Barra Foundation: Philadelphia Grants

OVERVIEW: With a strict focus on the Greater Philadelphia area, the Barra Foundation awards risk capital grants and unrestricted core support grants in the fields of arts & culture, education, health, and human services. Past grants have been between $50,000 and $150,000.

FUNDING AREAS: Arts & Culture, Education, Health and Human Services

IP TAKE: While some funders shy away from risk, Barra embraces it. Around 75 percent of Barra’s grants ($3 million per year) go to local groups with experimental approaches that are pushing boundaries to create change. 

PROFILE: The late Robert McNeil, Jr., who was once the chairman of McNeil Laboratories, established the Barra Foundation in 1963 to support the Greater Philadelphia region. McNeil grew up in the Germantown area of Philadelphia and turned the family business into a major pharmaceutical company. McNeil Laboratories is credited for products like Tylenol and Butisol, and the company was purchased by Johnson & Johnson in the late 1950s.

Since 2014, Barra’s funding structure has been streamlined into the Catalyst Fund and the Barra Awards. The foundation provides risk capital for bold ideas through the Catalyst Fund and core support through the Barra Awards to advance innovation in and around Philadelphia. The Philadelphia-based Sage Communications has worked with Barra on its communications strategy, strategic plan, and foundation brand identity.

Barra provides risk capital and core support and describes itself as having “risk tolerance for organizations exploring, testing or launching novel approaches.” This is a great local foundation to present an unorthodox approach to and have honest conversations about risk and failure.

The foundation's current program areas are arts & culture, education, and health and human services. Throughout his lifetime, Robert McNeil was a big supporter of the arts. All programs except arts & culture should target low-income families and communities.

The purpose of the Catalyst Fund is to support ideas in their early stages and applicants should focus on one of the four areas of interest. The foundation likes to support organizations that stress strong leadership in their operations and take an experimental approach. Interested groups can submit online letters of inquiry, which are accepted on a rolling basis; the foundation typically responds within 45 days. The foundation considers requests at quarterly board meetings.

Unlike Catalyst Fund grants, the Barra Awards fund core support and are set at $25,000 per grantee for two-year periods. This is unrestricted funding with maximum flexibility. There is no LOI process for this grant program, owing to the foundation's nomination process to choose grant recipients. Community leaders make the nominations, and up to 10 nominators are selected in each of the four interest areas. Recommendations are due in May, applications in July, and awards typically announced in December. These grants are only awarded every two years.

At the end of a recent year, the foundation reported over $97 million in assets and more than $4.3 million in total giving. Those figures are up from recent years. Overall, grant amounts are between $1,000 and $120,000. Of the $4 million that Barra gives out per year on average, about $1 million goes to the Barra Awards and $3 million to Catalyst Fund grantees. A list of current grantees is available on the foundation website. The foundation has supported the 21st Century Partnership for STEM Education, Jounce Partners, Youth Sentencing & Reentry Project, and the Mayor’s Fund for Philadelphia.

Today, the Barra Foundation is based in Wayne, Pennsylvania, and run by a board of about a dozen and a staff of four. There’s a president, two program officers, and an administrative assistant on staff. To learn more about the topics and issues that the foundation staff and board care about, check out the Explore page, Ideas and Innovations that Inspire page, and follow the foundation on Twitter.


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