Surdna Foundation: Grants for Higher Education


OVERVIEW: The Surdna Foundation has three focus areas: Sustainable Environments, Strong Local Economies, and Thriving Cultures. There is not a program dedicated exclusively to higher education, but these focus areas connect to higher ed by supporting research, efforts to implement a wide range of programs in the arts, and increasing the number of local minority, immigrant, or women-owned businesses.

IP TAKE: Many Surdna grants include a concern with advancing social justice, offering tangible benefits to underserved communities, and sharing of best practices, so be sure to consider those goals when crafting your funding request. 

PROFILE: Founded in 1917 by John Andrus, a successful medicine manufacturer and distributor, the Surdna foundation is still in large part managed by his descendants. Its mission today is to foster “sustainable communities in the United States,” which it defines as being “guided by principles of social justice and distinguished by healthy environments, strong local economies, and thriving cultures.” Under that umbrella, the foundation’s three main programs are called Sustainable Environments, Strong Local Economies, and Thriving Cultures.

The Thriving Cultures program is "based on a belief that communities with robust arts and culture are more cohesive and prosperous, and benefit from the diversity of their residents." Within this program are four sub-programs that higher ed fundraisers should be aware of: Teens' Artistic and Cultural Advancement, directed at “artistic training programs” to express identity and prepare for careers; Community Engaged Design “to involve artists, architects and designers in community-engaged problem solving and development"; Artists and Economic Development, giving artists “business training and financial resources” so they can contribute meaningfully to their communities; and Artists Engaging in Social Change, enabling artists to be “catalysts for social change and to promote the cultural traditions of their communities.”

Thriving Cultures grants provide a several types of support within the sub-programs, including general operating grants, scholarship endowments, performance and visual art installation, and arts and education projects in hip hop, theater, and dance, respectively.

The goal of Surdna's Sustainable Environments program is "working to overhaul our country’s outdated and crumbling infrastructure with a new approach that will foster healthier, sustainable, and just communities." In particular, it seeks to support efforts to increase community sustainability through energy efficiency, sustainable transportation networks, better water management, and "making it easier to get local, sustainably produced food from our farms to the markets closest to where it’s grown." While there is no regional focus, the emphasis here is on improvements to cities and their surrounding suburbs. In recent years, about three to four colleges and universities a year have earned funding from this program, with grants ranging in size from $15,000 to $450,000 (the latter being dedicated to local recovery efforts after Hurricane Sandy under a funding stream that is no longer active).

Finally, Surdna's Strong Local Economies program targets its efforts at improving those economies by enabling "upward economic mobility among communities that have experienced historical economic barriers, including low-income people, communities of color, women, and immigrants." The three sub-programs in this area are Business Development and Acceleration, which works to raise the number of local businesses "that are owned by people of color, women, and immigrants"; Equitable Economic Development, which works to ensure that the voices of local communities are included during economic development decision making; and Job Quality and Pathways, which increases access for low-income people to higher-paying positions, and improves working conditions for low-income workers. Universities earning funding under this sub-program have received support for studies and the initiation of new programs to translate those aspirations into a reality.

If you are considering seeking funds, start by reviewing the foundation’s guidelines before submitting a letter of inquiry (accepted year-round). If, after a thorough review, you still have questions, the foundation suggests emailing or contacting the Grants Manager. Reviewing Surdna’s past grants is also helpful, but keep in mind that grants from before 2013 were awarded prior to the revision of the foundation’s mission and funding guidelines.

Keep in mind that the foundation seeks programs that will creatively “use arts and culture to make communities more just and sustainable,” and will serve communities of color and those of low income. It prefers to fund organizations that demonstrate “a capacity and willingness to share best practices and knowledge with their colleagues and others in the field.” Grantseekers should also be aware that while the foundation does support scholarship programs, it does not endow such programs (or offer endowments of any kind), nor does it award grants for academic fellowships.


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