Grantmakers Take on Varied Roles in Fight Against Poverty

By Susan Stehling

Despite glimmers of positive economic news in late 2011, many Minnesotans still struggle every day to put food on the table, keep a roof over their heads and find steady employment. Our state’s poverty rate is now 11.6 percent, up from 6.9 percent in 2000. And more than 15 percent of our children now live in poverty. Communities of color have been gripped by record high unemployment, stagnating wages and benefit cutbacks. At the same time, costs of food, transporta-tion, healthcare and other necessities continue to rise. The many factors that exacerbate poverty are tightly interwoven. Most agree that government must be involved in solutions – from maintaining the safety net to creating jobs. And Minnesota’s grant-makers also play a role in solving persistent problems. Some foundations invest heavily in meeting basic human needs, others work on systemic change around poverty’s root causes, some engage the community in identifying and solving problems, and still others take policy stands on matters af-fecting low-income residents. Despite the daunting nature of poverty, grantmakers work with their nonprofit partners, doing what they can to influence positive change.

More Focus on Meeting Basic Human Needs To improve the lives of those living in poverty, some funders have strengthened their focus on meeting basic human needs immediately – and on a lasting basis. That approach is part of a deep tradi-tion at the Otto Bremer Foundation. Benefactor Otto Bremer believed that people could survive and flourish if they had help at critical times. “Meeting basic needs is the first step of the foundation’s philosophy of building healthy communities,” says Aretha Green Rupert, program officer, Otto Bremer Foundation. In December 2011, the foundation made $8.4 million in grants to address the impact of persistently difficult economic conditions on those living in poverty. The grants will assist residents of St. Paul and rural communities served by the foundation. Grantees were not only human service agencies. For instance, funding for the Friends of the St. Paul Public Library will build the library’s capacity to provide re-sources and assistance to unemployed job seekers, especially those confronting cul-ture and language barriers. The intent is to help low-income people access tools, connections and other resources they need to change their situ-ation over the long term. “Even when ad-dressing immediate community needs, we always have an eye on the future,” stresses Green-Rupert.

Improve Odds for American Indians Recent census data show 40 percent of American Indians in Minnesota live in poverty. Since 1996, the Tiwahe Founda-tion has taken a very personal approach to improving odds for American Indians in the metro area. (Tiwahe Foundation became an independent community founda-tion in 2009; prior to that it operated as a donor-designated fund of Marbrook, Westcliff and Grotto Foundations.) The foundation is unique in that it funds individuals rather than organizations – with most of its work in the areas of education and economic self-sufficiency. Kelly Drummer, director of fund development and programs, Tiwahe Foundation, says all of its grants represent a step on the path out of poverty: “Most of our grants help Native people who are pursuing an education or need support on the way to economic self-sufficiency.” The foundation defines economic self-sufficiency broadly. It has funded down payments on homes, made grants to support someone looking for a job or starting a business, paid childcare costs and bought computers for home use – any of which may help facilitate employment and thus increase income. “Buying a computer may not sound like much, but it can make a huge difference in the lives of every member of a family,” stresses Drummer. “Kids in school can’t do well without a computer.” Drummer is proud of how the foundation’s grants have helped individuals and the community as a whole. She says a majority of past grantees are currently working for the betterment of the Indian community.

Make Systemic Changes Other foundations work on systemic change to address root causes of poverty – from education to employment, housing, healthcare and more. The need for changes in the system is especially evident in education. Leaders across sectors agree that the future of Minnesota depends on closing the achievement gap, improving academic achievement and raising graduation rates for all students. The Minneapolis Foundation believes in starting at the beginning and asking some fundamental questions: Are kids ready for kindergarten? Are they learning to read in grades one and two? And by third grade, are they reading to learn? “If our schools miss those critical points of development, the likelihood of a child being successful in school and life is critically hampered,” says Jo-Anne Stately, director of grantmaking and special projects, The Minneapolis Foundation. “We can’t afford not to pay attention early.” Closing the achievement gap is a huge job, but preparing children for success in school is possible. After just three years, Minneapolis Public Schools has seen the number of kindergartners starting school ready to learn increase by 13 percent.

Create Jobs that Pay a Living Wage There is also consensus around the need to create good jobs. The Northwest Area Foundation supports organizations that bolster small business and create jobs that pay a living wage. It targets nonprofits – such as Duluth at Work – that help low- income people build the assets and wealth needed to move from poverty to prosperity. Since 2008, Duluth at Work has pro-vided job training and entrepreneurial assistance to more than 245 low-income workers and business owners. It has launched more than 175 people into new jobs, many with wage increases of at least 25 percent. Last year, The Jay and Rose Phillips Family Foundation of Minnesota also concluded that employment is vital in the fight against poverty. Patrick Troska, executive director, The Jay and Rose Phillips Family Foundation of Minnesota, cites their sector-based employment initiative to train individuals for very specific market sectors where there are good jobs. Foundation grantees also work with employers to ensure that opportunities remain strong. “This initiative has business, nonprofits and funders working together to study the market, find opportunities, create curricula, locate industries, establish relationships, train workers and then move them into the jobs,” says Troska. One partner, Summit Academy OIC of Minneapolis, began training women for construction jobs in spring 2011. According to the program’s web site, the demand for women in con-struction is so high that it can’t train female students fast enough for the industry, and it boasts a nearly 100-percent placement rate for graduates.

Build Affordable Housing There is also broad agree-ment on the need for safe, stable places to live. The Frey Foundation focuses on affordable housing. Its work was transformed in 2004 when the trustees found themselves wondering if they were really making a difference. “We were simply re-sponding to grant requests, and we wanted to be more intentional about what we were doing,” explains Jim Frey, president. To sharpen their focus, the trustees put a question on the table, “If you could change one thing, what would it be?” The answer: Ensure that people have safe, stable housing. According to Frey, “After we took that first step, our focus became much clearer.” To gain in-depth knowledge, the foundation relied on several nonprofit organizations that work to produce and preserve affordable housing and end homelessness. Trustees also got involved with Heading Home Minnesota, the state of Minnesota’s initiative to end homelessness. “We got a feel for the landscape, and after a time it became apparent that we could play a role,” says Frey. Public dollars – city, state and federal – in affordable housing are often dedicated to building facilities. What is typically lacking is money for wrap-around services for residents, such as chemical dependency or mental health treatment, domestic abuse assistance, education programs or employment support.

Address Underlying Issues “It’s asking a lot to take a formerly homeless person or family, put them in an apart-ment and expect them to do well,” explains Frey. “Some will, but often there are underlying issues that need to be addressed.” Funding services that can better leverage public dollars is where the Frey Foundation has found its niche. For example, the foundation might express interest in making a grant or a program-related investment for supportive services, but only if a building is first built or rehabbed. The biggest challenge Frey sees now is growing numbers of individuals and families who are or who are at risk of becoming homeless. In response, he says, many non-profits have shifted the focus to preventing homelessness: “It makes a lot more sense to spend a little now to keep someone in his or her home than to spend much more later to get them out of a shelter and back into a house.” When asked if philanthropic dollars have made a difference, Frey is resolute: “Without the dollars dedicated to this issue, particularly by large organizations like The McKnight Foundation, Minnesota would be a much tougher place to be.”

Expand Access to Healthcare Low-income and communities of color also suffer disproportionately with higher numbers of uninsured and underinsured children and adults. Greater Twin Cities United Way emphasizes three health strategies in its work: provide access to health care; increase healthy behaviors; and maxi-mize independence. Because an estimated 55 percent of the state’s uninsured residents are eligible for some public coverage, United Way works with Portico Healthnet, a Minnesota non-

profit that helps individuals enroll in public health programs. “We support funding for Portico’s com-munity health workers who are working in our neighborhoods, schools and clinics helping individuals access cov-erage and care they need,” says Lezlie Taylor, director of health at Greater Twin Cities United Way. Portico Healthnet, United Way and the Department of Human Services also partnered when Medical Assistance, Minnesota’s Medicaid program, replaced General Assistance Medical Care. During the transition, United Way 2-1-1, a 24-hour infor-mation and referral line, was used to gauge the impact on the low-income population and to communicate about using Portico Healthnet to enroll in Medical Assistance. The results are impressive. In 2010, more than 70,000 uninsured people received access to health care through funding provided by Greater Twin Cities United Way.

Care for Uninsured Individuals United Way has long partnered with Community-University Health Care Center (CUHCC), a clinic that has provided primary care services to a diverse population of children and low-income families in South Minneapolis since 1966. It also supports other efforts to provide care for underserved children and is especially proud of work with a new clinic located in Brooklyn Center High School. According to Minnesota Department of Health data, Brooklyn Center was under-served in medical, dental, mental health and social services compared to other high-intensity need areas of Hennepin County. Partners, including the Brooklyn Center School District and Park Nicollet Foundation, were already talking about how to better address area students’ health care needs. In 2010, with United Way as a funding partner, the Brooklyn Center community clinic opened its doors. United Way also funds programs to support older adults. “By the age of 75, fifty-nine percent of the population will spend at least one year in poverty,” says Liz Peterson, director of research at Greater Twin Cities United Way. The need for services for seniors is real and growing according to Taylor: By 2030, older adults will represent 23 percent of the state’s population. “As a country, we simply do not have the infrastructure to support that growth,” says Taylor. “So United Way has chosen to focus on what we can do to keep people in their own homes.”

Draw Attention and Leadership to Issues Minnesota grantmakers are also instrumental in drawing attention to poverty in our communities, advocating for policy changes and identifying leaders to address the issues. In October 2011, The Minneapolis Foundation, in partnership with Wilder Research, published The OneMinneapolis report. It provided a baseline that will be updated annually and focuses on 24 state- of-the-community indicators, 13 of which revolve around education, children and youth. The report put a spotlight on a lot of bad news, but according to Jo-Anne Stately, director of grantmaking and special projects, it also gives the community direction. “If we can more accurately identify the symptoms and diagnose the problems, we can find better remedies,” she explains. The foundation hopes the report will help it and others target resources toward the issues and inequities that place Minneapolis at the greatest risk, and identify and replicate pockets of success. It is also imperative to identify leaders in communities most impacted by the inequities. The Northwest Area Foundation supports the African American Leadership Forum in the Twin Cities. The project creates a space for successful African Americans to come together and build their own agenda for creating better futures in their community. It does not put funders in the role of trying to create the solutions. “It’s a powerful way to connect those who have succeeded in a community with challenges that the broader community still faces,” says Kevin Walker, president and CEO, Northwest Area Foundation. The Northwest Area Foundation has also helped build a positive vision for Native Americans. In the past decade, it has invested 30 percent of its grant dollars in Indian Country. In 2010, at the foundation’s invitation, philanthropic and Native leaders participated in two roundtables where they discussed misperceptions, frustrations and opportunities. Participants articulated a common vision for vibrant, thriving communities by 2030. The Northwest Area Foundation has made an initial investment in that shared vision by launching its Native American Social Entrepreneurship Initiative, which seeks to build local economies and help Native community development financial institutions learn from each other. “We view native communities as areas of vast potential,” Walker says. “These communities have a future, and the sooner we invest in their future prosperity, the sooner it will arrive.”

Influence Policy Makers The arena in which grantmakers could have the most profound impact on creating real and permanent change may be public policy. But, according to Walker, foundations are sometimes reluctant to get involved in the work. “There’s a lack of understanding on what the rules are,” says Walker. “Many funders think they can’t play in that space at all – or that if they do, they need to pick specific policies to champion.” He says the Northwest Area Foundation looks at the work differently. The foundation supports organizations that work with low-income communities and already possess the experience and knowledge to work collaboratively on an agenda that will move the community to a more equitable place. In Minnesota it supports the Minnesota Budget Project, an initiative of the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits, because of its focus on the state budget through a lens of what makes sense for low-income families. He also cites a Montana policy initiative it supported known as “Cap the Rate,” a reference to the high interest rates that payday lenders charge low-income clients. After a successful campaign, a state budget amendment was passed that capped interest rates at 35 percent (down from a high of 400 percent) and drove predatory lenders out of Montana. “The campaign was not created or framed in our offices or those of any other funder,” explains Walker. “We simply provided the resources, so Montanans working on the issue could take it further, faster.” Similarly, The Minneapolis Foundation, along with a dozen other local funders, has led the way to make school readiness a priority for Minnesota. So the December announcement that Minnesota will receive $45 million in Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge federal education money was great news across the state. Much of the grant will be devoted to early childhood education in high-poverty areas of Minneapolis, St. Paul, Itasca County and on the White Earth Reservation. Whether foundations are meeting basic needs, working toward systemic change, or engaging the community or policy makers, they are each filling valuable roles in the very tough battle against poverty. GF


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