Opening the Door: A Funder Steps Outside Its Programs Areas


It's a perennial tension within foundations: How much do you stick to a focused grantmaking strategy, working in a disciplined way to move the needle on specific goals—versus leaving the door open to new things that come along? If you're too rigid about your priorities, you can miss great opportunities. But if you start chasing shiny objects in the distance, you can end up with little impact to show. 

Foundations try to have their cake and eat it, too, in various ways. Maybe they'll have a basket for special projects and pilot initiatives, or an annual contingency fund for unexpected opportunities, or maybe they'll give their president a discretionary pot of money to work with. 

The Boston Foundation has been doing a bit of its own dabbling lately with its Open Door Grants program, which is interesting to take a quick peek at. TBF recently announced that it would award $649,733 to 24 nonprofits, mostly in the Greater Boston area, for causes that aren’t aligned with the funder’s current strategies. This TBF program is still relatively new and in its early stages. 

“The Open Door Grants program is unique, and in many ways, a throwback,” said Paul S. Grogan, president and CEO of TBF. “As its name suggests, it is an open process and responds to the expressed needs of the community. We continue to maintain and grow a robust grantmaking program in our major impact areas. But the Open Door Grants program is an excellent way for us to also help those whose work is focused on other areas.”

You can see why keeping the door open, or at least ajar, might be especially important to community foundations, which have a mandate to be responsive to local needs. More broadly, we live in an era of profound inequities when more questions are arising regarding whether wealthy foundations are doing enough to help their neighbors. (Just ask MacArthur about that.) But keeping the door open also makes sense as a way to get input on what challenges and opportunities people are seeing in their communities right now. We've written lately about a few other local funders thinking along these lines, such as the Chicago Community Trust, with its On the Table initiative. 

Related: If "Everything Happens at Parties," This Funder Is on the Right Track

TBF's new Open Doors grants are all for a one-year period and range from $10,000 to $50,000 each. TBF has encouraged local nonprofits to seek out these grants to meet existing needs and also test new innovations.

It’s especially interesting to see how this recent round of TBF grants played out and were divided up. Ten of the latest 24 grants went to established nonprofits with which TBF was already quite familiar. However, seven of them went toward building organizational capacity, and the final seven went to groups that are in an innovative stage of development.

Some of the causes that these grants support include a home visiting program for pregnant and postpartum women, training for trauma treatment, drop-in services for Chinese-speaking elders, and weightlifting programs to reduce youth violence. You can view a full list of the new Open Door grantees, their projects, and the amounts they received here.

Open Door grants offer both general operating support and project support, and special funds are set aside for organizations that work with seniors and people with disabilities. 

Of course, this isn’t the only grantmaking effort that TBF has put up lately, and it’s still awarding the bulk of its grants within well-established funding areas that closely align with its overarching goals. TBF’s current goals have been in place since 2009 and will continue to be the focus until at least 2020. To recap, the five impact areas with ongoing funding opportunities are education, health and wellness, jobs and economic development, neighborhoods and housing, and arts and culture.

Just days before the Open Doors grants announcement, the funder also awarded $1.69 million in quarterly discretionary grants to 21 groups working within these five issue areas in the Greater Boston region. The bulk of these (nine grants) went toward arts and culture, followed by jobs and economic development (eight grants). The arts grants were between $5,000 and $200,000 and went toward a mix of dance, theater, music, literature, and public art installations. The largest art grant, though, went to the City of Boston to hire a new communications director in the Mayor’s Office of Arts and Culture and advance the city’s cultural plan. Meanwhile, the jobs and economic development grants were between $15,000 and $350,000 and went towards things like training programs in food services, software code literacy for at-risk youth, and understanding healthy food.