Forget Jumping Through Hoops: How Does Sustained Support for 10 Years Sound?

In past years, we’ve talked quite a bit about the Cummings Foundation’s hallmark program, $100K for 100. This is the program that funds small and mid-sized nonprofits in the Massachusetts counties of Middlesex, Essex and Suffolk, with hundreds of groups vying for invitations to apply for one of the local grants. As we’ve mentioned before, this annual tradition in the Greater Boston area is part of the foundation’s mandate to donate 90 percent of the founders’ fortune to charity.

Well, this year is the debut of a new program, the Cummings Foundation’s Sustaining Grants Program, so we wanted to take a closer look at this venture. This particular program goes beyond the familiar $100K for 100 support and provides even more support to multi-year winners with grants in their final year. The idea, here, is that the foundation picks out a few of its past winners and gives them annual grant disbursements of $50,000 for undefined extended periods of up to 10 years.

Sounds pretty sweet, right? Better yet, these groups don’t even have to fill out any more applications to get these long-term, yearly disbursements.  

Philanthropy almost never works this way. In fact, it typically works in exactly the opposite way, with nonprofits jumping through hoops year in and year out to get grants renewed. We've long been cheerleaders for the idea that funders should provide more multi-year general operating support, and it's been encouraging to see a greater number of foundations lately embracing this approach. Now, Cummings has taken the concept of "just give them the money" a step further. 

And it’s not just the few fortunate nonprofits receiving Cummings' sustaining support that will benefit from this program. It effectively removes superstar grantees from the pool of yearly $100K for 100 candidates, thereby giving other nonprofits a better chance of winning. This is an interesting measure aimed at spreading the wealth around and giving new groups more opportunities without abandoning the tried-and-true organizations doing exemplary work in Greater Boston. For yet-to-be-recognized nonprofits, this is a definitely a good thing, since this year’s $100K for 100 program drew a record number of grant applicants —549.

So which local groups have earned Cummings’ sustaining support thus far?

Five groups won Sustaining Grants this year, and all of them have a very local focus. CommonWealth Kitchen provides training programs to food companies to create jobs, boost access to healthy food, and strengthen the economy. Generations Inc. uses Cummings money to support volunteer recruitment and training efforts to help children with literacy. Girls Inc. of Greater Lowell is expanding an outreach program for elementary and middle school students. Lawrence CommunityWorks is improving parent engagement at public schools, and UTEC is improving job and education opportunities for post-incarcerated and post-gang youth.   

It's worth mentioning the way the Cummings Foundation made these grants. After bringing the five nonprofits together under the pretext of pitching their project to win, founder Bill Cummings made a surprise announcement that they’d actually already won, and would be sustained for years to come.

“This is such an enormous validation of the work we do,” said Jen Faigel, executive director of one of the sustaining grantees, CommonWealth Kitchen. “For someone to have enough confidence, trust and faith in us to invest in us long-term – that’s really unusual in the nonprofit sector.”

This year, 89 groups were considered by the Cummings Foundation for Sustaining Grants to ultimately choose five. But in 2018, a total of 10 Sustaining Grant grantees will be selected. There is no application process for Sustaining Grants because a Cummings committee hand picks finalists from a pool of previous grantees. In the future, no more than 40 percent of recipients will represent the same cause (education, healthcare, human services, social justice, etc.) or the same Massachusetts county. To date, the Cummings Foundation has given out over $160 million in Greater Boston and has assets topping $1.4 billion.