Ben & Jerry's Foundation: Grants for Public Health

OVERVIEW: The Ben & Jerry’s Foundation, the philanthropic arm of its ice cream company namesake, is devoted to supporting grassroots efforts for activism and change—with public health protections as a major area of focus.

IP TAKE: Fitting with the populist perception of the ice cream company’s two founders, this foundation seeks to put power in the hands of the people. So while the Ben & Jerry’s Foundation is unquestionably dedicated to protecting the health and wellness of U.S. citizens (notably those historically underserved and overlooked), any programmatic work surrounding this issues must flow from an overt, strategic, constituent-led approach. Better yet, also connect this work to the need for environmental protections and energy safeguards: it's essentially a "must."

PROFILE: The Ben & Jerry’s Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the Vermont-based ice cream company, was established in 1985 with a gift of stock from one of its namesakes, Ben Cohen. The other namesake, Jerry Greenfield, was named president of the foundation. It's a post he still holds--he says he was appointed because he missed the first meeting when positions were decided. Jerry’s claim is a light-hearted one, of course, but it speaks volumes to the way the foundation has evolved over the years.

In 1991, the foundation began a transition into an employee-led group, a model fully realized today. The work of “committee members” (Ben & Jerry’s employees who are on the grant selection teams) on foundation business is considered part of their job at the company. As the foundation’s Director of Programs, Rebecca Golden, put it: “Our internal decision-making structure reflects our core commitment to empowering and elevating the voices of those traditionally without power.”

Indeed, the Ben & Jerry’s Foundation mission statement is “to engage Ben & Jerry's employees in philanthropy and social change work; to give back to our Vermont communities; and to support grassroots activism and community organizing for social and environmental justice around the country.”

In that statement, “social justice” unquestionably includes a commitment to the health of citizens around the U.S., particularly those who have been underserved, marginalized and dismissed. But when it comes to public health, for the Ben & Jerry's Foundation "social justice" is inexorably linked with "environmental justice." The foundation is keenly aware of how environmental protections (or erosions) affect the health of local residents. It is, therefore, keen to support organizations and program work that bridges environmental protections with health and welfare protections for local citizens.

This support occurs through the foundation's Grassroots Organizing Through Social Change program, which is the foundation’s key program for distributing U.S.-wide support. Grants come in good-sized chunks. The foundation states it will award grants up to $25,000; in reality, the vast majority fall within $10,000 - $20,000, and will give for either general operating or project support.

While we’re on the financials: The Ben & Jerry’s Foundation only funds nonprofits with annual operating budgets of $500,000 or less. More substantively, but related to operating budgets, the foundation only funds programs that are unquestionably grassroots-driven, focusing “on the types of activities and strategies an organization uses for creating social change rather than on the specific issues the organization is addressing,” with a Theory of Change that “people most affected by a problem are in the best position to determine the solutions.”

Recently, the foundation awarded a $20,000 grant to the Clean Air Coalition of Western New York, "a grassroots, membership-based  environmental health and justice organization that organizes in marginalized and overburdened communities to pass and enforce policies that protect public health, the environment and advance equity."

    Not surprisingly, the Ben & Jerry’s Foundation has an open grant application process, with two LOI deadlines each year (typically April and October) for its Grassroots Organizing for Social Change program.

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