At Funders Together, we make it a goal to share the work of funders across the country so you can learn what's working and adapt these strategies to your own community. One way we do that is through our Featured Members. Some are featured because of their innovative grantmaking. Others are featured because they are making connections and bringing new people into the conversation about ending and preventing homelessness. Still others are featured because they are challenging the very systems that allow homelessness to persist. In each case, our Featured Members are an integral part of the solution to homelessness.
Butler Family Fund is a founding member of Funders Together to End Homelessness. In 1992, when the Butler Family Fund started with $10 million, it chose a mandate to help the less fortunate. Twenty years later, Butler Family Fund is a philanthropic leader, making connections between the efforts to end and prevent homelessness and work to secure employment for the long-term unemployed. Executive Director Martha Toll talks about the Fund's impact and vision for the future.
Q: Butler Family Fund takes a different approach to homelessness than many other funders in the space, funding programs focused on employment, foster care, and TANF. Why did you include those areas?
A: Historically, we have been focused on housing – trying to expand affordable housing and pushing back on proposals to cut funding for affordable housing. In the late 2000’s, we entered into partnership with Oak Foundation to focus on prevention and sustainable solutions beyond housing. We looked for underfunded areas and it was pretty clear to us that employment as it relates to homelessness was in desperate need of funding. Our board was also clear from the beginning that advocacy was a priority. We need to elevate voices in these three areas so policymakers understand what’s happening in communities and to families.
Q: Butler Family Fund has identified four strategies in its grantmaking: funding advocacy, promoting systems change, investing in collaborative efforts, and taking risks with new initiatives. Why did the Fund prioritize these strategies?
A: We knew that we would be giving relatively small grants and we felt the most useful thing would be to promote policy change for broader impact. We do that in a variety of ways, many of which do not involve money. For example, as a funder, we embrace the role of connector. We work to bring together foundations, advocates, providers, government partners, etc. to develop a shared vision for ending and preventing homelessness. We talk about what we are doing individually and try to figure out how we can collaborate and partner to help the system better serve our most vulnerable.
We also believe in investing in people. People are the best risks you can take. A critical part of our work – and philanthropic work more broadly – is finding the best people to do the job and invest in their leadership. Make sure these leaders are learning from and working with each other. Train them to be advocates. Put them in positions to train the next generations of advocates.
Q: As you said before, Butler Family Fund gives relatively small grants. Has that been an advantage in your work?
A: Absolutely. Our small grants allow us to be very nimble and flexible. We can incubate new ideas. We can test programs and approaches that we think work, and help lay the foundations for proving their effectiveness. You don’t always have data in the beginning, and for foundations that are prepared to make a substantial investment, that’s tough. We can help them test things out and set the stage for substantial, scalable, and evidence-based grantmaking.
Q: What would you say to funders who are currently involved in homelessness work and who are interested in learning and/or doing more on employment. Where can they start?
A: We have learned that philanthropy is a marathon, not a sprint, and that has helped guide our vision and work.
One of the great challenges we see in local communities is that the homeless providers don’t know the people in the community who provide employment services to people with high barriers. In many places, both of these groups exist. They just don’t talk to each other. In our view, it’s not about adding employment to homeless providers’ workload. It’s about creating partnerships. It’s thinking about how the systems in your community function right now and developing a plan to get everyone to work together.
Because we are addressing complex problems as funders, we must adopt a way of thinking to match. We do this work because we want to make our communities better. The same goes for providers and advocates. Funders can and should convene these people around the same table. Start the conversations and help form these relationships. Bring in local workforce boards and government partners to see how they can be part of the movement for change across multiple systems. Bring in the business community and identify what employers are looking for. What kinds of positions are they trying to fill? Funders can have a tremendous impact in communities if they encourage these kinds of conversations.
Want to see past featured members? Check out the archive here.