Barr v. TBF: How Boston's Two Big Funders Compared in 2016

In discussions about the Boston philanthropy scene, two names come up over and over again: the Boston Foundation and the Barr Foundation. We've have extensively covered both of these large and locally focused funders at IP. But when you put them side by side, how do they compare?

One way to answer that question is to take a look at most recent rounds of grantmaking by TBF and Barr, along with what these funders have been doing for the past year.

The Boston Foundation Recap

Last month, TBF announced its latest round of quarterly discretionary grants totaling $1.02 million to nonprofits in the Greater Boston region. These are both single-year and multi-year grants to 18 new grantees, but most of these were for just one year. Arts and culture was the biggest grantmaking category for TBF, followed by jobs and economic development. Meanwhile, other grants went towards neighborhoods and housing and nonprofit effectiveness.

There’s been a big push with this funder to boost college preparedness and neighborhood development lately. Affordable housing was also on the forefront of this funder’s mind in 2016. Unlike in some cities around the country, foundation support for the arts in Boston continues to be very strong, and TBF has played a big role in keeping it that way.

It’s important to remember that TBF is a community foundation, one of the largest in the nation. It has assets of around $1 billion and manages over 1,000 charitable funds set up by donors. Like many large community foundations, its giving ranges across a wide range of issue areas and its structure is complex, with a number of special funds, intiatives, and donor services under its roof. TBF has also been establishing itself as more than just a grantmaker in Boston. It also engages in research and policy analysis, as well as convenings and collaborations, among other activities, as part of its civic leadership role. 

The Barr Foundation Recap

Around the same time of TBF’s final 2016 grantmaking announcement, the Barr Foundation made an announcement of its own. This one comes with a few more million dollars behind it, as Barr committed $28.5 million in new grants for its final push of 2016. In total, Barr made $73.5 million in grants last year, which is the highest amount in the foundation’s history. Check out Jim Canales’ blog post about the milestone year on the foundation blog.  

In comparison to TBF, Barr has a narrower and more focused agenda. It recently completed a strategic planning process that led the foundation to double down in its three key areas climate changes, arts and creativity, and education. The biggest change as part of that process, as we've reported, has been to more tightly focus the foundation's education work around a strategy that aims to "increase the number of youth who connect to secondary and post-secondary success." 

In the most recent grantmaking round, the greatest share of Barr grants went to climate change. Twenty grants totaling $12 million went to this cause in the most recent grant cycle. Topics of interest include clean energy in all of New England, walkable communities, sustainable transportation, and coastal protection. After climate change, 14 grants totaling $7.6 million went to arts and creativity and 15 grants totaling almost $3.6 million went to education.

Barr’s trustees approved a grantmaking budget of $80 million for 2017, which is a nine percent increase from this record-breaking year. It's worth keeping in mind that Barr's benefactors, Amos and Barbara Hostetter, still have considerable wealth they have yet to give to the foundation. This funder's footprint in Boston is likely to grow even larger over time. 


Placing these two foundations side by side is a bit like comparing apples to oranges since one is a community foundation and one is a private foundation. TBF is like the mothership of philanthropy in Boston. It has the support and trust of so many individual donors and wealthy families in the Boston area, and a broad mandate to galvanize more giving in the city to strengthen nonprofits and civic life. Barr has more money to spend on discretionary grants and its influence also looms large, especially in Boston's culture sector right now. But its narrower mission means that it's not much of a player in certain key areas. It's a 900-pound gorilla on some issues, and invisible on others.  

Boston is a small city, and the power of these two foundations makes more than a few people nervous, eliciting plenty of grumbling over the years by nonprofits who've felt that TBF and Barr call too many of the shots in term of what kinds of organizations and approaches win support. Barr has been especially mindful of how its large footprint can be unnerving and you'll often hear its leaders talk about the importance of humility. 

Regardless, both these foundations are likely to only grow larger and become more powerful in the years ahead. At the end of the day, that's very good news for nonprofits in Boston.