Cross-Program and Special Initiatives: What Barr Funds Outside Its Normal Program Areas

Boston waterfront. photo:  Richard Cavalleri/shutterstock

Boston waterfront. photo:  Richard Cavalleri/shutterstock

In our past coverage of the Barr Foundation, we’ve focused on its three main areas of giving: education, climate and the arts. These continue to be Barr’s bread and butter, as evidenced by the funder’s third quarter of grantmaking for the year. The board recently approved $12.3 million in grants in addition to the $3.6 million approved earlier in the third quarter.

Nearly $7.8 million of the recent sum went toward education, the grantmaking area that has seen the biggest changes in recent years. Meanwhile, Barr awarded $4.6 million to climate and clean energy causes, and nearly $1.3 million toward arts and creativity groups in the New England region.

But Barr also makes quite a few grants that fall outside these three categories. In the most recent round of grantmaking, Barr awarded four new grants totaling $450,000 to cross-program initiatives and also $500,000 for two grants to strengthen civil liberties and democracy. These grants don’t necessarily fall into Barr’s big three grantmaking programs, which is why we think they’re worth a closer look.

Cross-program initiatives at Barr are designed to complement the funder’s core programs and deepen its commitment to the Boston region. It pursues these goals in three ways: investing in leadership, supporting research and analysis, and funding capacity building efforts to strengthen the philanthropic sector.

Most recently, Barr awarded a $75,000 grant to TSNE MissionWorks to help pay for a nine-month Emerging Consultants Training program to improve employee leadership skills. It's awarded other cross-program initiative support to Boston Community Capital for an evaluation of the Working Cities Challenge’s sustainability intervention, the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation for capacity building, and the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative for strategic planning.

Most of these grants are initiated by the staff and not open to applications. Also, a significant number of these cross-program initiative grants go to long-term grantees that have received Barr’s support for many years. However, groups who want to introduce their causes for the first time are welcome to reach out to Barr’s manager of special projects, Trevor Pollack, with a 300 to 400-word pitch.

Meanwhile, as we've previously reported, Barr is one of the many funders that's been alarmed by policy shifts toward immigrants and new challenges to the media. In February, Barr president Jim Canales wrote a blog post in February titled "In Changing Times, Philanthropy Must Adapt." He said that "the most effective strategies are never static," and "must be refined and adapted based on what we learn along the way, and in response to change." Canales affirmed Barr's longtime core areas of grantmaking and strategies, but said the foundation needed to go beyond these priorities because "the moment compels us to engage." 

That engagement took the form of a new special initiative program launched in February "to respond to dramatic shifts in the national context, to increased polarization, and to growing concerns about equity and opportunity for vulnerable populations." By April, Barr had made close to $2.5 million in grants as part of this initiative, including to at least seven journalism organizations in partnership with the Heising-Simons Foundation. 

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The most recent grantmaking round sent more money out the door as part of this special initiative. Barr awarded a $200,000 special initiative grant to the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation to support the Greater Boston Immigrant Defense. The funder also awarded a special initiative grant to WGBH Educational Foundation to support the group’s investigative reporting capacity. 

Barr's grantmaking for the special initiative now stands at 18 grants totaling over $3.1 million. You can see a full list of the grantees here.

One other big Barr Foundation interest that doesn't fit neatly in its normal programs is Boston's waterfront. Here, Barr is most concerned with providing parks and open spaces, making those space accessible to everyone, and ensuring that waterfront development isn’t in conflict with the city’s resilience to climate change. Barr has now awarded 13 grants totaling over $6.6 million for this cause since the initiative was established in 2016.