When we were planning the launch of Boldly Go Philanthropy, after several decades working with foundations, nonprofits, and donors to make the world a better place, we thought we’d seen it all. And then 2020 happened.
The events of the past three years have changed the way we live, and it makes sense that they would change the way we give. The world is reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic, a long overdue social and racial justice awakening is underway, and disparities in education, health, and life outcomes continue to grow–to name just a few issues we’re all confronting. These problems need addressing at all levels, from a community foundation trying to improve life for its local residents to an individual donor trying to help alleviate the brunt of climate shocks halfway around the world.
But even as the importance to act feels greater than ever, very real challenges to giving exist in this new landscape. Over the last year, through dozens of conversations with individual donors and leaders of leanly staffed foundations, we’ve heard a shared tension emerge. It’s the pause at the precipice. As donors and foundations alike stand at the cusp of diving into a challenge, the enormity and complexity they face makes them hesitate. Are they ready to take the plunge?
The philanthropists we meet are ambitious, driven, and committed to impact, and understand the need to learn from those closest to the problems they’re trying to address. Yet in many cases they come to us unsure where to start. For individual and family donors, a lack of confidence can be a barrier–from not knowing which nonprofits are the most effective to finding it hard to know the results of their giving. We’ve also heard an uncertainty that they can have an impact equal to their ambition. Simply put, they feel stuck.
Foundations are also facing new challenges, finding themselves with more money due to a strong market and an increased pressure to move larger amounts out the door while making a meaningful difference. For small and leanly staffed foundations, this can call for “muscling up” by creating new strategies, community partnerships, and more. While these foundations boast strong expertise and networks in their issue areas, with limited staff resources, it can be difficult to nimbly ramp operations up and down to meet the moment.
We know from a half century of collective experience that meaningful impact is possible with the right team in your corner. Philanthropy’s institutional brand names have long had the resources to engage support, but accessible world-class expertise hasn’t always been within reach for the vast majority of the field.
That’s why we founded Boldly Go Philanthropy: to use our decades of experience and the lessons we learned running major philanthropies to help extraordinary philanthropists create outsized impact in ways true to their unique mission and vision. We do this by helping clients engage in highly effective grantmaking, and we do this by helping them go beyond grantmaking to form partnerships and creatively use all of the tools available to influence conditions for transformational change–even when, especially when, it feels daunting to do so.
For example, in previous work we had the privilege of supporting a cross-sector, multi-funder effort to transform the historically ineffective and inefficient New York State juvenile justice system. The Tow Foundation saw an opportunity to bring together systems leaders who were committed to improving outcomes for youth, yet who had never before engaged with each other. The foundation used its convening power and an initial philanthropic investment of $140,000 to leverage an equal amount from a collection of funders and launch a collaborative system-led improvement effort. That relatively small investment led to a new statewide approach to juvenile justice that transformed a system that annually expends hundreds of millions of public dollars. As a result, juvenile arrests decreased by 24%, the number of youth in state custody decreased by 45%, and significant improvements were seen in community safety and youth outcomes.
This is a past example of philanthropists “punching above their weight” and we’re excited about the promise of similar impact with Boldly Go’s current clients.
For example, in New Jersey, Boldly Go and partner Afton Bloom are helping bring together five leanly staffed foundations focused on turning around the maternal and infant health crisis in that state. New Jersey ranks near the bottom among states in maternal mortality and black women die disproportionately compared to white women. The foundations were eager to work together, in partnership with the state, but needed help planning and executing collaboration efforts. We helped the foundations organize into the New Jersey Birth Equity Funders Alliance with a clear charter and strategy, and we are managing the process to roll out a series of grant programs targeted to community based, BIPOC-led organizations that have previously lacked support and visibility. We look forward to this effort yielding transformative results in the years to come.
In Texas, we were approached by a busy executive and emerging philanthropist who wanted to accelerate giving in his area of interest–addressing extreme poverty in Africa. We are taking the philanthropist on a learning and action journey, introducing him to leaders of organizations new to him and engaging in exercises that are stretching his thinking about how to create change. Our client has increased his grantmaking several-fold through support to six new organizations, is considering how to help these organizations beyond his financial gifts, and making philanthropy a bigger part of his daily life.
And In Colorado, a 75-year-old family foundation that has not used external advisors for strategic planning engaged Boldly Go to help design and manage its strategic planning process. We supported the staff and board in creating a plan that right-sized their issue areas and updated their mission and vision. Program teams dug into the issues, reached out to dozens of new stakeholders, and asked tough questions about where their efforts could make the biggest difference. The foundation will now directly confront climate change and affordable housing, new areas of emphasis. Likewise, the foundation will double down as a state leader in supporting local journalism, a bedrock for civic engagement. The strategic planning process cemented the foundation’s statewide leadership in impact investing; committed the organization to new diversity, equity, and inclusion goals; and dramatically increased engagement of the board in the future strategy–helping a storied family foundation enter a new day.
We’re inspired by the work of these bold philanthropists and believe their stories hold learnings for the field. Over the coming months we’ll be sharing more about what we’re hearing and learning. Bold Notes will feature intrepid philanthropists and foundations taking innovative approaches to tackling the big issues impacting their communities. It will also be a space where we challenge philanthropy to be bolder, to act with greater urgency, and to shed bureaucracy and be more direct. It’s our hope that Bold Notes reads as a playbook for joyful and transformative giving.
The time to be bold is now. We need to eliminate disparities, solve the existential climate crisis, restore faith in our democratic institutions, and alleviate the health, educational, and economic impact of COVID–all at a time when unparalleled levels of discord have made addressing these issues via the public sector harder and harder. Meanwhile, philanthropy has more resources and tools than ever before, enabling bold philanthropists to have direct impact and change systems at a scale and efficacy we’ve never seen. Whether you’re an established donor or foundation, or an emerging changemaker, there is an urgent role for you to play–and we stand ready to help you do so.
We hope you’ll join us back here at Bold Notes for more on how we can move forward, together.