How K-12 Education Funders Can Be Inspired By the Bothin Foundation

By solely providing capital grants that build capacity, the Bothin Foundation takes a refreshingly different—and enormously useful—approach to support for direct service nonprofits in K-12 education and beyond. Though this foundation limits its support to the Bay Area, foundations and funders working elsewhere could serve their community's K-12 education programs in similarly meaningful and impactful ways.

Some background: the Bothin Foundation is a long-standing institution, established back in 1917 by Henry E. Bothin, the so-called “Philanthropist of Steel.”

These days, the Bothin Foundation (pronounced "bo-THEEN") provides support for social services, education, the arts and environmental programs that engage with low-income families and youth, or individuals with disabilities.

While the Bothin Foundation has a broad focus in terms of causes, it has a narrow way of supporting them. It only provides capital investment grants intended to build the capacity of the nonprofit funded. The foundation's idea of capacity includes building improvements, vehicles, equipment and technology infrastructure (especially if it’s directly used by program participants).

Back in a 1999 interview, Lyman Casey, the foundation’s media-shy current President of the Board of Trustees, noted, “We give some of the least sexy grants probably ever done.” He cited septic tanks as an example, and added, “We're probably the only foundation to ever do that!”

The unsexiness of their funding is a point of pride for Bothin, precisely because they're one of the few willing to spend on needs like those mentioned above. Its application doesn't explicitly ask about outputs, outcomes or measurement/evaluation systems, as so many funders do. Rather, because the Bothin Foundation is looking to fund “durable” investments that “directly impact clients,” and projects that are immediately necessary or time-sensitive, it asks applicants to address its program in that context.

A sampling of K-12 education programs that have recently benefitted from the Bothin Foundation's approach include:

The Bothin Foundation might enjoy some luxuries other funders do not. For starters, it is a family foundation, so it is not beholden to as many other entities as corporate foundations/giving programs are. Furthermore, as an established and widely respected philanthropic organization, it doesn't seem to worry about optics, and need not prioritize the quick marketing and press releases opportunities that could accompany newsier grants.

Not every funder has these luxuries, but it would be good if others could find a way to address these significant needs for K-12 education program capital improvements.

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Bothin Foundation: Bay Area Grants