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The Transition to Equity Grantmaking: Q&A with Joyce Ybarra, Director of Learning

Joyce Ybarra

2017 was a year of important transition for the Weingart Foundation. We announced our full commitment to equity in August 2016—a long-term dedication to base all of our work on advancing fairness, inclusion and opportunity for Southern Californians, and especially for those communities hit hardest by persistent poverty. In the months following this announcement, the Foundation began filtering all of our financial and programmatic decisions through an equity lens. We also introduced several new grant strategies, and we’ve done a lot of listening and learning.

Joyce Ybarra, the Foundation’s director of learning, examined our funding over the past year and a half to assess how our commitment to inclusion and opportunity is starting to manifest. Joyce recently shared her perspective on what equity grantmaking is starting to look like at the Weingart Foundation.

F.Y. 2017 was our first year—our transition year—into our equity commitment. Since then, what are the trends you’re seeing in our grantmaking? What’s new or different?

Joyce: Certain strategies have stayed consistent, as they are already highly aligned with our focus on equity. For example, we maintained our priority on underserved communities, with 91% of our funding in F.Y. 2017 awarded to organizations serving economically and socially disadvantaged communities. We also maintained our primary grant strategy of providing unrestricted operating support, which comprises 80% of our funding and addresses a broad range of needs in marginalized communities.

However, I am excited to note some shifts that reflect our initial efforts to operationalize our equity commitment. For example, we are seeing a jump in funding to organizations and coalitions engaged in advocacy activities ranging from community organizing to policy-level systems change work. I am also noticing an increase in funding to grassroots and community-led organizations, and to organizations new to the Foundation. These are positive indications that our grantmaking is becoming more open to those nonprofits closest to the communities we want to serve and to those engaging in strategies that build power and address entrenched problems.

The Foundation is focusing additional attention on two geographic areas—South Los Angeles and Southeast Los Angeles—even while we continue to fund throughout Southern California. Are you starting to see this strategy impact our grantmaking?

Joyce: These are two areas where we felt additional focus would allow us to address longstanding disparities and also act on emerging opportunities. Our goal in these regions is consistent with our overall approach in that we hope to strengthen nonprofit infrastructure in order to expand access to essential services—as well as advance equitable solutions to community challenges. During F.Y. 2017, we spent a considerable amount of time engaging with stakeholders to develop community-informed strategies. So far we have awarded multi-year grants to the nine partners of the Southeast Los Angeles Collaborative to advance the goals of its strategic plan, and we have also awarded significant funding to anchor organizations in South Los Angeles such as Community Coalition and the M.L.K. Community Hospital.

In addition to these targeted grants, our overall responsive funding to South and Southeast L.A. has increased—both to grassroots, community organizing groups as well as larger, multi-service agencies. The Foundation’s unrestricted funding to South L.A. now comprises one third of all unrestricted dollars we grant to L.A. County, which is significant.

How has the Foundation’s equity commitment applied to small, grassroots organizations?

Joyce: Our equity commitment compels us to support solutions that are defined and led by the communities most impacted. We definitely continue to fund small, grassroots groups, which are often on the front lines in the work to expand opportunity and inclusion. In many cases, we are beginning to provide larger grants to those grassroots groups that demonstrate strong alignment with our equity lens, priority issue areas, and/or geographic areas of focus.

The Weingart Foundation started a Program Related Investment (P.R.I.) fund to provide low-interest loans to nonprofits on a select basis. How has this program helped advance inclusion and opportunity?

Joyce: While we had made a handful of P.R.I.s in the past, the P.R.I. fund is a new and intentional strategy. With the fund, we’ve awarded a number of P.R.I.s totaling $10.2 million. Over two-thirds of our P.R.I. dollars are providing funds for affordable and permanent supportive housing in high-need communities. Our P.R.I. fund also offers another way for us to support critical organizations that, for a variety of reasons, have limited access to mainstream financing. A couple of our P.R.I.s to date have supported capital projects designed to strengthen the presence of longstanding, community-based agencies at risk of displacement. Through our P.R.I.s, we can expand our ability to support organizations and communities above and beyond our grantmaking budget and put our corpus to added use.

The Special Opportunity Fund (S.O.F.) was introduced as a way to ensure the Foundation would be able to respond to unforeseen needs and opportunities. How has the S.O.F. been used?

Joyce: The S.O.F. has been key in the Foundation’s ability to address immediate threats arising under the current administration to one of our region’s most vulnerable communities—the immigrant population. Over half of our S.O.F. dollars in F.Y. 2017 supported rapid response grant-making in the area of immigrant rights and integration. Efforts funded included deportation defense, support for unaccompanied children, and community- and faith-based networks focused on “know your rights” education and advocacy. This year, our S.O.F. grants have ranged across the Foundation’s focus areas, including support for outreach efforts for the state’s new Earned Income Tax Credit program and scholarship funds to help DACA youth renew their status. The S.O.F. has and continues to offer the Foundation the flexibility to respond to high-impact opportunities in a timely and flexible way.

The Foundation continues to substantially fund direct service nonprofits, while at the same time we have increased support to organizing and advocacy groups working to make systems more inclusive and just. What have been the trade-offs as we embrace equity grantmaking?

Joyce: One of our biggest trade-offs is that we are making fewer capital grants. We are now only funding capital projects on a highly selective basis, focusing on bringing new or expanded services to our most under-resourced communities. Importantly, our P.R.I. fund offers another source of support for capital projects that has partially mitigated our decrease in capital grants. Organizations engaged in capital projects also continue to access unrestricted operating support from the Foundation.

F.Y. 2017 was the Foundation’s second year in collecting data from our new Learning and Assessment Framework, which allows us to track the organizational effectiveness of grantees over time and better understand the role our unrestricted operating support (U.O.S.) is playing. What can we learn from this data so far?

Joyce: So far, we’ve collected baseline data across seven areas of organizational effectiveness for all of our U.O.S. grantees since F.Y. 2016. The headline is that our U.O.S. grantees are prioritizing the Foundation’s unrestricted, flexible grant dollars toward their greatest infrastructure needs.

Our data shows that the areas in which our grantees are the weakest are in their Fund Development and Staff and Infrastructure capacities. This was echoed to us by nonprofit leaders who participated in our recent round of listening sessions last fall. What we’re seeing is that nonprofits intend to use our dollars to invest in these same capacities. This is promising, as it affirms the value of unrestricted dollars in strengthening organizational effectiveness.

Our Learning and Assessment data also reflects some of the strengths of our grantees. They appear to demonstrate solid capacity in key Diversity and Inclusion indicators such as staff and board diversity, cultural competency, and client and constituent engagement. We see this as a positive baseline starting point as we move forward on our equity journey.

Joyce Ybarra is director of learning at the Weingart Foundation. To read the Foundation’s report on our F.Y. 2017 grantmaking, click here.