About 1,000 nonprofit leaders took over the Guthrie Theater building recently in a mega-networking event that showcased the new direction of one of Minnesota’s largest foundations.
Some participants were coached in communication techniques from Guthrie actors, while others built a mosaic, debated the future of philanthropy or sat in on sessions to share ideas among groups working with the Bush Foundation.
Two years ago, there would have been no need for the event. Bush at that time poured nearly all its giving into three main goals and didn’t accept grant requests. But like many foundations nationwide, Bush has reconsidered the merits of targeting its cash at a few issues and is now willing to spread the wealth, with the change kindling new enthusiasm within Minnesota’s 7,000-strong nonprofit community.
Bush has awarded $921 million in grants since 1970 — including about $30 million last year.
“Bush gets a lot of attention from nonprofits because of pent-up hope … after five years of not accepting proposals under the previous leadership,” said Jon Pratt, executive director of the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits.
The shift in direction also is being watched by the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, a Washington group that recently issued a report critical of tightly focused giving — called strategic philanthropy — that had defined Bush and other major foundations for the past few years.
“What’s right about strategic philanthropy is a clear focus on achieving results,” said the center’s executive director, Aaron Dorfman. “What’s wrong is its oversimplistic, linear thinking about how change happens in the world.”
Many nonprofits work on multiple interconnected issues, he said, and become cut off from foundation dollars “because they aren’t laser-focused on a foundation’s priorities.”
‘Best of both worlds’’
Minnesota foundations and corporations gave away more than $1.7 billion in 2011, according to the Minnesota Council on Foundations. While all of them search to find the best ways to accomplish their goals, the Bush Foundation stands out for its dramatic swings in giving.
For decades, the foundation had special interests, such as the arts and historically black colleges, but it accepted grant applications on a wide range of issues. That changed after 2007, when under President Peter Hutchinson, the foundation stopped accepting grant applications for most projects that did not address three funding priorities — teacher effectiveness, governance in native nations and community problem-solving.
The idea was to pour in money and make a measurable difference.
In 2012, Jennifer Ford Reedy became the Bush Foundation president, and the goals shifted again.
The foundation still funds those key initiatives, but it interprets “community problem-solving” in new ways that have flung open the doors to diverse groups again.
“I’m trying to take the best of both worlds,” Reedy said, sitting in the foundation’s new skyline headquarters in downtown St. Paul.
Innovation is in
“Innovation” and “collaboration” are the new key words, echoing a philanthropy trend sweeping the country.
“Support for innovation is hip and cool in philanthropy these days,” Dorfman said. “But there’s a wide variation in what foundations mean by it. You need to look at, ‘Who are they awarding grants to, and for what?’ ”
In Bush’s case, new “community innovation grants” have been sent to causes such as a Minneapolis neighborhood group that hosts outdoor “pop-up parties” to connect residents; a plan to make farmland available to new and young farmers and connect them to co-ops, and a feasibility study for creating a community arts center in St. Paul’s Lowertown district.
The recent Guthrie networking extravaganza also points to Bush’s growing focus on encouraging nonprofits to collaborate and come up with new ideas. For some folks who attended the event, BushConnect met its mission.
“So far I’ve met two people I need to connect with — that I didn’t know I needed to connect with — just by chance,” said John Turnipseed, director of the Center for Fathering at Urban Ventures in Minneapolis.
New brand for ‘b’
Folks at the event were given a swag bag that showed other aspects of the evolution within Bush, including a glossy new “b” magazine — part of a rebranding effort. A new website is also underway.
Meanwhile, a Bush Prize for Community Innovation created last year will give one lucky nonprofit up to 25 percent of its operating budget to spend as it pleases.
Juxtaposition Arts of Minneapolis was among the first Bush Prize recipients. The north Minneapolis arts organization runs a visual arts training program for youths, which it uses to carry out real-world contracts for everything from printing T-shirts to posters.
“There aren’t many grants that say, ‘Bravo! Good work,’ ” said DeAnna Cummings, its executive director.
The prize will fund “creative community engagement,” she said, including working with several groups to launch teen-conducted surveys to learn what people like about their community.
Veteran Twin Cities philanthropy consultant Steve Paprocki sees some trade-offs with the new approach. While collaboration, innovation and networking are laudable goals, it means that money that could support specific needs in the community is going elsewhere.
It leads, he said, to questions such as: Is $1 million better spent on collaboration or on a job training program?
But Reedy notes that the role of a foundation is to find new solutions to community issues. Those solutions must come from the ground up, and that is what these new grants are doing. She eagerly awaits the results.
“We have put in place all the key components, and now our emphasis will be on making an impact greater than the sum of our parts.”