Community foundations are a type of donor-advised fund. Donors make gifts to a fund they set up with the foundation, which handles the investment and paperwork. Donors recommend which charities to support from the fund, but the foundation makes the grants.
For some, foundation staff become philanthropic advisers. “We try to find a person’s passion and connect that person to a charity that’s about their passion,” says president Terri Freeman.
After Weingast opened a fund with the foundation, he asked staff to review financial statements of groups he wanted to support. Over time, he asked the foundation to help expand his giving beyond groups he already knew. He initially picked three issues to focus on—education, homelessness, and hunger. More recently, he’s added the environment, an interest of his wife, Alison, whom he married this fall.
Several days a year, he joins foundation staff to tour nonprofits he might support. “I look at this as though I’m investing God’s money,” says Weingast, who’s Jewish. “His blessings are the reason that I have this money, so I have to think about what he would want to do with it.”
With each group, Weingast studies its spending. How much is spent on facilities? What percentage of staff is volunteer? How much do senior staff get paid? (“I want them to make a living. But if they want private-sector wages, they need to be in the private sector.”)
On the day of his visit to the Capital Area Food Bank, Weingast is accompanied by two community-foundation officials. Each has read the food bank’s proposal for how it would use Weingast’s $25,000 to increase distribution of fresh produce to area service agencies.
Brian Smith, the food bank’s chief operating officer, leads the group on a tour of his warehouse, where 20 million pounds of donated food arrive each year, largely from retailers and wholesalers. More than 700 soup kitchens and service agencies rely on the food bank, Smith says, including big nonprofits such as Martha’s Table but also small, faith-based outfits—“the little old lady in Northern Virginia working out of the back of the church.”
Smith shows Weingast stacks of dry and canned goods that reach 24 feet high. He takes him into the freezer and talks of an innovative plan to swap surplus with food banks in Richmond and Baltimore.
The tour concludes in the food bank’s offices, where talk turns to the fresh-produce proposal. Weingast says he wants his money to make a difference. If he gives the food bank $25,000, he won’t be shy about making sure that happens. “I guarantee you,” he says, “I will follow up.”
Tech mogul Mario Morino was among the first in Washington to promote what’s called “social entrepreneurialism.” In the late 1990s, having secured his fortune through high-tech companies he created in Northern Virginia, Morino traveled the country interviewing nonprofit leaders and others in philanthropy. Many reminded him of the smart, passionate entrepreneurs he’d backed in tech start-ups.
What they lacked, Morino decided, was the money and know-how to grow. He created Venture Philanthropy Partners, a foundation funded mostly by fellow tech leaders such as Ted Leonsis, Mark Warner, and Steve Case. The group backs small groups with strong leaders and the vision to grow. Good nonprofits often can find a funder for a specific program, says Carol Thompson Cole, head of Venture Philanthropy. Rarely do they have money to invest in themselves.
One of the first organizations Venture Philanthropy backed was the Latin American Youth Center. It opened in the District in 1974 and has won national attention for its gang-prevention initiatives and work with teens. As immigration brought significant numbers of Hispanics to the suburbs, its leaders recognized they had to expand beyond the District.
“But they had 50 programs,” Cole says. “How do you move 50 programs?”
Morino’s group provided money but also helped plan the expansion. It helped recruit new leaders, find business partners in the new locales, and navigate local government bureaucracies.
“It’s high-engagement philanthropy,” Cole says. “We roll up our sleeves and work with them day to day.”
Old-line foundations are embracing similar approaches. The Mead Family Foundation for years was headed by Gilbert Mead, heir to a paper-manufacturing fortune. Mead and his wife, Jaylee, gave more than $50 million to performing-arts organizations in Washington and supported nonprofits focused on education and strengthening families.
When Gilbert Mead died last year, his daughters Betsy, 55, and Diana, 53, set out to reorient the foundation’s work and identify effective nonprofits that could grow with funding for operating costs and expanding capacity. They hired Eric Kessler and together agreed to support fewer groups but increase the size of grants to have more impact.
Like Morino, Betsy Mead wants to help nonprofits boost their capacity to change. “I have a vision and want to shake things up,” she says.
This push from social entrepreneurs comes at a time when nonprofits are doing more to demonstrate the impact of donations. Groups often prepare “gift packages” that spell out how a donation will be used, whether it’s $100 or $1 million.
Charities also are spelling out ways to measure their success. For years, nonprofits have appealed to donors’ hearts by showing society’s needs, says Chuck Bean, executive director of the Nonprofit Roundtable: “But we’ve also got to view donors as accountants with green eyeshades and show the return on their dollar.”