Ralph M. Parsons Foundation: Los Angeles Grants

OVERVIEW: The Ralph M. Parsons Foundation, which focuses exclusively on Los Angeles, is the kind of stalwart funder that helps make big cities livable, especially for those at the bottom of the income ladder. It supports everything from dental clinics to theaters, often with general operating grants.

IP TAKE: The Parsons Foundation is as transparent as they come, and their excellent website will tell you everything you need to know to access this funder. And rest assured: All inquiries get read, and by the president herself, Wendy Garen. 

PROFILE: A longtime Los Angeles funder, Parsons has a broad impact throughout the region. It funds in four main areas: social impact grants that provide services for underserved populations, higher education grants that improve and expand access to college, health-care grants for disadvantaged populations, and civic and cultural grantmaking.

During his lifetime, Ralph M. Parsons built everything from oil facilities to shipyards, power plants, irrigation projects, airports, subways, and NASA facilities in more than 30 countries. Although he married twice, he never had any children, and he established a philanthropic foundation in 1961 to serve as the charitable arm of his company. Parsons left 600,000 shares of company stock and $4 million in cash to the foundation in his will, allowing the foundation to become fully separate from the engineering company.

At the end of 2013, the Parsons foundation had assets of over $409million and gave out $19.2 million in grants that year. Both assets and giving were up from 2012.

Parsons's money gets spread widely across LA's nonprofit world. Parsons's social impact program is the largest of its programs and has a broad focus, backing a wide array of human service organzations that meet the needs of low-income people. The average social impact grant is $50,000. For fundraisers, it's important to study this program, because a wide range of organizations fit under the social impact umbrella. Parsons's grant database is a valuable resource for anyone who wants a better fix on what this funder is into. 

While higher ed used to make up 50 percent of its funding, it's now just 10 percent. The foundation's health program mainly focuses on community clinics and other providers that serve low-income populations. 

Parsons makes a point of keeping the door open to new grantees and the staff even tracks how well it's doing in this regard, which is not so usual. 

Another interesting thing about Parsons: While it hires program officers with expertise in its program areas, those officers don't have permanent portfolios. Everyone is expected to be a generalist and to weigh in on every proposal. Longtime grantees are rotated to different program officers over time. 

In an interview with IP, president Wendy Garen said that she and her team are super mindful of the inherent imbalance of power between the foundation, with its "big pile of money," as she describes it, and the nonprofits that live or die based on their ability get some of that money. 

To this end, Garen says that making grantees comfortable “is an essential part of our work.” She wants organizations to be at ease enough to really describe their challenges and what would help most to meet them. “Listening is the most important skill set. If you’re really listening, you’re learning a lot.” So Garen puts a high priority on site visits. 

When the foundation talks to nonprofits, Garen says, it wants to hear what groups really need most, not what they think Parsons will fund. 

And here's some more good news about the Ralph M. Parsons Foundation: They've already heard and heeded one of the nonprofit sector's top gripes about funders, which is that they're too stingy with general operating support. Garen says that at least half its grantmaking takes the form of general operating support. Often the program grants that are made come on top of that core support. 

The first step with Parsons is an LOI with financials. Garen herself screens everything that comes into the foundation. Letters are accepted throughout the year, and Parsons selects organizations to submit full proposals within six weeks. If you're asked to submit a proposal, you're likely to get the grant. 

Grants for more than $100,000 are rare with Parsons, so you should keep your award expectations at a moderate level. Only organizations in Los Angeles County are considered, so fortunately you'll only be competing against your neighbors for grant money. Don't bother sending in proposals that have anything to do with the environment, animal welfare, filmmaking, medical research, scholarships, political campaigns, or religious causes. 

Browse the Grantee Database to get a sense of what Parsons supports.

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