Getting to Know the Cynthia & George Mitchell Foundation’s Texas Grantmaking

We recently profiled the Cynthia and Georgia Mitchell Foundation’s localized giving as it relates to Texas nonprofits. This is a funder that we’ve previously brought up because of its science research funding, but it’s also squarely focused on addressing the challenges of sustainability in Texas.

So I connected with Marilu Hastings, Mitchell’s vice president of the sustainability program, to get a better sense of this funder’s grantmaking. We always like to ask foundations what their theory of change is, and sometimes what comes back goes beyond the standard canned response that you might expect. Here’s how Hastings answered:

The Mitchell Foundation’s theory of change is that only well-informed decision-makers, armed with the latest and most robust scientific research and data available— information that is communicated effectively—will be able to make decisions today to protect generations of Texans to come.

Scientific knowledge on complex issues must be useful to end users to inform their decision-making. In fact, applied research should be co-designed with the end user to ensure its value. Research must be cutting edge to solve tomorrow’s problems—ideally preemptively, before problems become intractable. Thus the foundation funds “the next thing,” which includes solutions to a number of issues that we help to identify and define. If science is not accessible and understandable to influencers, leadership, and decision-makers, its findings will be inconsequential even if their importance is critical.

Grounded in the rigor of scientific knowledge, the foundation achieves impact by placing that knowledge in the context of political, social, and cultural dynamics. We call this “knowledge to action,” and it represents a fundamental tenet of our theory of change. Our grantmaking centers on ensuring that community leaders, advocates, and decision-makers are armed with rigorous research, data, and knowledge. Q: What is the theory of change behind your grantmaking? (continued) If we identify gaps in knowledge, we do our best to fill them with strategically focused research funding. If our advocates aren’t communicating vital information effectively, we fund an improved outreach strategy. If decision-makers do not have relevant information in the form and time they need it, we convene meetings with experts to help provide the knowledge that leaders need to make timely decisions. If outdated policies need to be revisited in light of emerging scientific information, we work with grantees to help educate leaders about new knowledge.

Fortunately, the Mitchell Foundation is looking for new grantees. More specifically, it typically looks for grantees that are connected to state and federal government agencies, scientific organizations, and nonprofit networks. Groups that can bridge emerging scientific knowledge and policy options that work are given priority.

However, it is of key importance how prospective grantees demonstrate their understanding of sustainability, policy, and scientific construct within the state of Texas. Since Texas is a conservative “red” state in every sense of the word, strategies that work in other parts of the country don’t necessary work here.

Hastings said:

Our grantees, however, can win here if they have a sophisticated understanding of the political landscape and strong ties to influencers at both the grassroots and leadership levels, are knowledgeable of the complex science of the Texas environment, and are capable of developing robust and innovative strategies that are well communicated.

Right now, the foundation is undergoing a transition and is in the midst of a vigorous planning process that will take a few years to develop. Stay tuned to learn more about two new grantmaking programs: one that’s focused on land conservation and the other about community development in Galveston, Texas. We expect to start seeing the first grants awarded for these new programs in 2019.

When I asked the foundation for a piece of advice that they’d offer to prospective grantees, Hastings suggested that nonprofits should be able to clearly demonstrate the following four things to the program staff:

  1. Your work’s point-of-differentiation with respect to current research or advocacy;
  2. How your work will contribute to the achievement of the foundation’s mission;
  3. How well prepared you are to work effectively in the Texas policy landscape; and
  4. How your work relates to and complements the work of current grantees.

For a list of the types of projects that Mitchell does and doesn't fund, see the foundation’s website. Learn more about this funder in our full profile, Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation: Southwest (Texas) Grants.