National Funder, Local Influence: How To Be Mindful of Your Playing Field
By Angela Sanchez, Exponent Philanthropy
I work for a foundation that is modestly young in the national grantmaking sector. At about four years into its current field, we can't quite say we're the new kid on the block anymore, but we've certainly seen a rapid amount of structural change since we first launched.
Transitioning from a scholarship fund to an organizational grantmaker, ECMC Foundation maintained its educational focus, but now with an emphasis on supporting postsecondary degree/credential attainment among young adults and adult learners from traditionally underserved populations. With our sights set on affecting the postsecondary landscape at large, we maintain a dedication to our national scope. We're also based in Los Angeles.
That's where things get tricky.
With its sprawling neighborhoods and ribbons of freeways, Los Angeles covers a lot of turf. The nonprofit sector matches its city's complexity; Los Angeles is home to over 31,000 nonprofits. For a postsecondary funder, such as ECMC Foundation, the higher education landscape is hard to ignore. Our city boasts nine community colleges in its immediate district, a major public flagship (my dear alma mater, the University of California Los Angeles), several private universities, and five campuses in our California State University system. This is in addition to the over 4,000 education nonprofits in the area, many dedicated to seeing their students enter and complete college.
With so much activity outside our window, remaining agnostic to geography isn't easy. But being a national funder does not mean being disconnected to the activity happening in our own backyards. It's a careful exchange to be locally engaged while staying true to mission. In working at ECMC Foundation for three years, the following is what I've learned so far.
Don't shy away
Being a national funder doesn't mean closed doors. One of the first communities ECMC Foundation joined was Southern California Grantmakers (SCG). SCG is dedicated to building community among funders, especially in fields that align with their giving strategies through targeted workshops, conferences, and networking opportunities. With the encouragement of my program director and in partnership with SCG staff, I developed the College Access Funders Group in 2016. In engaging our local funders' community, ECMC Foundation's presence is still connected to our local philanthropic sector, and as the regular convener for the group, we stay attentive to the major topics of interest and coordinate learning opportunities for our peers.
Do set limitations
ECMC Foundation is dedicated to its commitment of funding nationally, but there are numerous, worthy organizations we could fund within Los Angeles County alone. This, unfortunately, means we have to be conscientious as to how vested we are in the local landscape. We are very clear in our decision to fund programs that are scalable and have the potential to serve students beyond Los Angeles County. Additionally, finding opportunities to work statewide has also allowed us to ensure that Los Angeles will benefit from our work in California. One example is ECMC Foundation's support of the nudge app GradGuru, which has been building out its partnerships with the California Community Colleges to support students' pathways to successful transfer.
Be transparent about your scope and strategy
In any given year, we receive a fair number of requests from local organizations, some of which are education adjacent (e.g., supporting a school garden) or not in our target population. In an effort to be as transparent as possible, we make applicants aware both on our website and through our inquiry portal about our portfolios' specific giving strategies and target populations. We're also careful to look for programs that have measurable outcomes and sustainable impact. But not meeting these marks does not mean that we will not engage or offer thought partnership to a local organization. As long as both parties are aware of the foundation's giving stance, we readily make ourselves available to provide feedback and resources to the locally based organizations that reach out.
Finding opportunities to speak to local funders, volunteer in the community, and attend local learning sessions are all critical to maintaining an informed perspective on giving, no matter the scale. When I'm able to attend knowledge-sharing sessions, even those with a local focus, I have the opportunity to observe the clarity of a pipeline or soak up lessons learned from another funder-nonprofit relationship or network. When I volunteer, I am reminded of all the legwork that goes into the immediate execution of a nonprofit that provides a direct service. As a board member at a Los Angeles-based nonprofit, I keep in mind leadership development, fundraising, and the complexities that accompany all of it. Every step that a national funder takes to be engaged in its immediate community has a positive impact on its ability to make decisions at a larger scale.
And on the note about scale . . .
Look for (and support) outsized impact
When we find a program in our backyard that has outstanding outcomes, our response is to figure out how the efforts can leverage our investment, whether that's through scaling or replication of the work or supporting the leadership of an organization to influence others. In the case of the latter, we've been grateful for the partnership of the Los Angeles Scholars Investment Fund (LASIF). In 2017, ECMC Foundation supported LASIF's work to select, guide, and convene college access- and college success-focused nonprofits in their efforts to engage more young men of color in their programs. LASIF's cohort model will not only yield best practices and lessons learned but also will raise the dialogue around a nuanced and frequently overlooked population when we discuss student postsecondary success outcomes.
Angela Sanchez is Program Analyst, College Success, with ECMC Foundation, a Los Angeles-based, nationally focused foundation, funded by ECMC Group. The mission of ECMC Foundation is to inspire and facilitate improvements that affect educational outcomes—especially among underserved populations—through evidence-based innovation. Angela is also an alumna of Exponent Philanthropy's Next Gen Fellows Program.