Battle Creek

When it comes to grantmaking, how does WKKF decide what to fund in its hometown, Battle Creek?

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series.


Having the 10th largest foundation in the world headquartered in downtown Battle Creek has caused some residents to question why nonprofits serving the city and Calhoun County aren’t receiving a larger share of the annual grant funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.
 
Those who question what they see as disparities in the local grantmaking are reluctant to be identified publicly, but Alana White, Program Officer with WKKF’s Battle Creek team, says she and her team colleagues have all heard similar comments.
 
“I too have heard these comments that we should give more money to Battle Creek,” White says. “We are an international foundation with a dedicated Battle Creek team. What we invest in the community involves a delicate balance between WKKF and community priorities and IRS (Internal Revenue Service) regulations that we very often try to do. The amount we gave out this year to the community and overall this past year is important because it was so high.”
 
In Battle Creek, more than $48 million was committed during the fiscal year from September 2020 to August 2021 to 27 of the 29 nonprofits that applied, including $22.6 million from traditional grantmaking and $25.5 million from WKKF social impact bond funding. Those grants were made in response to community needs from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and racial injustices.

White says this increased amount signals the foundation’s responsiveness to community priorities.

“The fiscal year prior to the above dates we committed $17.5 million in Battle Creek. That is an approximately 275% increase,” says Jenefer O’Dell, WKKF Senior program Officer who leads the Battle Creek team.

Jenefer O’Dell, WKKF Senior program Officer who leads the Battle Creek team a WKKF.The Woman’s Co-op was among the 27 grantees who received funds from that $48 million commitment to nonprofits in Battle Creek. Teresa Momenee-Young, Executive Director and co-founder of the Woman’s Co-op, says her organization received $150,000 that will be used to provide additional support for their clients.
 
“When we engage in partnerships and contracts with employers such as Marshall Excelsior and the State of Michigan we have to cover payroll for these folks for 8 or 10 weeks before we get the money back from these employers,” Momenee says.
 
In addition to working with employers, the Woman’s Co-op also has contracts and partnerships with organizations including Goodwill Industries of Central Michigan’s Heartland, Kellogg Community College, and Michigan Works.
 
The college contracts with the Woman’s Co-op to provide support staff and the Co-op works with its clients to ensure that they are fully prepared to take on these front desk jobs by providing on-site training in key areas such as Microsoft office products while also addressing critical needs such as proper attire available at no cost through a free store operated at the Co-op.
 
“We can train them, but we can’t certify them here, so KCC offers that,” Momenee says. “They bring a virtual classroom on site to our location and our people go through frontline service training and get certified in all of the Microsoft products and get a certificate from us and make the transition over to the college.”
 
Through a $30,000 contract with Michigan Works the Co-op trains Michigan Works clients on-site for jobs in industrial sewing and janitorial.
 
Momenee says White’s advice and input was critical to her organization’s ability to form these revenue-generating partnerships that help to augment the WKKF grant. She disagrees with those who say the foundation doesn’t give enough grant money to nonprofits in Battle Creek and says they spend a lot of time working with potential grantees to build their case for the funding amounts they’re requesting. 
 
Alana White, Program Officer with WKKF’s Battle Creek team.“I’m a smaller nonprofit. We have always had to work hard to get a sizable grant, but the program officers I’ve worked with, specifically Alana White, always look at creative ways that we could leverage dollars,” Momenee says. “She makes suggestions to me and encourages me to talk to other partners to see if we could be included in their supportive services hiring and leverage the dollars we have with KCC, Goodwill, and Michigan Works. This is how Alana has strategized with me and helped me to get more dollars so the foundation can give us a bigger check.”
 
White says part of her role is to find a happy medium and help nonprofits to better position themselves to be considered for grant funding from WKKF and funding opportunities overall. Big Homies, a nonprofit organization that deals with at-risk youth and underprivileged people from all areas of society, and a Mexican education center at Grand Valley State University, found that happy medium and received WKKF grants.
 
“We don’t typically fund work like this and the organizations approached us with programs and projects designed to engage different parts of our Communities of Color and engaging residents in those communities,” White says. “These organizations, in addition to others that we are now working with are examples of our increased partnerships in Battle Creek and in particular our Communities of Color.”
 
Every grant from WKKF is customized, she says.

Coming off of the pandemic and moving into a recovery mode, White says, “We spent even more time trying to work with organizations and where they are and working on their sustainability and stability, answering questions and designing safe spaces with people.”
 
Learning industrial sewing The Women's Co-op.White says the foundation is taking a deeper dive into working with grassroots organizations led by People of Color across multiple disciplines.
 
“Over the last few months in particular we’ve made grants to organizations not historically funded before,” she says.
 
The mission forms the foundation
 
“Our first consideration is the mission and the work they do as an organization as a whole and if they’re focused on the health and well-being of children,” O’Dell says. “Children don’t live alone. They live in families and communities.”
 
This is why the work that is funded locally includes early childhood education through K-12, but also branches out to include workforce and economic development, the creation of job opportunities that provide a living wage, and a variety of support services for families so that they are able to raise their children with a foundation built to address future success. 

Learning CPR at The Women's Co-op.While the areas that focus on jobs may not fit with the vision people have of the WKKF’s grantees, O’Dell says the pandemic highlighted a huge need to focus on them as part of its holistic approach.
 
“We often have folks ask ‘Why are you doing this economic development?’” says Jamie Schriner, a WKKF Program Officer with the Battle Creek team who focuses on economic development. “One of the big pieces to focus on is thriving children and we know that in order for children to thrive families need to have jobs and communities needs to be strong. We’re helping to make Battle Creek, in a collaboration for partners, a more attractive place to live where there are truly opportunities for people.”
 
Jamie Schriner, a WKKF Program Officer with the Battle Creek team who focuses on economic development.As an example, she cites The Milton which she calls a “really strong catalyst project within the Battle Creek community because it ties back to supporting children by providing opportunities which will eliminate blight, attract new small businesses to downtown, create jobs, and create an overall attraction for more families to come to Battle Creek.”
 
Through the WKKF’s Program-Related Investment initiative, Schriner says The Milton was the beneficiary of a “very, very low-interest loan totaling $9.2 million that was provided to the city of Battle Creek.”

As they fund initiatives involving education and economic development, program officers and WKKF leadership have been addressing the unique challenges the pandemic continues to have on each of its areas of focus.
 
“In the past two years going through a pandemic, we have been really thinking strongly about the inequities it (COVID-19) has exacerbated and the first and foremost has been the basic needs to support families in Battle Creek. And as we’ve moved through this pandemic, we’ve been thinking about how Battle Creek emerges as vibrant and stronger in support of children and those families,” O’Dell says.
 
Traning in janitorial work Learning industrial sewing The Women's Co-op.The racial equity focus that is an integral part of the WKKF’s DNA, particularly as it relates to community engagement and leadership, is “always at the forefront when making allocation decisions,” O’Dell says. “We look at how we lean into Communities of Color because they experience the pandemic in different ways and how we’re building leadership in leaders in Battle Creek, particularly leaders of color.”
 
Overall, the WKKF, with a combined $8.8 billion in its endowment and trust, set a new benchmark in its 92-year history by awarding more than $483 million in grant commitments during the 2021 fiscal year, according to information on its website.
 
The delicate balance that White and her colleagues engage in when making grants locally also occurs during the grantmaking process with organizations seeking funding at the regional, state, national and international level, O’Dell says.
 
“There are laws and policies that govern how we distribute funds and how much a particular organization can receive,” O’Dell says. “There are considerations like their annual operating budget and how much they’re receiving from other funding sources.” 
 
In addition to awarding larger grants that fit within the WKKF’s core mission, a certain percentage of funds are set aside annually to address funding gaps, O’Dell says. This amount is allocated domestically and internationally to organizations with particular areas of focus identified as “priority places” by foundation leadership.
 
The overarching goal when making grants is to avoid putting grant recipients into a status where they have to pay taxes and are regulated by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). This is what White and O’Dell refer to as “tipping”. They say an organization could submit an “awesome” project, but if it’s not going to meet IRS guidelines, it won’t be funded at a level that will put the organization into that other status.

It is not uncommon for the recipient of a major grant from WKKF to partner or collaborate with smaller nonprofits in ways that will generate additional revenue streams for the smaller entity.
 
“Protecting the nonprofit status of these organizations using these guidelines protects that status. So we’re not tipping that into a different category as defined by the IRS. It’s a way of protecting them,” O’Dell says. “There are ongoing discussions about how much money a private foundation can give before tipping occurs. There are a lot of things over the years that we’ve heard about why can’t a foundation insert XYZ here. It’s not as simple as that. Even the definition of what’s considered charitable is continually being discussed.”
 
White says, “Our foundation’s board sets priorities and we’re wanting to be responsive to the needs in the community and sometimes that means waiting to see what community members see as priorities and what does that look like. I’ve been on the team now for seven years and I watch us every year trying to figure out what’s the best strategy to be as responsive as possible to members of our community.”
 
This work goes largely unnoticed by the general public and O’Dell says she thinks a lot of that decision by WKKF to remain in the background goes back to the foundation’s founder and namesake, W.K. Kellogg. He is known to have opted for a seat in the back row because he didn’t want to be recognized. She says her colleagues want to work alongside community partners, not overshadow them.
 
“So much of this,” Schriner says, “is the community’s story to tell and not ours.”

 

Read more articles by Jane Simons.

Jane Simons is a freelance reporter and writer with more than 20 years of experience and also is the owner of In So Many Words based in Battle Creek. She is the Project Editor for On the Ground Battle Creek.