By solely making capital grants that build capacity, the Bothin Foundation takes a refreshingly different—and enormously useful—approach to supporting direct service nonprofits serving girls and women. Though this foundation limits its support to the Bay Area, foundations and funders immersed elsewhere could serve their community's direct service programs in similarly meaningful and impactful ways.
Some background: the Bothin Foundation is a long-standing institution, established back in 1917 by Henry E. Bothin, a so-called “Philanthropist of Steel.”
These days, the Bothin Foundation (pronounced "bo-THEEN") provides support for social services, education, the arts and environmental programs that substantially engage with low-income families and youth, or individuals with disabilities. Its giving history shows it doesn't hesitate to concentrate on female constituencies within these groups.
While the Bothin Foundation has a broad focus in terms of causes it will support, it has a narrow way of supporting them. The foundation solely provides capital investment grants intended to build the capacity of the nonprofit being funded. Examples include building improvements, vehicles, equipment and technology infrastructure (especially if it’s directly used by program participants).
Back in a 1999 interview, Lyman Casey, the foundation’s media-shy current President of the Board of Trustees, noted, “We give some of the least sexy grants probably ever done.” He cited septic tanks as an example, and added, “We're probably the only foundation to ever do that!”
Being unsexy is a point of pride for Bothin, precisely because it understands the need to support such unglamorous needs. Its application doesn't explicitly ask about outputs, outcomes, or measurement/evaluation systems, as so many funders do. Rather, because the Bothin Foundation is looking to fund “durable” investments that “directly impact clients,” and projects that are immediately necessary or time-sensitive, it asks applicants to address its program in that context.
Here is a sampling of the wide range of programs specifically serving women and girls that have recently benefitted from the Bothin Foundation's approach:
- $50,000 to The Living Room Center (Santa Rosa) to install a commerical kitchen serving homeless women and children
- $40,000 to the Homeless Prenatal Program (San Francisco) to upgrade the flooring of its family resource center
- $35,000 to GirlVentures (San Francisco) to purchase kayaks and related equipment
- $25,000 to the YWCA Sonoma County (Santa Rosa) to isntall security upgrades for its emergency shelter
- $7,500 to Women's Recovery Services (Santa Rosa) to replace its heating system.
The Bothin Foundation might enjoy luxuries that other funders do not. For starters, it is a family foundation, so it is not beholden to as many other entities as corporate foundations/giving programs are. Furthermore, as an established and widely respected philanthropic organization, it does not worry much about optics, and so doesn't prioritize the marketing and press release opportunities that can accompany newsier grants.
Not every funder has these luxuries, but it would be good if others could find a way to address these significant needs for women's and girls' programs nevertheless.