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Leveraging the Collective Power of Philanthropy

By Susan K. Thomas, Melville Charitable Trust

The following us an excerpt from the article "Leveraging the Collective Power of Philanthropy," and is a part of FHO's Collaboration for Housing Justice series originally published by the Stanford Social Innovation Review. In the series, we share ideas, observations, and lessons from our housing justice efforts, including how and why the work will only move forward if it is systemic, anti-racist, and bridges sectors.

Illustration by Raffi Marhaba, The Dream Collective

How should the philanthropic sector address rising rents and the severe lack of affordable housing across the United States—two primary forces that cause people to lose their homes?

About seven years ago I was tasked with developing a funding portfolio for the Melville Charitable Trust to figure out how we—a small funder—could make an outsized impact on the growing supply issue and its cascading effects on our lowest-income friends, neighbors, and family members.

I was a senior program officer with the trust at that point, and was new to philanthropy and fairly new to housing. With only a mustard seed of knowledge, and a lot of humility, I spent time reading and learning from others about leaders in the field, the latest funding approaches, gaps in funding, and who was funding what.

Although new to both housing and philanthropy, I knew that where and how we live is integral to our health, education, and economic mobility. And I knew that unstable, unaffordable, and unsafe housing meant families had to choose between rent and food, utilities, medicines, and childcare. With limited affordable rental options in better resourced areas, people are sometimes held hostage in rodent- and mold-infested homes, battling the health consequences of toxic climate and environmental conditions, and far away from medical care, transportation, jobs, and quality schools.

To learn how the trust could do more, I reached out to grantmakers who funded housing, and, more importantly, to funders that did not support housing specifically but whose work signaled that they understood that housing stability impacted the broader outcomes they were hoping to see.

Insights from those early conversations were clarifying. While funder colleagues understood the inextricable connection between stable housing and issues like increasing graduation rates among kids in low-income areas, reducing childhood asthma, or increasing family income, it became evident that philanthropy was not organized to address intersectional issues—even within the same foundation.

Despite the intersectional social and economic challenges we address, philanthropy is typically organized by siloed programmatic areas. We need to address major issues like housing and homelessness in ways that impact the overall well-being of the people living in low-wealth communities, particularly people of color. For the trust, we could have continued to focus solely on improving the crisis response system to reconnect people to housing, but we realized the problem we were trying to solve was much bigger than people losing their homes. The problem is bigger than any one issue.

What would happen if we leveraged the collective power of philanthropy to improve the lives of a specific group of people rather than improve outcomes within a specific program area?


Good and Hard Lessons Learned

The most encouraging lesson from launching FHO is that foundations with varying programmatic priorities can collaborate on funding when we agree on who we’re trying to help and the result we want to see.

And as noted above, this was a long-term effort and required a lot of work and nudging to do things differently.

Philanthropy tends to defer to old mental models, thinking that if we can’t name a finite project with a beginning and end then we can’t support it. The beauty of funding through a collaborative allows funders to share the risk of taking the big bets we may not be able to fund on our own.

My greatest takeaway is the need to focus first on the population and the result, and then decide how we’ll get there, together, with multiple, complementary approaches that are rigorously examined and refined as needed.

Marion Wright Edelman used an unforgettable metaphor when speaking to a room of foundation executives about collaboration. She said, “Put the baby on the table. What does that baby need? You can’t say, ‘Well, I can’t help because I only fund arms’ or ‘I only fund feet.’” No! We need to come to the table each ready and willing to contribute according to our strengths and together we help that baby thrive.

What we tried to do with FHO, and are still working on, is to help philanthropy see housing as something that undergirds everything in our lives. It is the foundation for that baby to thrive. FHO’s north star is that renters have access to safe, stable homes they can afford in communities that support better health, economic mobility, and access to good jobs and schools, free from the barriers and harms of systemic racism. To me, that’s not a project—that's a whole new way to view grantmaking. As this series of essays has highlighted, we’ve made progress, but there is more to be done. As a sector, I believe we have not maximized our potential impact. But I am still hopeful.


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