Another Funder Who Gets the Need for General Support

The Marin Community Foundation (MCF) just announced a new $5 million commitment to local safety net services. And it’s going about it in a way that will make nonprofits cheer: two-year general support grants.

The context is that Marin County is becoming increasingly split between the “haves” and the “have nots,” and the economic divide is growing wider by the year. The rich aren’t necessarily helping the poor here, and there’s a disconnect leaving local nonprofits stretched and strained.

Worse, many human service providers spend endless time hustling after small program grants—even though, unfortunately, the core work of these groups is likely to be ongoing for the foreseeable future. MCF’s president, Thomas Peters, acknowledged this problem in offering up a different funding approach: “To make it formally a two-year grant helps to certify the essential nature of the services and also to help them both plan and fundraise.”

Because this MCF money comes in the form of unrestricted funds, Marin county groups can use this cash in a flexible fashion, based on their most pressing needs. Local nonprofits here have expressed concerns about receiving restricted funds designated for only certain activities because they offer such a wide variety of services to address community needs. Two-year grants give these groups a bit of “wiggle room” to stabilize themselves and not be stuck on the program support treadmill.

Homeward Bound and Canal Alliance came out the big winners in this recent MCF grant cycle, with both receiving $800,000 two-year grants. Homeward Bound, for example, is the only homeless shelter in Marin County and has just 25 beds. This grant will not only help the long shelter stay open during a federal funding gap, but potentially expand its offerings to accommodate the growing need.

MCF funding has gone through some significant changes in the past decade, which have been interesting to watch. It used to designate 70 percent of Buck Trust grants for existing nonprofits’ operations, but since 2006, it’s been equally interested in new initiatives. A lot of Marin County nonprofits have gone under during this time period, yet MCF funding has remained at a pretty constant level. Local groups shouldn’t expect to see a whole lot more money flowing from MCF in the years ahead, but the way that MCF is using its resources with these unrestricted two-year grants could make a huge difference in keeping nonprofits afloat during challenging and transitional times.

MCF distributed $39 million in Buck Trust money to local groups in Marin County last year. The majority of those grants went towards ending the cycle of poverty, closely followed by reducing the educational achievement gap.

Overall, the community funder manages about $1.6 billion in total assets and awards approximately $60 million in annual grants. Key funding areas here are education, economic opportunity, health, and the environment. Separate from its grantmaking programs, MCF also has a loan fund to help nonprofits secure funding when that can’t obtain commercial loans because of a perceived risk.