From its inception in the late 1940s to today, the Jessie Smith Noyes Foundation has transformed from a scholarship-focused foundation to one that funds grassroots organizations and movements across the country in support of environmental, social, economic and political change. In this issue of GEOAsks, we speak to Vic De Luca, president of the foundation. He provides insight into the foundations journey to its current grantmaking strategy and some of the larger lessons they’ve learned along the way about the opportunities and challenges of funding in the movement-building space.
Charles Noyes set up the foundation in 1947, primarily to provide scholarships. His theory of change, if you will, was that investing in young people’s education was the way to make them thought leaders that would better society. And some Noyes scholars did go on to become pioneers in their fields. But the real innovation in this strategy was that Charles decided that half of the scholarships would go to nonwhite students, a rarely heard of and controversial decision during the fifties, an era of segregation.
Around the mid-eighties and nineties, when many major movements in the country were in full-swing, we began to reflect more on the politics of how decisions are made and how power is used in this country. It’s important that we aren’t afraid to talk about power, and how people in power make decisions. We came to the conclusion that in order to support folks on the margins of society, those whose health and civil rights were being challenged by decisions that they had no say in, we had to move towards a more focused social justice funding practice. We began supporting a diverse mix of organizations, from environmentalists to social justice organizations to farmers groups. They all had something in common: they were doing their work in their small part of the world, while looking at issues on a much larger basis. It was clear that the way to bring about change was to link them with others to create movements around their issues.
At this point we started what has become our current strategy of focusing on funding at the grassroots level, where the organizations are advocates speaking for themselves as an authentic member of the community. We also provide additional dollars so that these organizations can come together to explore common threads, build intellectual frameworks for the kinds of work they are doing and collaborate. This work is about growing organizations as well as strong networks.
I came to the foundation in 1991, after 15 years of working in a community-based organization in Newark. Much of the staff here comes from advocacy and community organizing backgrounds. Having folks with this kind of experience gave us a shot in the arm about playing a role in social movements, and it continues to shape how we approach our work. We have spent the necessary time thinking through how change happens and how we can support that process.
As far as our board goes, there was no real need to convince them. As we gradually began to work on setting this course for our foundation, we tended to attract board members who understood and were interested in investing in this type of work. Their role is to help us think through emerging opportunities and themes.
This type of funding is not for the timid. What you are doing is funding work that you hope is truly transformational — at a social, economic and political level. Like the food movement — funding the farm and organic food movements over the years has changed the way people look at something as fundamental as their food. There has been a push for localism, a focus on the whole food chain, attention to fairness towards farmers and workers — a complete shift in thinking about the food industry as a whole. When you’re setting out to do work like this, you can’t be too timid, and you need to understand that it takes time.
This is patient grantmaking. Oftentimes there are changes outside of our control that can totally change the movement landscape — elections or shifts in other parts of the world that change the flow of dollars. It’s not linear work; you are constantly reassessing opportunities and conditions. Any funder considering this kind of work should really take the time to self-evaluate, to think about how they normally do their work and how that will have to change. They will also have to think differently about evaluation. It’s not just what they have been able to achieve, it’s also about how they build membership, visibility, research and communication capacity. You are analyzing strategic capacity in addition to the actual products.
The grants help groups that identify needs for leadership development, organizational capacity building, crisis resolution, etc. We are flexible in the use of these funds. We decided to implement Special Assistance Grants because it made no sense to fund organizations without any additional resources for when the organization hit a lull or faced a fork in the road, as often happens when you are working in the movement context. We wanted to continue or partnership with these organizations, even when they were struggling, so we created a mechanism to get small grants out of the door to respond to their needs as they were identified. They come in small amounts, from $500 to $7,500 and they’ve been used for everything from building websites, to board training, to conference planning.
To use a metaphor, as a food and agriculture funder, we are aware of how you have to pay attention to the soil, continuously mending and caring for it in order to ensure a plants growth. That same nurturing, feeding and watering needed for the food system is necessary to help facilitate the growth of strong organizations.
A distinction needs to be made between funding movements at a local level and at doing so at a national level. When you fund local organization and local movements, the funder is automatically more visible. Funders should know that as you fund this effort locally, there may be repercussions or responses to your work. This isn’t the same at the national level, when you aren’t in the narrow community being served. There is more freedom from scrutiny at that level. However, when funding nationally, there are issues such as dynamics of different cultures and traditions around the country that you have to consider and prepare for.
Also, I would urge all who are thinking about this work to make sure there is ethnic and racial diversity at the table. A social movement isn’t going to succeed unless all people are at the table. Foundations have a powerful role in making that happen, we can give resources to groups who aren’t strong enough to have a voice and get them to the table with other advocates. The good food, organic food, pro-choice movements were all white, middle class movements, and there were limitations to the success they could achieve because they weren’t as inclusive as they needed to be. It’s important to look at the ecosystem and think about making resources available to people who haven’t been at the table and whose voices are just as important.