This past spring, Dr. Laurie Paarlberg, Charles Stewart Mott Chair on Community Foundations and professor of philanthropic studies, taught the course Nonprofit and Public Policy.
Master’s student Amanda Keating became interested in how public policy impacts and develops alongside nonprofits during her first semester, and knew she wanted to take a course specifically focused on public policy.
In a small class setting and with Dr. Paarlberg’s permission, Keating and her classmates decided to change the course’s structure.
“We wanted to conduct a semester-long research project based on something we were all interested in, in addition to exploring different topics of nonprofit and public policy every week,” Keating said.
The students picked a project focused on community foundations and equity.
“We knew Dr. Paarlberg is an expert when it comes to community foundations, but as a class, we were also interested in learning more about them,” Keating said. “Applying an equity lens to community foundations in the Midwest was something that appealed to all of us.”
The class chose several community foundations to study through an organization called CFLeads, a network consisting of community foundations. CFLeads has a specific cohort of foundations dedicated to working to make a difference in equity.
“We saw that some were from the Midwest, so we picked three from that list. Then, we wanted to learn about organizations that weren’t a part of this network that were still consciously working to be involved with issues around equity,” Keating said. “So, we picked five other organizations based around size, because we wanted to have a sample size of four smaller organizations and four larger organizations.”
The group also consciously chose six community foundations in urban environments, and two working in more rural areas.
The class used a mixed-methods research study and conducted qualitative and quantitative analyses. “The qualitative portion involved conducting interviews with eight different Midwest community foundations, typically with someone in leadership,” Keating explained.
“On the quantitative side, we analyzed Form 990 data from 2012 and 2016, and looked at ZIP codes where grants were distributed to see if they were distributed equitably based on the racial breakdowns of the ZIP codes and poverty rates of the ZIP codes. Then, we compared the qualitative and quantitative data to see whether the interviews aligned with what the grant data and ZIP codes showed.”
Keating and her classmates found that the funds distributed by the eight community foundations aligned with equity based on economic variables. However, the information from the interviews showed that community foundations are now refocusing their attention on racial equity as well.
“Much of that refocus on equity came through internally in their own culture,” Keating said. “While they recognized that there were ways to commit externally to working on equity, many of the foundations felt that they had to be living it in their own culture in order to be presenting it out to the community.
“From our conversations, we got the sense that the organizations were always striving to do more, while recognizing that there’s still a lot of work to be done!”
Keating expressed pleasant surprise that the community foundations they interviewed did not experience much donor or grantee pushback when announcing that they would take on equity issues: “From our interviews, we didn’t hear that donors or grantees pushed back on these new priorities, which was good to hear.”
And were there differences between the urban and rural foundations?
Yes, Keating noted: “The two rural community foundations didn’t outwardly say that they were pursuing or pushing for equity and weren’t really talking about it internally within their respective organizations. But we did note that they have made grants to lower income individuals and families with children in schools, and also granted to programs that help those with developmental disabilities. They employ less of a direct equity lens compared to the urban foundations, but they’re still working on the issue in their own way.”
In comparison, the urban ones addressed equity internally, and tried to ensure that their boards and staff demographically represented the community, implemented trainings in the community and with staff around equity issues, and developed board support for these initiatives. At the beginning, Keating and her classmates didn’t know about the importance of pursuing equity in the foundations’ internal cultures, but they learned that it became one of the key ways organizations began working on equity.
The project helped Keating understand the large number of systems at play within society, how different institutions become involved with equity, and reasons how and why individuals experience inequity. She noted the importance of community foundations in conducting this work.
“By working on it internally through their own staff and board, and then slowly introducing it into their community through community-wide trainings, various grant projects, and staffing and board requirements in grant applications, community foundations can begin to make a difference in supporting equity,” she said.
“Community foundations also play an important role in holding other nonprofits accountable for equity, and establishing it as an issue in a community. By asking, ‘this is where we’ve been. It’s not working. This is where we need to go. How do we get there?’ community foundations can begin to make an impact on equity within the broader community.
“Equity is incredibly important, and going to become more so over time. I hope that everyone in the class keeps equity in mind as we move into this field and try to continue this work by making our communities more equitable for many living in them.”