Foundations in northeast Indiana collaborate to reap best outcomes
By Bridgett Hernandez | Greater Fort Wayne Business Weekly
Some signs of economic and social progress are easy to see – the brick and mortar of a new storefront or the cap and gown of a high school graduate – while others are less visible or, as Patti Hays put it:
“It’s not always as sexy.”
The CEO of the AWS Foundation was referring to the work done by 175 community, public, corporate and private foundations in northeast Indiana. While it’s not unusual for foundations to help fund capital projects, the bulk of their investments are aimed at improving the wellbeing of people and communities.
This work might including meeting nutritional needs, improving literacy, providing access to health care and teaching money management skills.
“There’s nowhere to put a plaque,” Hays said, but that doesn’t make the work any less of an economic driver in the community.
In order to leverage their resources to maximize positive outcomes in the region, foundations are putting their heads together.
“It’s not uncommon when you see a big project in the community for multiple foundations to have a role in it,” said David Bennet, executive director of the Community Foundation of Greater Fort Wayne.
Take riverfront development for example, he said. The Foellinger and Community foundations played a huge role in fundraising for the project, helping to raise $2 million that was then matched 1:2 by the Lilly Endowment.
The AWS Foundation has also done its part, Bennet said. Its contribution ensures that the project goes above and beyond the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act so that people of all abilities will be able to have access to that setting, he said.
The foundations are also working together on a study about the economic impact of nonprofits due out later this year. Somewhere between one in 10 and one in 12 people in Allen County are employed in the nonprofit sector, so their salaries and benefits contribute to the local economy, Bennet said. What’s more is the positive impact they make on their clients’ lives, he added.
The study, which will include a half dozen case studies, will explore this effect.
“If we are successful in getting people who are dependent on assistance to independence through gaining skills or housing, what does this mean for the local economy?” Bennet asked. “If you have someone go from homeless to full employment, that’s a clear economic impact.”
While contributions from foundations may not account for the bulk of agency’s operating budget, the funds allow them flexibility and that’s important to creative thinking, said Cheryl Taylor, president of the Foellinger Foundation.
“Foundations really are the economic engines of the nonprofit community,” she said. “We might not be the bulk of an organization’s operating budgets, but what we can do and what we’re intentional about is contributing flexible resources to those organizations. I think that can help their leaders inspire creativity and focus on strategic thinking.”
Such giving includes the foundation’s capacity grants, which allows nonprofit leaders to take a step back from their schedule of planning and fundraising to take time to think and reflect on how they can make their organizations better.
Meg Distler, executive director of St. Joseph Community Health Foundation, said that while Regional Cities Initiative funding steals the headlines, the impact of foundation giving is often an untold story.
Collectively, foundations in northeast Indiana donated more than $113 million last year.
“Most of this money has been left here by previous groups,” she said. “They invested it in the future and that’s something we should be very proud of and talking about.”
Hays said this investment has a ripple effect, citing a 2008 study by the Philanthropic Collaborative that found that for every dollar spent by foundations, more than $8 is generated in economic and social benefits. If that’s the case, she said, foundation giving in northeast Indiana generates nearly $1 billion in such benefits.
Foundations are also strong supports of the arts in the community, Hays said. This helps improve quality of life in the region and drive economic development. What was initially an investment in the wellbeing of people and communities creates an environment that attracts talent and employers, she said.