A Closer Look at One Funder’s Free Cultural Program, and Commitment to Boston

Keeping kids entertained and out of trouble in the summer is a big challenge for parents in any neighborhood. But while families with a little extra cash on hand send kids to summer camps and educational day programs, cultural institution admission fees prohibit low-income parents from even taking their children to the local museum.

This issue doesn’t sit well with the Highland Street Foundation (HSF), which has committed to its eighth year of Free Fun Fridays in Massachusetts. The purpose of this foundation program is to provide free admission to 80 educational and cultural institutions on Fridays, largely in Boston, but all across the state, as well. The program kicked off on June 24, and it isn’t just for Massachusetts residents or kids. You can be from anywhere and at any age to enjoy the best of the state’s museums, zoos, botanical gardens, and cultural sites.

I connected with HSF’s executive director, Blake Jordan, to learn more about this particular foundation program and its overall commitment to the city of Boston.

Jordan explained that Free Fun Fridays, along with many other of the foundation’s programs, break down financial and other barriers and bring the community together to engage in the arts, culture, sports, recreation and education.  “Since 2009, more than 800,000 people have participated in Free Fun Fridays, with an estimated 70% first time visitors,” he shared. “Now in its eighth year with 80 cultural partners, we expect to see 200,000 visitors through the program this summer.”

Although Free Fun Fridays is a statewide HSF program in Massachusetts, not surprisingly, most of the partnering institutions are based in the culturally rich city of Boston. Remember that this is a foundation that’s committed to both Massachusetts and California with its grantmaking. Aside from this cultural program, the bulk of HSF funding goes towards education and job programs that bring stability to families, as well as housing, hunger relief, and economic independence.

But to focus in on Boston and Massachusetts a bit closer, I asked Mr. Jordan what he thought was the biggest local need that needed to be addressed. Here’s what he said:

One of the greatest challenges in the Boston area is the high cost of living and the lack of affordable housing, particularly for those living below the poverty line.  According to the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless, there are more than 3,800 families with children in the Massachusetts’ Emergency Assistance shelter program—485 of these families being sheltered in motels.  There are many programs in place to combat this issue, but given the dynamics of the city, it just isn’t enough.  Highland Street looks to invest in organizations that are coming up with creative solutions to address this complex problem.

For example, in 2003, a group of foundations, including Highland Street, came together to form the Home Funders collaborative. Home Funders pools private dollars to make low-interest loans and grants to developers in order to increase the supply of affordable housing.  To date, 2,000 units of housing for extremely low-income families have been created.  Highland Street will continue to work with the private and public sector to help address this important issue.

HSF was established in 1989 and has committed over $170 million to nonprofits since then. The foundation's dedication to capacity building for local nonprofits is notable. More and more funders are adding capacity building efforts to their grantmaking programs these days. HSF’s capacity building program is geared toward small and mid-sized nonprofits, and Jordan says that every six months, they identify organizations that could benefit from the expertise of outside assistance and pair them with professional consultants, paid for by the foundation.

We’ll leave you today with some final thoughts from Mr. Jordan about Highland Street funding as a guide for local grantseekers:

Highland Street looks for opportunities to partner with organizations that can demonstrate impact and view collaboration as an essential method to create positive and sustainable change in communities. We build deep relationships with our nonprofit partners, identifying those who are the experts and providing them with the resources to do their work.  To build upon the grantmaking strategy, Highland Street invests in the overall fabric of the community by providing programming that has a broad reach.  Initiatives such as Free Fun Fridays which opens museums for free to the public, the Tadpole Ten Summer Series and Winter Camp, which provides enrichment activities to children and families during the summer and winter months, and Out of the Park which brings the community together through the common love of baseball, all contribute to strength, vibrancy and inclusivity of this region.