Over the past year or so, we’ve been closely watching the Mayor’s Fund for Los Angeles, an unusual public-private model. This grantmaker is different than the other types of foundations we typically cover in L.A. and elsewhere. It's a pass-through funder and matchmaker that mobilizes money from an array of private donors and pursues its mission of improving life for all Angelenos in close collaboration with public city programs. While New York City has long had a mayor's fund, as well as several other philanthropic entities that partner with the city, this model is still pretty new outside of Gotham, so it's been interesting to watch how the Mayor’s Fund for Los Angeles has been faring.
- Amid a Rising Philanthropy Scene in LA, the New Mayor’s Fund Has Been a Hit
- "The Model Works." A Look at How the Mayor’s Fund for Los Angeles Is Doing
The fund caught our attention this spring by awarding its first-ever SPARK grants, which the fund's president, Deidre Lind, describes as civic-focused venture funding. This move isn’t a change of course, but rather an addition to ongoing programming in order to jumpstart local civic projects.
The fund awarded its first six SPARK grants in the form of unrestricted dollars. Essentially, this is critical startup financing aimed at getting new programs off the ground and into a position of long-term sustainability. Such venture-style grantmaking is becoming more popular these days, as we often report, but it comes with risks: Backing newer projects that might yet fizzle is more of a gamble than supporting organizations with proven track records and can worsen the fragmentation within a crowded nonprofit sector where funders already have too many mouths to feed.
I asked Deidre Lind why now is the right time to provide this type of support, as opposed to project-specific funds to established groups.
With our third year upon us, we felt confident that we had our operations and finances structured appropriately to allow us to tap into our resources to pilot the SPARK fund program. We also knew that there were a number of projects and ideas ready for a 'spark’. Our first two years were shaped by carefully tailored matches between donors and existing programs. Year three found us with the staff capacity and the means to experiment and reach farther.
All of the new SPARK grants were between $10,000 and $150,000 and awarded to the following: Community Engagement on Homelessness, Public-Private Partnership for Cybersecurity, Translation of Small Business Portal & Creation of Standalone Spanish Site, Madrid Cultural Hub Planning, Collateral Consequences Reentry Legal Clinic, and Mayor’s Youth Council: Policing in Los Angeles.
What all of these programs have in common is that they align with Mayor Garcetti’s vision for economic prosperity, quality of life, efficiency, and sustainability. Among other things, this includes supporting local businesses, entrepreneurs, and artists. The criminal justice system, law enforcement relations, and vacant lots have also been hot topics lately.
Looking forward, Lind and her team will be watching the results of this pilot program and reassessing things later in the year to determine what happens next. To get this far, the Fund, Mayor’s office, and other city departments have worked together to identify what civic needs would best fit this grant program. Lind elaborated to say:
When we look at all of our programs, we ask: Is this innovative? Does it have proven results and need a fiscal path in order to scale up? Does it advance one of our core principles of economic prosperity, community resiliency, quality of life and governmental efficiency? With SPARK grants, we add a question: is it falling between the cracks of what existing philanthropic and business-sector partners want to fund? SPARK grants give us the ability to go from being matchmakers to being grantmakers, and they take special advantage of our position next to City Hall to allow us to help start up programs with great potential.
It's important for nonprofits in Los Angeles to know that SPARK grants go to civic/government-based projects, so not just any fledging nonprofit group can get in on this game.
In other news from the past few months, in April the Mayor’s Fund won an award as part of the 2017 U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary’s Award for Public-Philanthropic Partnerships. According to a press release, the fund was recognized for supporting and broadening the reach of Summer Night Lights, a public parks program that has resulted in lower neighborhood crime rates.