Community Foundations: First Responders of Philanthropy

They work with individual donors, community collaborators and corporate leaders to address their community’s needs 

by Steve Seleznow

After a year full of crises and uncertainty, the dawn of 2021 seems like an appropriate time to reflect on the work of community foundations across the country. Any reflection must consider a nation dealing with a public health pandemic, social justice issues taking a prominent space on the national stage, and an unprecedented presidential election. This confluence of circumstances has delivered a mix of both positive and negative impacts on individuals, communities and businesses in every corner of the United States. But through it all, community foundations — and the donors who entrust them with their charitable assets — have taken swift action to support nonprofit organizations, small businesses and the communities they serve as we collectively react to these difficult and constantly evolving circumstances.

Through the first four months of the COVID-19 outbreak, community foundations across the U.S. mobilized more than $1.0 billion to support the efforts of nonprofits on the front lines, offering a critical lifeline and ensuring that those in need received food, shelter, PPE and other basic needs. The speed with which these foundations responded and the crisis itself were unique, but the act of giving and support was not. As they have done for more than 100 years, community foundations mobilized and distributed funds to help communities large and small, from big cities and their suburbs to small towns and surrounding rural areas. Because of their local connections and knowledge of the nonprofit ecosystem, community foundations are well-suited for collecting charitable dollars and distributing grants to the organizations that provide vital services day in and day out.

Here in Arizona, the Arizona Community Foundation partnered with Valley of the Sun United Way and other community partners to fundraise and efficiently distribute more than $9.2 million in immediate relief grants to nonprofits serving all 15 counties. The bulk of these dollars was distributed before government assistance programs were finalized, helping nearly 700 nonprofits keep up with increased demand or shift their service delivery model to accommodate physical distancing measures. 

In addition to this continued support of Arizona’s nonprofit community, ACF was able to expand its grantmaking processes to deliver grants to another hard-hit community: local small-business owners. When the CARES funding was finalized and distributed to local governmental organizations, ACF contracted with nine local government entities to distribute more than $75 million in small business relief grants. Throughout the summer and fall, more than 11,000 applications were vetted, with 6,039 individual grants distributed. These grants provided financial lifelines for small businesses and restaurants suffering from lost revenues due to the pandemic. Yet another example of how community foundations are poised to act quickly and respond to the challenges faced by local communities.

Community foundations also work with individual donors, community collaborators and corporate leaders to address the needs of the communities they serve. Through the second half of 2020, many worked to address the issues of racial injustice brought to the national spotlight by delivering educational sessions and convenings. As a trusted, nonpartisan convener on many issues, community foundations are uniquely suited to elevate voices that are often underrepresented or unheard. 

The Arizona Community Foundation elevated this topic through its Black Philanthropy Initiative and a four-part webinar series, Foresight 20/20. This series, presented during Black Philanthropy Month in August, provided an opportunity for the general public to learn about the civil rights movement in Arizona, solutions for economic equality, addressing inequalities in social justice and recent patterns of economic inequality. These sessions encouraged dialog and shared data that will serve as the building blocks for addressing racial inequity in the state. By the end of the series, the ACF Black Philanthropy Initiative launched the BPI Social Justice fund, which to-date has raised more than $1 million to focus on building economic security and stability for Black-led businesses operating in Arizona.

Whether working to address social justice, educational outcomes, affordable housing, food insecurity, health innovations, community development or any of the myriad social services and programs that make individuals’ lives better, community foundations across the country bring people together to research, convene, discuss and react to each individual community. They are as different from one another as the communities they serve, but they all share a common purpose: to create a better world through collaboration and philanthropy.  

The Arizona Community Foundation’s COVID-19 Impact Report: Supporting Communities Through Crisis provides an overview of the foundation’s response to COVID-19 in communities across Arizona. 

Advised Fundholders Provide Additional Relief.

An advised fund is a flexible giving tool that allows individuals, families and businesses to recommend grants that align with personal passions. Between March and July 2020, ACF donor advised fundholders recommended a total of $2 million grants to nonprofit organizations for COVID-19 relief (double that period the previous year). This was in addition to the $9.2 million distributed from ACF’s COVID-19 Community Response Funds.

Steve Seleznow is the president and CEO and Steve Evans is the board chair for the Arizona Community Foundation, a statewide family of charitable funds supported by thousands of Arizonans.

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