Entrepreneurial Philanthropy Defines the Foundation’s Work

The Foundation is practicing Entrepreneurial Philanthropy

Sometimes when you’ve been at something awhile, a reboot is necessary.  Sometimes just changing up how you do things can bring vibrancy and new energy, exposing previously untested opportunities to address old challenges. In philanthropy, changing up how you conduct your business can be particularly challenging because the familiar is comfortable both internally to staff and trustees, and externally to the grant-seeking community.  However, nearly three years ago, the trustees of the Foundation directed staff to do just that. They told staff they wanted the Foundation to be more proactive, getting out from behind our desks to discover, vet and incubate the most promising opportunities to address the funding priorities identified in our 2010 strategic planning. They told us to find and build relationships with both likely and unlikely stakeholders. And they told us to act like entrepreneurs.

Excited and a little overwhelmed at the time, staff soon learned to relish this new-found role.  You see, it made all the sense in the world – entrepreneurship is in the DNA of the family.  Five generations of the Phillips family have found success in their business endeavors, allowing for tremendous opportunities to give back to their communities.  After nearly 20 years of traditional grantmaking it was now time for the Foundation to embrace that same spirit.

So, two years ago when we embarked on this journey to be a more proactive and engaged grantmaker, we knew that it would challenge us all to think and act in new ways.  Our focus shifted from responding to interested organizations, reading proposals and cutting checks, to investigating and vetting ways to solve entrenched social problems.  We worked with others to identify the problems that we believed our resources and staff capacity could tackle, and we employed a number of new tools to help us address these problems holistically and strategically. We have come to understand and name this kind of philanthropy “entrepreneurial”, and we believe our approach is truly unique among our local family foundation peers.

J. Gregory Dees of Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship defines “entrepreneurial philanthropy” as “the productive efforts of an individual, team, or organization that reform or revolutionize the patterns by which private resources and relationships are mobilized and deployed to effect social change.” This definition suits us well as we seek “revolutionary” ways to address the challenges facing our community.

Today, the Foundation sees entrepreneurial philanthropy as a critical extension of our history. We believe that staff should have the opportunity to proactively seek out the best ideas, broker relationships with traditional and unconventional stakeholders, look for ways to leverage our resources for greater return, and insert our influence where change is possible. Entrepreneurs look for and invest in promising opportunities. Our staff should do the same. So today, we spend more time investigating promising approaches, building relationships across all sectors, and we invite proposals for funding rather than waiting for them to come to us.  We stay fully engaged with our grantees throughout the year, and continually look for ways to leverage our limited resources.

Over the last couple of years, we have put this entrepreneurial approach to work in a number of distinct ways that are more fully described on our website. I will, however provide limited detail on a couple of efforts currently underway.

  • Our Phillips Sectoral Employment Initiative (PSEI) supports industry-focused training and placement programs at nonprofits in the Twin Cities metro area that equip low-income job-seekers with the skills needed to secure quality employment.  Based on national research and promising approaches, PSEI intends to show that low-income job seekers with barriers to employment can succeed in the workforce when equipped with the right skills to compete for jobs in growing industries such as healthcare, construction and transportation. What makes PSEI entrepreneurial is the combination of unlikely components: nonprofit employment training providers, onsite VISTA resources to help them build their capacity, regular training for providers and VISTA members, and access to national consulting support.
  • In response to supportive housing providers, we have spent nearly two years working with a number of public and private partners to develop and build a centralized supportive housing referral database called MATSH (Metro Access To Supportive Housing). This system will consolidate all housing with services opportunities in the metro area into one searchable online database accessed by housing locators through a password-protected login.  MATSH will allow them to see all requirements, vacancies and amenities searchable by housing type, geography, price, etc. They will be able to save searches, receive alerts when housing becomes available and send online inquiries.  The intent is to increase match efficacy and create efficiencies in the system, while also tracking data that can be used to inform policy discussions. MATSH will launch in the summer of 2013.

This new website and our new office space intend to be physical manifestations of this approach to philanthropy.  Our office space serves as a welcoming place to host meetings and convening of stakeholders engaged in our work, as well as a resource for use by nonprofits and other groups needing comfortable and accessible meeting space. The website will be interactive with staff and guest blogs and resources updated on a regular basis. We invite you to return often to see what we’re up to, and join our email list to get our periodic updates. And follow us on Twitter.

Throughout his life, Jay was a community leader, using his skills, influence and resources to forge community change. Our approach to entrepreneurial philanthropy intends to capture these attributes in a new day and with new and ever pressing issues. And like Jay and Rose, we’re in this for the long haul, knowing that we are stewards of precious resources that when used productively and creatively can accomplish great things.