The Bush Foundation, one of the state’s largest charitable givers, is once more helping nonprofits, both large and small
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.