Sure and Steady: A Foundation That's a Big Believer in Multi-Year Support

 ESB Professional/shutterstock

ESB Professional/shutterstock

If there's one thing that nonprofits may want from foundations even more than general operating grants, it's multi-year support. Such commitments help stabilize organizations' finances and allow them to focus more on their mission and less on the incessant fundraising that can preoccupy executive directors. Yet many foundations still don’t offer multi-year support—despite years of pleas by grantees and groups like Grantmakers for Effective Organizations.

Which is why we've been paying attention to an effort by a Boston funder that’s taking multi-year support to a whole new level by providing a full decade of continuous support by way of $20,000 to $50,000 checks each consecutive year.

Last year, the Cummings Foundation debuted a new initiative, the Sustaining Grants Program, that involved picking a few past grantees and giving them steady, ongoing support without requiring new applications year after year.

We've never come across a program like this before, although in practice, foundations often renew support for the same grantees over long periods, even decades in some cases. But it makes a big difference to indicate such lasting commitment in advance, helping executive directors to sleep more soundly at night.

It's not suprising to see this unusual program emerging from the Cummings Foundation. Recently, we profiled the man behind the foundation, Bill Cummings, who, along with his wife Joyce, has been one of philanthropy's quiet trailblazers. Over many decades, Cummings built up a real estate empire in suburban Boston and then transferred ownership of most of these assets to the foundation that he and Joyce created in 1986. With nearly $2 billion in assets, it's now one of the largest foundations in New England. 

As this backstory suggests, Bill Cummings understands the long game and what it takes to nurture strong organizations. Whereas many foundations give what's been called "buy" capital—offering targeted, time-limited support to achieve specific goals—Cummings has long provided "build" capital, providing funds to strengthen the overall capacity of nonprofits. Before launching its Sustaining Grants Program, the foundation was already well known for giving out $100,000 general support grants every year to 100 Boston-area nonprofits.

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Last year, 89 groups were considered by the Cummings Foundation for sustained support, and the funder picked five to support for the long term. This year, Cummings ramped that up, selecting 33 of the 90 nonprofits it considered to support for up to 10 years. These grants are in addition to the 100 grants of $100,000 each that it will award next month after considering 597 applicants.

“Long-term financial support is rare for nonprofits, making fundraising a constant and time-consuming task,” Joyce Vyriotes, deputy director of Cummings Foundation, said in a press release. “The Sustaining Grants are intended to provide some relief, allowing these organizations to focus more of their time and energy on delivering and enhancing their important services.”

The winners of these sustaining grants were chosen by a volunteer committee of 40 people that included everyone from a retired Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court justice to CEOs of Greater Boston companies and a Boston Globe reporter. These committee members made multiple site visits to each potential grantee to learn about how each group would put 10 years of support to good use. To keep the support locally focused, all of these nonprofits were located in Essex, Middlesex and Suffolk counties of Massachusetts. The list of new sustained support grantees includes Express Yourself, Silver Lining Mentoring, WriteBoston and Improbable Players.

The Cummings Foundation has given over $200 million so far to Boston area groups. Bill and Joyce Cummings plan to give the entirety of their fortune away eventually, and Bill has a new book out called Starting Small and Making It Big, which is all about the entrepreneur’s journey to become a billionaire philanthropist.