Family foundations play a key role in funding nonprofits at work in our communities, and more and more foundations are providing general operations funding and resources that build capacity—support that dramatically affects the longevity and effectiveness of any given program. The ‘why’ is clear: if a funder wants to offer the most-needed and least-supplied form of support, they will focus their efforts in these areas. But choosing ‘how’ can sometimes be a challenge when there are so many methods and best practices to choose from.
Funders like the Franklin and Catherine Johnson Foundation offer pro bono to their grantees as a direct way for nonprofits to get professional assistance, combined with their venture philanthropy approach and practice of tackling challenges side-by-side with grantees. We met with Tarah Evans, the Executive Director of the Franklin and Catherine Johnson Foundation, to discuss their use of pro bono as a part of their venture philanthropy approach.
Risk, investment, and venture philanthropy
The Franklin and Catherine Johnson Foundation, founded in 2001, uses a funding model based on venture capital investing techniques. “When we got started, ‘checkbook philanthropy’ had been the standard way of giving for many family foundations,” Evans recalled. “‘Here’s a check. Good luck, we’ll talk to you maybe in six months to see how things are going’ or ‘This is a one-time grant, good luck, you’re on your own.’” But the Franklin and Catherine Johnson Foundation was inspired to bring investment techniques from the private sector into their philanthropic work. “Franklin ‘Pitch’ Johnson was a venture capitalist; he understood the ideals and strategies behind venture capital and was really interested in the growing venture philanthropy trend. When we created the foundation, we tried to integrate some of those strategies.”
One strategy they used was getting the Foundation’s team involved in grantee work whenever there was a way for them to contribute. “We wanted to work closely with our grantees where appropriate, to offer them other benefits over and above a grant. As a small foundation, we had somewhat limited resources when it came to time, money, even talent to share. But we’ve always tried to plug in where we could.”
The Foundation also specifically strives to fund newer programs and doesn’t use a nonprofit’s age or history to determine their eligibility for funding. “For us, it’s a kind of risk-taking investment in a brand-new organization that doesn’t have a track record. It hearkens back to venture capital, where you might invest in an entrepreneur who has a great business plan and a great idea, but no sales or record of success… yet.”
Pro bono boosts a nonprofit’s ability to bounce back from changes in funding
COVID-19 led to major changes in all parts of the sector, but Evans had noticed a pattern that pre-dated the pandemic: foundations responding to emergent issues by changing which grantees to fund. “They’re trying to be responsive to current needs, but it comes at the expense of their current portfolio.”
Any change in funding can cause major instability for nonprofits, especially rapid or unexpected changes. When a nonprofit loses funding suddenly, pro bono is a tool they can use to respond and rebound in those first few e first months and as a resource for building long-term capacity.
“To me, a trend like that really stresses the need for capacity building. Nonprofits have to build a diverse funding base and a great team because they can’t assume their funding will be renewed each year. Pro bono is one of the best ways to build capacity, and I think serving the nonprofit sector through the skill sets and expertise of the private sector is an interesting way to build it.”
Pro bono builds a nonprofit’s flexibility in times of change
While funding is an essential resource for nonprofits, pro bono can help nonprofits use that funding, respond to changes, and ultimately have a larger impact in the future. We see this every day at Taproot, and recently Evans saw pro bono help their grantee LitLab in a much greater way than they expected.
LitLab was working on a communications project in 2019 and sought out assistance with it through a Taproot Foundation event that November. They were matched up with volunteers who were a great fit for their needs, and the pro bono work they did together provided useful insights and strategies for engaging their stakeholders.
Then came 2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic the following spring. Nonprofits everywhere were struggling to keep going despite cancelled fundraisers, shifting safety guidelines, and intensifying community needs. The communications goals LitLab had been working on just months ago completely changed—but the value of their completed pro bono project didn’t.
The LitLab team made the decision to use the deliverables from that project to expand their existing app. That helped them stay connected and engaged from a safe social distance. “The feedback and direction LitLab got from that one-day pro bono event not only helped them out in the way they’d planned, but it was also extremely helpful when they had to pivot to focusing on the app and reaching out to the community in a different, COVID-safe way. They even used their app as a launching pad for connecting the community to all kinds of resources around COVID.”
The future of philanthropy
In her piece “Doing Well and Doing Good: What a Difference a Decade Makes,” Evans calls on donors to experiment and build more adventurous models for the future of philanthropy:
“By utilizing principles from both venture capital investment and from the entrepreneurial sector, funders can start to support not-for-profit organizations in an entirely new way and, perhaps, bring innovative solutions to entrenched social problems. And put the adventure back in philanthropy.” – Tarah Evans, “Doing Well and Doing Good: What a Difference a Decade Makes”
Pro bono is a proven way of aiding nonprofits in their work, and foundations are testing out new and innovative ways of building it into their grantee offerings every day. This kind of service is a compelling (and cost-effective) way to increase the impact nonprofits can have in their communities, both by assisting them with projects-in-progress and preparing them to make the best-possible use of the resources available. And for Evans, the Foundation, and for many foundations like them, the answer is clear—creating access to volunteer experts is an excellent way to bolster nonprofit infrastructure and impact now and into the future.
Is your foundation interested in making pro bono accessible to grantees? Talk to us about how to get started.
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The Franklin and Catherine Johnson Foundation funds nonprofits in the EPA/Redwood City area only and is not accepting new applications for funding at the time of publication.