Give smarter: A tremendous opportunity exists for major givers to drive long-lasting and fundamental improvements

Building a Community of Hope doesn’t end with better coordinated and targeted services by government agencies. It must also involve private and philanthropic groups working differently than they have with government and local communities.

Examining a longstanding approach to philanthropy hits close to home for Casey Family Programs. We were created nearly 50 years ago by Jim Casey, the founder of United Parcel Service. For many decades, we used our resources to provide high-quality, long-term foster care services to children. Through that work, we were able to help thousands of children across America.

But over time we began to ask ourselves a difficult question: Is this enough? For every child we served directly, there were thousands of others in public child welfare systems that we were not able to directly help.

So a decade ago, Casey Family Programs began a transformation in approach. We began to partner with public child welfare systems and help increase their capacity to work with communities to improve child safety and success. We didn’t come in with a prescription; we came in to listen and to learn from the system’s leaders, managers and staff themselves. We provided expertise and resources that supported improvements sought by those running the system. And we created opportunities for those leaders to learn from each other.

Providing direct services to children and families remains a critical part of our work. But now we seek to develop and demonstrate practices and policies that can help inform change for public child welfare systems and private service providers.

A recent letter from Jennifer and Peter Buffett (youngest son of Warren Buffett) of the NoVo Foundation helps to articulate how changing the approach to philanthropy can better support progress for families. Too often, the letter said, what we get from giving is “short-term fixes and feel-good stories” that don’t produce lasting change:

Choices are inevitable in a foundation since there’s never enough money to go around, but it’s possible to make these choices in ways that support other people to determine their own futures, especially those who have less power. This is the polar opposite of philanthropy that imposes a vision from outside, an approach that’s rapidly becoming a new norm. Philanthropy doesn’t have to be this way, just as foundations don’t have to see people as passive recipients of their largesse, or ignore the outside forces that create poverty and inequality.”

– Jennifer and Peter Buffett

We believe that in building Communities of Hope, a tremendous opportunity exists for major givers such as private and corporate philanthropies to partner with the community-driven efforts of parents, local leaders, advocacy groups, government leaders, faith-based and civic institutions, youth and others to drive long-lasting and fundamental improvements.

A growing number of foundations are leading the way. One example can be found at Bloomberg Philanthropies. Its three-year, $24 million project called the Innovation Delivery Team is focused on five American cities – Atlanta, Chicago, Memphis, Louisville and New Orleans – and is designed to help the mayors drive reforms through data collection and targeted response.

Under the program, Bloomberg Philanthropies funds technical staff within the mayor’s office in each city to identify solutions for two major initiatives each mayor has requested.

Foundations working together can create much more impact than simply the sum of their individual efforts.

Or consider the Aspen Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based educational and policy studies organization. Its Opportunity Youth Incentive Fund organizes community collaboration to help young people ages 16 to 24 who are neither enrolled in school nor employed. Launched in July 2012, the fund targets education, job training and placement for young people by bringing together grants and technical support for a collection of organizations under one umbrella.

What is the common thread here? Each of these philanthropies works within a larger theory of change, which suggests that social improvement starts at the local level, and works in partnership with the community and with existing structures to support progress.

Just as important, they are investing in long-term and sustainable change that goes beyond grant cycles.

This type of collaboration isn’t yet fully common place – but it also isn’t rare. According to a recent study commissioned by FSG, “There is clear evidence – although admittedly not well-documented – that foundations working together can create much more impact than simply the sum of their individual efforts.”

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