Our Towns

Foundations Do More Than Just Write Checks

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – As the nonprofit sector evolves with new generations of philanthropists, new causes and interests and an ever-changing spectrum of need, foundations must find ways to adapt. Today, helping the Mahoning Valley’s 1,000-plus active nonprofit organizations maintain continuity of service goes beyond presenting a novelty-size check for a photo op.

While it’s not a foundation’s role to tell a nonprofit how to do its work, “We’re here to provide support when it comes to the funding stream,” says Shari Harrell, president of the Community Foundation of the Mahoning Valley.

From the initial interview with the applicant, to conversations with community members, to the final report, the steps in the funding process provide foundations with insights to refine their support services. These services are developed and implemented to increase local organizations’ opportunities for success and longevity, which is critical to all foundations’ primary mission of keeping local dollars local and putting them to good use.

Understanding the community’s needs and the donors’ interests, and ensuring grant applicants align with those criteria, are critical to that mission, Harrell says. Resources are finite, so foundations have to direct funds where they will be put to the best use.

“It’s very rare when we think that a request isn’t strong,” Harrell says. “But there is always more need than there is money.”

In 2016, the Community Foundation of the Mahoning Valley awarded more than $1.3 million to 47 recipients among 92 applications. Most of the grants were health-focused.

The fact that need often outweighs resources leads to difficult choices that every foundation has to make, Harrell says. Thus, each applicant must be thoroughly vetted.

Properly vetting an applicant begins with reviewing its application and meeting with its board to ask tough questions, says Jan Strasfeld, executive director of The Youngstown Foundation. How much is the organization asking for? Has it approached other sources for funding? Is the applicant’s board of directors representative of the people it serves? Is it looking for board members, and is it adequately diversified? All of this goes into determining an organization’s direction and sustainability.

“We are working with each organization as part of the whole process of awarding the grant,” Strasfeld says. “I feel I spend as much time working on grant distributions as I do consulting with nonprofits.”

Obtaining diverse sources of funding, Strasfeld says, is important for any organization’s sustainability. Even showing that it’s applied for grants to other foundations sends a good message to foundations and funders. To help, The Youngstown Foundation will sometimes award nonprofits contingency grant.

“We’ll approve X amount of money toward your project, but we won’t write the check until you’re ready to do the project,” Strasfeld says. “That gives them the leverage to go knock on other doors.”

Sometimes funding initiatives to address changing needs require adaptability on the part of the donor. This can be difficult because some donors may have very specific guidelines based on services and personal principles that they believe in, Strasfeld says. Others might be open-minded and want to know how their resources can best be put to use.

An example is the Monday Musical Club Fund, an organization that sponsored musical programs at Stambaugh Auditorium. After 118 years, the club saw its audiences dwindle and its annual performances reduced, so it ended the program in 2014 but continued to finance a fund through the Youngstown Foundation.

Since the money no longer funds musical performances, the foundation worked with the organization to redirect its focus to music education. Strasfeld connected the group with Smarts (Students Motivated by the Arts). In June, Smarts moved into the Ohio One Building downtown, giving it more space for arts education.

Part of the space is a Yamaha Piano Lab where students are instructed in piano as well as musical notation reading, technical exercises and repertoire exploration. After meeting with the executive director of Smarts, Becky Keck, the Monday Musical Club Fund decided to contribute $17,000 to sponsor the piano lab.

“[The Monday Musical Club] had no clue about the piano lab,” Strasfeld says. “So, it’s my job to say to them, ‘Hey, this fits your mission. Do you have interest?’ ”

Not all funding is program-focused. The Youngstown Foundation recognizes that small, grassroots nonprofits don’t have deep pockets. So when unforeseen circumstances arise, emergency funding is available to maintain services.

The foundation’s Crisis Assistance Program provides up to $5,000 that is processed within 48 hours of receipt, Strasfeld says. Agencies are limited to one request per year. The funding helped the local Meals on Wheels program purchase a new freezer that met certain health requirements, otherwise it would have been shut down.

“They applied for our Crisis Assistance Fund and within 24 hours we turned around a check so they could go buy their freezer,” she says.

Foundations typically fund projects from multiple sources, including a general unrestricted fund and any number of unrestricted, restricted and supporting funds. Unrestricted can be used for just about anything, such as educational programs, health care, social services, economic development, arts and culture and the environment.

Typically a foundation will request a final grant report one year after the grant is issued, the Community Foundation’s Harrell says. Foundations want to know if the organization did what it said it would do, if there were changes to the project and why. They look for measured outcomes, final operating costs/budget and lessons learned.

“Sometimes a group will learn that they needed to look at a different outcome or have a different process or implementation,” Harrell says. “Most of the time, you plan things out, but the implementation will be different. So you can change along the way.”

Average grant sizes vary from foundation to foundation. The Community Foundation typically awards grants of $5,000 to $10,000. Youngstown Foundation grants range from $1,000 up to $100,000, depending on available assets. The Raymond John Wean Foundation in Warren is awarding larger grants of $30,000 to $100,000 from its general fund, while its strategic partnership grants with the Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corp. and the Trumbull Neighborhood Partnership can go as high as $400,000.

The Wean Foundation is working to make larger, more significant grants in an effort to promote multi-year operational funding, says its president, Jennifer Roller. “It leaves a lot more time for folks to do the work rather than report to us with updates. It also helps with longer-range planning.”

Of course, having a well-trained staff is important to any organization’s success and longevity. The Wean Foundation uses its regional connections to offer training and professional development opportunities as part of its Capacity Building Program, which focuses on improving an organization’s leadership, adaptability, management and operations.

Foundation staff members attend such training themselves so they can recommend the best opportunities to their constituents. Programs can include technical assistance, consultations on-site, or exposing organizations to opportunities they might not otherwise take advantage of.

“We’ve learned that when it comes to having an impact, if folks have what they need to do it, they do it well,” Roller says. “As a foundation that has built itself on organizational excellence, we want to continue to walk the talk.”

The program includes the foundation’s Capacity Building Series of interactive sessions that give attendees new ideas, strategies and perspectives on certain issues.

This year, the foundation is collaborating with Cleveland Neighborhood Progress to offer the Race, Equity and Inclusion program as part of its Capacity Building Series.

The two-day seminar is completely data-driven and focuses on the history of racial equality and inclusion in the United States. The goal is to foster productive dialogue to develop a shared understanding that lets the community have a serious conversation to find real solutions, Roller says.

“A lot of the times, who we serve in the community doesn’t look like the organization, from executive leadership to board leadership,” Roller says. “We’re on the same team, but we need to get on the same page.”

About 90% of Wean’s staff and board have completed the program, and the remaining members are scheduled to do so. The foundation plans to host three Race, Equity and Inclusion programs in 2018.

Maintaining effective dialogue with community members improves a foundation’s ability to better understand the area’s needs, says Harrell. As such, the Community Foundation collaborates with many community groups, including the Fund for Our Economic Future, the Warren-based Any Given Child, Philanthropy Ohio and the Health Community Initiative.

Through conversations with the latter, the foundation has learned more about local infrastructure issues that affect the health of residents. Issues include access to healthful foods and living in an area that encourages incidental activity, such as walking to school or work. And to address these issues, the Community Foundation is launching its Healthy Community Partnership in 2018.

The foundation has spent the last year speaking with local groups about these issues and will discuss its findings at the Innovations 2.0 Conference Jan. 18 at the Youngstown Jewish Community Center. The goal is to identify what’s important to residents about their health and their lives, and to address any obstacles they face to maintaining good health.

“If we don’t start talking about it, nothing will change,” Harrell says.

Casey Krell, the foundation’s director of supporting organizations and donor services, is spearheading the initiative. In talks with residents, she finds that some don’t feel empowered to be more physically active, so there is a need to increase and maintain the community’s infrastructure, such as sidewalks.

“We know that we need everyone in the community involved, especially the residents, to help make neighborhood changes,” Krell says. “We are building the framework that allows communities to come together to discuss issues and identify strategies.”

As these collaborations become more prominent, foundation executives are hopeful about the future of philanthropy in the Mahoning Valley.

The Youngstown Foundation’s Strasfeld says she recognizes how the face of philanthropy is changing. Agencies are taking steps to educate the younger generations about how they can get involved, and many young philanthropists approach giving much differently from past generations, she says.

“They’re more interested in being part of the solution rather than just writing a check,” she says.

Several young philanthropists have already set up funds with the Youngstown Foundation, as have individuals who live in and around the city. Some of the most generous people make $100,000 or less, and some ride the bus to come downtown to open their fund, she says.

“There’s this whole new energy of talent that’s here making this a better place, and I just think it’s exciting.”

Published by The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.