Foundations unite efforts

May 22, 2009
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Two million dollars and a bucketful of collaboration.

That’s the formula for bringing together an array of West Michigan foundations and human services agencies to help people with the basic needs of food, housing, transportation and utilities during the current recession.

Last fall, 16 foundations agreed to pool their money and direct it to nonprofit organizations through the Essential Needs Task Force. Born of the recession back in 1982, the task force brings together organizations devoted to those four basic needs. Now the money is hitting the streets at a time when donations are down and demands are up at human services agencies.

The ENTF provided a conduit for the funding without the time- and staff-consuming process of multiple applications, budget submissions and subsequent reports that usually accompany foundation grants, said Kate Luckert Schmid, program director at Grand Rapids Community Foundation, which took on the administrative responsibility for the effort.

“Those foundations, they talk on a regular basis,” Schmid said. “Even though we might have different approaches to similar issues, we definitely communicate across the board.”

The concept was born at a November meeting of foundation chief executive officers, just as the financial meltdown was underway.

“We all kind of looked around the table at each other and said this is one of those things we need figure out together,” she said. “And (we) recognized that none of us are really experts in this area, but we certainly know people in the community who are. So how do we link our resources with that knowledge and front-line resources to kind of make it work? What is the right role for these philanthropic organizations to participate so that we don’t get in the way of the system or disturb anything, but do it right?”

Schmid turned to the ENTF, which was born out of the 1982 recession and is a cooperative of basic-needs nonprofits. Purposefully run on a shoestring budget and without soliciting funds for itself, the ENTF has a part-time coordinator housed in an office borrowed from the Heart of West Michigan United Way. It receives support from Kent County and the Kent County Department of Human Services.

“Each subcommittee offers open membership,” said ENTF Coordinator David Schroeder. “This is a collaborative in the true sense of the word.”

The goal of the $2 million ad hoc fund was to leverage, as much as possible, categorical government funding and money from the federal economic stimulus package, Schroeder said. The foundations’ money was used to expand the capacity to provide services. The first grants went out in February.

For example, the ENTF determined that while food pantries, inundated since last year, would have liked more money to stock the shelves, funding for that was available in the stimulus.

The foundations’ money instead was directed to umbrella organizations ACCESS and Feeding American West Michigan (formerly Second Harvest Gleaners) for projects such as a new delivery truck, additional storage and staff that would improve the organizations’ ability to support the food pantry system. The intent is to “make the system more efficient, more effective and more responsive,” Schroeder said.

“ENTF funders gave us the flexibility to apply for items that will increase our capacity to serve more families,” said Marsha DenHollander of ACCESS. “We will add food storage, refrigeration and staffing so that our pantries may extend their hours of service.”

Providing the money for the pooled funding were: the Daniel and Pamella DeVos Foundation, Dick and Betsy DeVos Foundation, Doug and Maria DeVos Foundation, Rich and Helen DeVos Foundation, Dyer-Ives Foundation, Frey Foundation, Grand Rapids Community Foundation, Neighbor to Neighbor Fund of the City of Grand Rapids, Nokomis Foundation, Paine Family Foundation, Sebastian Foundation, Slemons Foundation, Steelcase Foundation, VanderWeide Family Foundation, Wege Foundation and W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

Unlike most GRCF accounts, the $2 million is a one-time fund and when it’s gone, it’s gone, Schmid said.

“When the funds are done, it closes out. It’s not a permanent endowment,” she said. “Two million dollars is not a lot of money, but when it’s placed in the right spot, it can leverage outside resources.”

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