For a nonprofit, the chase for money is never-ending.
Sean Goode, executive director of a Burien-based group that works with youth at risk of suspension and incarceration, knows the drill. A staffer spends countless hours writing a grant application that may yield only a few thousand dollars.
That work is wasted if the organization doesn’t get the grant. And if it does, the funding usually only lasts about a year, meaning groups soon must start looking for new grants to keep their programs going.
This spring, however, Goode’s group, Choose 180, won a $600,000, three-year-grant from the Seattle Foundation without putting in nearly as much work as usual.
“I don’t know that we’ve been a part of a process that provided these types of resources in a way that required so little effort,” Goode said. “There was legit only four questions on the grant application.”
While the philanthropic world is known for its obsession with metrics, especially in the age of tech benefactors, the Seattle Foundation requires only a mid-year verbal check-in and a brief annual results recap.
The foundation is doling out 21 grants like the one given to Choose 180, totaling $12.6 million, from its newly created Fund for Inclusive Recovery that has a goal of raising $50 million in five years. Other recipients include the Rainier Beach Action Coalition, Surge Reproductive Justice and Families of Color Seattle — all led by people of color, those “closest to the problems and the pain” of an inequitable society, in the words of Kris Hermanns, who oversees the fund.
The foundation has been working to shift more of its giving to such groups, Hermanns said, and also to remove burdensome application and reporting requirements that have often kept them from getting money.
“We aim to do philanthropy differently,” Hermanns wrote in a recent blog post. She’s the foundation’s chief impact officer, arriving in 2019 after seven years heading the Seattle-based Pride Foundation.
A growing number of philanthropic groups are moving in the same direction as they face criticism for perpetuating the inequalities they seek to address.
“Historically, philanthropy has been top-heavy and insular, and decisions are disproportionately made by white males from background(s) of privilege,” Edgar Villanueva, author of the influential book “Decolonizing Wealth,” wrote in an email. “And HOW decisions are made has never been super transparent.”
Villanueva, who lives in New York City, salutes the Fund for Inclusive Recovery, though he isn’t familiar with its specifics. At the same time, he cautioned, there’s generally “a danger of these gestures being performative” and not going far enough.
Villanueva advocates a hard look at how philanthropists got their wealth — “and who may have been harmed in its accumulation” — and moving from “charity” to “redistribution,” meaning handing over assets and power to community groups.
Emphasizing racial equity
The nation’s 16th largest “community” foundation, as opposed to one started by an individual or family, the Seattle Foundation has increasingly emphasized racial equity over the past 30 years.
In 1991, the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy wrote a searing report on the foundation, which it said funded safe, traditional organizations like the United Way and YMCA and had “no policy of making the issues of the disadvantaged a priority.” That may have stemmed, the report noted, “from the nearly exclusive white, middle- to upper-class makeup of the foundation’s board and staff.”
The foundation took note, Hermanns said. It started giving out small grants, $7,500 or less, to new and grassroots groups. It gave an early grant, for instance, to what is now OneAmerica, the immigrant advocacy organization founded by Pramila Jayapal long before the Seattle Democrat was elected to Congress.
About half of the foundation’s staff and board are now Black, Indigenous and people of color. The board chair, University of Washington Vice Provost and Dean Ed Taylor, is Black, as is the new president and CEO, Alesha Washington.
Still, the foundation has limited say over the funding it distributes. Ninety percent, more than $220 million in 2021, comes from funds controlled by donors, who use the foundation as a low-cost, efficient vehicle for their philanthropy.
The foundation has been encouraging donors to invest in organizations promoting racial equity, said its chief engagement officer, Stephanie McLemore Bray. They may or may not be on board, and there is not universal agreement on what advances, or blocks, racial justice.
Last year, amid a police defunding movement arising from the killing of George Floyd, a foundation advisory council discussed whether a new policy should prohibit funding to the Seattle Police Foundation, which raises money to support the city’s police department. Advisory council members disagreed, recommending a policy that broadly bars funding discriminatory and hate groups.
“We were extremely disappointed,” said Justin Ward, research director of the group DivestSPD, who also criticizes the foundation for distributing funds to conservative groups including the Billy Graham Evangelical Association and the Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based think tank.
Seattle Foundation giving to the Seattle Police Foundation from so-called “donor advised funds” nevertheless dropped from $217,522 in 2018 to $4,000 in 2021.
The foundation has a free hand with the remaining 10% of its giving.
(The Seattle Times partners with the Seattle Foundation for some of its community-funded journalism, with the foundation facilitating contributions to some coverage initiatives.)
When COVID-19 hit and government relief funding was yet to come, the foundation raised $10 million in three weeks to help laid off workers pay their rent and feed their families, Hermanns recalled. Given the speed the foundation deemed necessary, it relied on a network of sources to decide who got the money, which rankled some community groups.
“There was not even an opportunity to apply,” said Aneelah Afzali, executive director of the American Muslim Empowerment Network at the Muslim Association of Puget Sound, which was providing housing and other assistance. She and others complained, and the foundation opened the process up in subsequent rounds.
Then, Hermanns said, the foundation turned to addressing the racial and economic inequities made ever-more visible by the pandemic. That gave rise to the Fund for Inclusive Recovery, with money contributed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Seattle Mariners, Raikes Foundation and others. The grants are geared toward advocacy work that influences policies affecting people of color.
“It’s been great to see the Seattle Foundation step up and want to address this, particularly because we’ve seen a disparity in funding for so long,” said Afzali, who now serves on a foundation advisory committee.
Trish Millines Dziko, executive director of TAF, a Seattle-based nonprofit devoted to educational equity, said she joined the foundation board last fall because she believes it is among a handful of large foundations reexamining their giving practices.
“It really is a release of control in some way,” she said. “It’s about trust… that the organizations you are funding are capable of doing the job.”
“And yes,” Millines Dziko said, “you should expect outcomes and all that kind of stuff, but the outcomes should be set by the organization, not by the funder.”
The inclusive recovery grants are following that model.
“We are basically setting our own benchmarks,” said E.N. West, co-director of Surge Reproductive Justice, which advocates for reproductive justice among women of color and queer and transgender people of color.
Those benchmarks include building community networks, leaders and a framework for policy, rather than exact measurements.
“We don’t have to try to fit ourselves into a very specific box,” West said.