By: Shona Carter, MBA

This year, our discretionary grant programs set a record for funds distributed, but our granting in southwest Washington is more than simple dollars and cents. We are going beyond giving to ensure that we can create greater impact in the community.

Because of these behaviors, the first word that I’ve heard our grantees and supporters use when describing the Community Foundation is “change.” It’s true. The Community Foundation for Southwest Washington is acting differently and introducing new initiatives to our repertoire, but the change goes deeper than just new ideas and behaviors.

It is a culture of constant improvement. Inherently, we’re also constantly learning about what works well and what can be done better. Even core behaviors like our discretionary grant programs have been re-examined. In fact, they are a perfect example of the good we can accomplish by focusing on improvement.

This year, as The Columbian recently reported, our annual discretionary grantmaking surpassed the million-dollar-mark for the first time in our 31-year history. It’s an incredible milestone for the Foundation and a direct reflection of southwest Washington’s giving. Individual donors have helped build our discretionary grant programs through annual giving and bequests from caring residents like Waldon Groves and Charles “Rollie” and Sandy Sorweide. Because of their foresight and generosity the Community Foundation was able to grant an additional $241,000 to local nonprofits this year.

Funding for this year’s grant programs also received an unexpected, and welcome, boost when Meyer Memorial Trust announced a change in its funding strategy. The Portland-based grantmaker has also been contemplating how to create greater impact.

In choosing to fully commit to their mission of achieving a flourishing Oregon, the staff and trustees chose to retire funding in Clark County. They also realized that our community was much different than the one they began granting to 30 years ago. In their words, “the county developed its own independent and robust philanthropic identity.” Even though they were leaving behind a stronger community, the trust’s leadership still granted Clark County a farewell gift of $500,000 for the Community Foundation’s grant programs—which added $250,000 to our efforts in 2015 and 2016.

We are grateful for all of this support, which will undoubtedly help southwest Washington become even more independent and resilient. The $1.2 million in community grants that our committees, board and staff awarded this year are a testament to that end. In fact, we’ve put together a full listing of our grantees if you’d like to learn more about the work we funded in Clark, Cowlitz and Skamania Counties this year. As you can see, housing, early learning and health are all an emphasis, because they tie into our focus on intergenerational poverty efforts.

Our record-setting year carries even more weight when you factor in the work we’ve been doing behind the scenes to ensure our grants are generating real impact in focused, equitable and enriching ways. It boils down to four major improvements.

Sharper focus and guiding framework

As we’ve been doing for the last three years, 80 percent of the proposals funded by our grants committee are aimed at interrupting the cycle of intergenerational poverty. To formalize these efforts further, our grants committee and staff are developing a framework to assess poverty-related grant proposals more consistently. Together, these improvements ensure that our funds are not spread too thin, but instead are directed toward programs focused on strategies—such as early learning and asset building—that are proven to increase upward mobility for those living in poverty.

Eliminating barriers and boundaries

Before revamping our grant programs late last year, we actively listened to our nonprofit partners. By asking what types of funding they needed most and how we could better support their work, we were able to design our grant programs to better fit the needs of our local nonprofit sector. The first of these improvements was to expand our grantmaking beyond program support so that nonprofits could apply for operating and capital funding as well. We also eliminated geographic restrictions by basing our grant distribution on population size, thereby directing more dollars to Cowlitz and Skamania County nonprofits.

Even after restructuring our grant programs, we’ve continued to focus on listening. This year, I participated in a Strategy Lab with the Nonprofit Network Southwest Washington and attended its Annual Conference. Both sessions provided an opportunity to hear feedback from local nonprofits. Most emphasized the need for assistance in building their internal capacity to fundraise, undertake strategic planning efforts and evaluate programs. As a result, I’m already planning to develop an annual survey for our grantees that will allow us to gather more details about how the Community Foundation’s grant process is impacting nonprofits and how it can be improved further.

Partnering to build capacity

Whereas the Community Foundation granted money and gave nonprofits general directions in the past, we are now walking alongside our grantees at times. Each grant is seen as an ongoing relationship to ensure that grantees are able to find the advice and support needed in order to achieve their outcomes. This is one of my primary roles with the Community Foundation and it has already proven valuable for both myself and our grantees.

Most importantly, we’ve been working closely with the Council for the Homeless as that organization develops its Affordable Housing Initiative. This public-private partnership is addressing the shortage of affordable housing in Clark County by identifying and implementing short, mid and long-term solutions for increasing the inventory. In addition to gathering a broad group of partners, the Foundation is also helping to vet housing solutions as they arise. A few have already gained interest with key partners and we hope to share those outcomes soon.

Balancing focus and flexibility

Community needs are extremely nuanced, which is one reason giving money away can be difficult. To give more effectively, our responsive, competitive grantmaking is now counterbalanced by smaller, staff directed Flexible Grants. These grant opportunities are available year-round and can provide funding within 30 days if needed, which empowers our program staff with the flexibility and agility needed to support nonprofits as ideas develop or emergencies arise.

The investments that the Community Foundation for Southwest Washington is able to make through our discretionary grants will ebb and flow over time, but our grant programs will only steadily get better. Our commitment to improvement will also be a constant, and that’s what excites me most.

Our grants committee is engaged and excited to shape its framework further as we move forward. This will provide organizations with a transparent view of the process and a better roadmap for navigating the application process. At the same time, we will continue to rely on input from the nonprofit sector to help shape our grantmaking practices. Our grantees are partners in our mission to create a more vibrant and engaged southwest Washington, and we want our programs to serve their needs as effectively as possible.

By listening first and improving fast, the Community Foundation is on its way to becoming an even more effective catalyst for positive change in southwest Washington.

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About The Author

Shona Carter, MBA

Shona came to the Community Foundation in 2015 with 13 years of experience in program evaluation and philanthropic advising. She now manages the Foundation's grantmaking programs and works to establish effective partnerships in order to respond to changing environments and channel resources to achieve greater social impact.