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Forward Momentum

Community Foundation Takes Innovative Approach Amid “Twin Pandemics”

The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven is one of the oldest foundations of its kind in the country, dating back to 1928 – but that doesn’t mean it’s entirely set in its ways.

Established three generations ago as the community’s permanent charitable endowment, the foundation oversees contributions made by thousands of donors to improve the Greater New Haven region. It is the region’s largest grant maker and one of the largest community foundations in the nation.

Its mission – to support and collaborate with people and organizations to build a more connected, inclusive, equitable, and philanthropic community – guides its leaders, staff, and investments.

In January, the foundation announced the launch of Stepping Forward, a three-year commitment of $26 million to address the “twin pandemics” of COVID-19 and racial injustice. The effort marks a major increase in the foundation’s grantmaking and other spending, as well as new monies for endowed funds.

As part of Stepping Forward, the foundation has launched three new permanent endowments: the Racial Equity Fund, the Basic Needs Fund, and the Civic Engagement and Awareness Fund. New grantmaking priorities will include grants for immediate COVID relief; grants and leadership development support for nonprofits led by people of color; grants to those working, advocating and organizing to change racial inequalities in health, education, employment, housing, and civic participation; and arts grants that advance racial equity and community healing from the pandemic.

“A Moment of Opportunity”

“It is adding to our traditional ways of doing business,” Community Foundation for Greater New Haven President and CEO William Ginsberg says of the initiative. The time has come for innovative solutions, he adds.

“This is a moment when we need to do things differently and we need to go deeper than we have before,” he says. “Like everyone else, our world and our sense of what we can contribute changed in March of 2020 with the COVID tsunami. We very rapidly changed our focus to COVID, changed our processes to get money out more quickly, changed our entire plan for last year.”

With most of its typical grantmaking for the year done by mid-2020, the foundation’s leaders knew last summer and into the fall they had to do something to help area nonprofits that were seeing – and continue to experience – a surge in demand amid the pandemic.

The foundation typically raises money for an endowment but, with Stepping Forward, is raising money for current use as well as the endowment, says Ginsberg.

Of the $26 million needed for the initiative’s commitment over the next three years, $15 million will mark an increase over the foundation’s current spending. The other $11 million is money the foundation is working to add to its endowment; it has already raised $6 million toward that goal, according to Ginsberg.

This marks the first time the foundation has sought to grow its endowment on such a large scale, he says, but unprecedented times call for such measures.

The pandemic era has undoubtedly been challenging for many, and need in the community has never been greater, but Ginsberg believes it also offers new opportunities to make a difference, noting new ideas and new energy are emerging. “We see this as a moment of opportunity,” he says.

Stepping Forward will enable the foundation to support service providers and change-makers, many of them minority-led, that may not have had a seat at the table before, he adds.

The Power of Partnership

While the foundation hopes to make a meaningful impact with Stepping Forward, it won’t do it alone.

“We’re looking for anyone to join this extraordinary effort. We don’t look to this Stepping Forward effort as a solitary effort; we’re looking to join partners,” says Flemming Norcott Jr., chairman of the foundation’s board of directors and retired Connecticut Supreme Court justice.

Partner organizations, individuals and donors all will play integral roles in making the initiative a success, he says. The problems Stepping Forward addresses – systemic racial inequality, income disparity, and other deep-seated issues – have been part of our society all along, but the pandemic has amplified the urgency for action, he says.

“There’s never going to be enough money to completely address all the needs and all the issues. We are just the vanguard at a momentous time in this country’s history. If we don’t do something, then we’re really in bad shape as a country and as a community,” Norcott says. “We’re holding out our arms in invitation for others to join us.”

He adds that while this is a new approach for the foundation, “we’re not abandoning our traditional role as stewards of our donors’ money.” Rather, the focus of the new initiative is a step beyond what the foundation does and has long stood for.

Ginsberg says community foundations across the nation have launched similar efforts – in places like Boston, Seattle, and Cleveland – because COVID and racial justice are affecting communities everywhere.

Meeting Unprecedented Need

In a typical year, the foundation, which serves 20 towns around New Haven, is a grantmaking powerhouse, and that’s only poised to grow with Stepping Forward. In 2020, the foundation raised about $23 million, and ended the year with an endowment of about $720 million.

“It’s a very substantial resource for this community,” Ginsberg says of the organization, which gave out more than $30 million in grants last year.

The need for funding has always been great among nonprofits, he notes, but has grown exponentially since the start of the pandemic.

The foundation’s staff and board spent last summer examining COVID’s impact on area nonprofits and assessing how the foundation could help. It quickly launched a round of COVID-related grantmaking, which benefited small organizations that were on the front lines of the pandemic, says Ginsberg. It soon became evident that the pandemic was hurting communities of color more than others.

“It [the burden] has been, and continues to fall, so disproportionately on people of color, certain neighborhoods, certain groups,” he says, and the seeds of Stepping Forward were planted. The plan, in which the foundation is borrowing against its endowment in a special appropriation, was finalized throughout the summer and fall, and was publicly announced in January.

To implement the program, the foundation is working with the volunteer leaders of its Community Fund for Women & Girls, as well as its Progreso Latino Fund. It’s also working with its affiliate, the Valley Community Foundation, which serves lower Naugatuck Valley, and United Way of Greater New Haven.

“Stepping Forward is very much about everyone in the community stepping forward in any way they can,” says Ginsberg. “This is a time when advancing racial equity seems like something the larger society and people in our own community are invested in. It’s time for everybody to step forward.”