted by the justice system, elected officials, and funders, among others, to look at what role philanthropy could play in reducing mass incarceration. CFSEM took on leadership of the fund because of its track record with other statewide partnerships.

While the conversations around the fund began several years prior, the reckoning with racial justice and mass incarceration picked up steam as a wider cultural conversation after the murder of George Floyd in 2020.

“The ball was already rolling on getting this going, but I think that 2020 and the racial tensions and uprising added a sense of urgency to the work and catapulted a lot of those conversations to the forefront,” Carter says. The funders established a learning cohort that determined the strategy of the fund--to be explicit about racial disparities in criminal justice and be expansive and forward-thinking in the way they chose to address them. “It’s really not just reforms; it’s really looking to support and stimulate transformational interventions,” says Carter.
Narrative change is an important part of the work. As an example, MJF worked with the Broad Art Museum, the Prison Creative Arts Project at the University of Michigan, and Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit to launch the Free Your Mind art exhibit, on view at MOCAD through Sept. 3. It features art by people directly impacted by the criminal justice system. “I’m really proud of the art show because we’re taking up a different type of space and bringing these issues to new audiences through different mediums,” Carter says.

Another funding collaborative led by CFSEM is the Pontiac Funders Collaborative. While the foundation has a great deal of experience in managing funding collaboratives, the Pontiac Funders Collaborative is new for them in that it focuses on one geographic area. Katie Brission, vice president for programs at CFSEM, said the founding partners in the collaborative realized they were all having meetings with the same people with the goal of helping create a sustainable future for Pontiac as it came out of receivership in 2020.  CFSEM did a series of one-on-one interviews with community leaders to get a sense of the greatest needs, and then worked with the partner foundations to identify where their focus areas intersected and how they could address some of the challenges the community is facing.

Brisson says what she’s most proud of is their work with the City of Pontiac to create a grants management department, which will allow the city to access federal funds that previously were inaccessible because of the need for a dedicated staff to manage the extensive proposals most federal grants require. The speed with which one-time funds such as those from the American Rescue Plan Act are being distributed remains a challenge and emphasizes the need for a dedicated grants department. 

A community advisory committee informs all the collaborative’s strategies. Circumstances have played a role in building trust within Pontiac as well -- the COVID-19 pandemic hit just as the collaborative was being formed, which meant they mobilized support more quickly than originally planned. This helped build trust almost immediately in a way that may not have happened as quickly otherwise, Brisson says.

The ten funders within the collaborative recently recommitted to another three years of work together. Beyond that, Brisson says she hopes the relationships between funders, nonprofits and community members continue to thrive no matter what the future holds for the collaborative. “Our hope is even if the funders did go away one day, the collective impact partnership is here to stay,” she says.

The Community Foundation of St. Clair also focuses on place-making initiatives, as well as community development, in the downtowns of St. Clair County. Not only does it make independent investments, it also layers funding with capital investments in for-profit projects  to enhance communities. One way that happens is through the Community Capital Club (C3), which is a group of men who pool capital to make “angel” investments in businesses that will add to the sense of place in the community. The men’s group was inspired by a similar women’s group that convened through St. Clair’s community foundation some years earlier, says Randy Maiers, president and CEO of the Community Foundation of St. Clair County.

“We had a women’s group that started a long time ago, and the guys kind of got jealous of what the women were doing,” he says. The men's original pool of capital was around $250,000, raised from around 50 members, which has now increased to $350,000. Both contribute to the vitality of the downtown and create jobs and economic activity, but the funds are different and used in different ways.

Sometimes both the foundation and the club work together to bring a project to life. For example, Maiers says, earlier this year the C3 and the foundation both invested in the Wrigley Center in downtown Port Huron. The Wrigley Center is a large mixed-use redevelopment that offers entertainment, retail and restaurant space, owned by a husband and wife team who are military veterans. “It’s probably the biggest investment in downtown Port Huron but also in St. Clair County in years,” Maiers says. The Community Foundation of St. Clair County contributed some funding, and C3 lent money to the owners to get the project up and running. 

Whether for profit, nonprofit, or a partnership of both, funding collaboratives are an efficient way to address social problems and bring the expertise of a diverse group of funders to the table. According to a 2021 report from The Bridgespan Group, philanthropic collaboratives have increased greatly in the last decade, with most forming after 2015 and a surge happening in 2020. They also tend to address broader and deeper social problems and are more often led by people of color than traditional philanthropy. It’s expected these types of collaborations will only increase going forward, as more foundations look for new ways of addressing persistent problems.

This entry is part of our Nonprofit Journal Project, an initiative inviting nonprofit leaders across Metro Detroit to contribute their thoughts via journal entries on how COVID-19, a heightened awareness of racial injustice and inequality, issues of climate change, and more are affecting their work--and how they are responding. This series is made possible with the generous support of our partners, the Michigan Nonprofit Association and Co.act Detroit.
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