Balancing Act: A Big New York Funder Mixes Responsive Grantmaking With Enduring Goals

photo:  Stephan Guarch/shutterstock

photo:  Stephan Guarch/shutterstock

Rapid-response grantmaking continues to be a hot topic in the foundation world, with funders scrambling to react to federal policy changes. Trump administration policies have had especially profound implications for major cities and we've reported often on emergency grantmaking by top local funders concerned about immigrants and other vulnerable communities.  

But one question that needs to be asked is what's happening to funding in other issue areas as foundations have engaged in new battles over the past year? Which types of programs and priorities may be suffering as a result of rapid-response grantmaking? 

There's clearly a need for balance here and its interesting to see how some funders are managing that balance. One example to look at is the New York Community Trust (NYCT). We've highlighted some of NYCT's responsive grantmaking since the 2016 election. But what's been happening with its other funding priorities? 

Related: Money Out the Door: A New York Funder's Rapid-Response Grantmaking

NYCT looms large in the life of New York City nonprofits, disbursing $124.5 million in 2016. Most of its grants go out through its donor-advised funds, but the foundation's staff also directs monies, and we've kept an eye on where those grants have been going in the past year. Last April, the foundation announced over $5.6 million in grants to 54 nonprofits. Although many of these grants were direct responses to federal policy, others addressed longstanding problems in the city. Looking at these grants it was clear that NYCT was still very much on top of supporting a whole host issues it's long cared about, such as educational equity, workforce development, arts and culture, and homelessness. In addition to providing grants that address threats of deportation for immigrants, for example, NYCT has also been supporting groups like the Rockaway Waterfront Alliance as a way to address high obesity rates and diabetes.

December's grantmaking round is also worth looking at and reveals a similar pattern. The foundation made 44 grants totaling $6 million to address everything from flood protection for New York homeowners, the city's mass transit system, and home-based child care.  

Quite a few NYCT grants seem to be a hybrid between responding to recent events and working on problems issues that have been around all along. For example, the funder gave a $75,000 grant to the Black Women’s Blueprint to address hate crimes that involve sexual assault. This was a responsive grant in that the Department of Justice’s Office on Violence Against Women is facing defunding and the Violence Against Women Act is at risk of not being reauthorized. However, the grant also recognizes a persistent need in the city that would exist with or without this legislation: domestic violence. The Black Women’s Blueprint grant went towards developing a hotline for violence victims, counseling, and advocacy efforts for federal funding.

In terms of education, non-emergency NYCT grants have been going to improve early education in the South Bronx, college access, and other areas. A youth development grant has been helping to recruit volunteer software developers to teach website development to high school students. NYCT money has also been going towards reforming cash bail laws and policies, helping foster care children stay in school, and bringing arts to low-income neighborhoods.

In the most recent round of NYCT grantmaking, topics of interest with the most grants awarded were youth and the environment. Youth grants are going towards things like helping young adults find jobs and helping immigrants and girls succeed. Meanwhile, environment grants touch on climate change resilience, clean energy, and air pollution. None of these are emergency grants, per se, but they are responsive to what's going on in our country right now. 

It’s easy to see overtones of immigrant protection, minority engagement, policy advocacy throughout NYCT’s grantmaking portfolio. And equity influences are only getting stronger with each grant cycle that passes. But what’s important to remember here is that the issues that have always been around are still around, and that they won’t be going anywhere while funders shift their focus.

The rise of rapid-response grantmaking has been fascinating to watch, especially since foundations have long been criticized for being slow to act. But emergency-driven strategies aren’t sustainable for the long-term, and funders need to find that delicate balance between being responsive and sticking with core priorities.  NYCT seems to be doing a great job in this regard.