Funders Together members wear many hats in their communities – they act as investors, spokespersons, issue experts and mentors. One of the most important tools that any funder can use is its own reputation and influence.
Funders Together members wear many hats in their communities – they act as investors, spokespersons, issue experts and mentors. One of the most important tools that any funder can use is its own reputation and influence. If you are a known leader in your community, then tackling an issue such as homelessness could be your most effective investment, and the most important challenge your board takes on. The Plough Foundation in Memphis, TN offers a perfect example of the potential for foundation leadership at the local level, as described in this profile of the foundation from the Southeastern Council on Foundation’s February/March 2010 Interchange newsletter.
Barbara Jacobs, program director at the Plough Foundation, has worked with other funders, agencies and the local government for years to address homeless issues in her city. The key, she says, is understanding the full scope of the issue and aligning with multiple public and private partners to tackle it.
“The Plough Foundation got involved in homelessness in the early 1990s, when a downtown rehabilitation hospital was closing down and offered the building to the city as a homeless shelter,” Jacobs explains. “Plough was asked to fund the renovation of the building, but we were new to the issue and wanted to explore it a little more before taking a project like this on.”
The Memphis Grantmakers Forum was forming at the same time, so the Plough Foundation engaged the other grantmakers in discussion. The Forum studied the needs, issues and services provided by local agencies around homelessness and ended up creating a task force of funders, corporations, government agencies and service providers. The task force mapped out a continuum of care that matched the needs of the homeless with providers, identifying gaps in services. “Although estimates had been as high as 50,000, we found that Memphis has approximately 10,000 homeless throughout the year, and about 2,500 at any one time,” says Jacobs.
Given this more accurate picture of the homeless situation in Memphis, the Plough Foundation decided not to renovate the building, but to work instead with the city and other funders to create an umbrella organization, Partners for the Homeless, that would eventually grow to oversee the city’s applications for HUD funding for the homeless (now $4.7 million annually), monitor the continuum of care, and conduct an annual count of the homeless. Partners also serves as an information resource for funders, community planning groups and service agencies.
The Plough Foundation has provided operating support for Partners for the Homeless since its inception — and has learned a great deal about the issue in the process.
“In the beginning, the main need in Memphis was traditional housing for families — typically women with children who need a place to live and support services for six to 12 months while they get back on their feet,” explains Jacobs. “Lately, the focus for HUD funds has been on permanent supportive housing for adults with mental health challenges or others who need lifetime assistance.” Despite the economic downturn, the homeless count in Memphis has remained steady over the last two years, but Jacobs says that this may be because the process includes only those living on the streets or in shelters, and not those who are doubling up with friends or relatives after losing their homes. New HUD data, coupled with the latest count of homeless in Memphis (being conducted with this writing), will continue to inform Partners for the Homeless, which will in turn inform local government and service providers about changing trends in needs. Jacobs says that being part of a public-private approach for a huge issue like homelessness has helped the Plough Foundation target its giving in ways that make the biggest impact. For example, the Foundation often supplies the private funds required to obtain and leverage funds from the city or federal government.
It also focuses on providing grants for facilities, supplementing the more-easily-obtained operating funds that most agencies receive from other sources, such as HUD.
“Our mission is fairly broad — to improve lives — but our service area is only Memphis and Shelby County,” explains Jacobs. “We believe that building an infrastructure that supports homeless services and keeps federal dollars flowing into our city fits right into our mission.”
In response to the claim that homelessness can be almost eradicated in the U.S., Jacobs says that if it does happen, it will be due to a massive amount of collaboration at all levels and in all communities.
“I don’t know that we’ll ever not have homeless people, but we can serve those who are and help break the cycle when we can. I can’t stress the importance of public/private partnerships enough. No single foundation, or corporation, or government entity can do this on its own. Leveraging assets is the key.”
Betsey Russell, Plough Foundation