Smarter Grantmaking in Action: The Florida Bar Foundation
By confronting gaps between its mission and its way of doing business, The Florida Bar Foundation is deepening impact in the communities it serves.
Since 1956, the Florida Bar Foundation has worked to expand access to justice and civil legal services for Florida residents. But within the past decade—and despite receiving its highest levels of funding—the foundation learned that only a fraction of Florida’s low-income residents’ legal needs were being met. Bruce Blackwell, executive director says, “At the point in time when we were putting out as much $35 million a year in legal aid funding, we reached 20% of the need. We were still unable to serve 80% of the people, and since the economic downturn we’re probably serving only 10%.” Additionally, reduced revenue was impacting the amount of general support grants the foundation could give each year, ultimately reducing its grantee partners’ ability to bring legal services to those who need it most. Principal support for the foundation’s charitable activities comes from the Interest on Trust Accounts (IOTA) program implemented by the Florida Supreme Court in 1981. For the past eight years, interest rates on bank deposits have remained at historic, near-zero levels — almost a decade ago the IOTA program generated nearly $44 million a year, but it has yielded less than $6 million annually for the last several years.
These changes to the foundation’s principal support, an ever-changing legal landscape and a responsibility to act on what it learned about the gaps in its impact prompted The Florida Bar Foundation to embrace a strategic reset. Blackwell says, “One could argue that we’re largely irrelevant unless we are willing to make some level of change to figure out how we can go forward and do things another way. We have to change how we can get to people that have legal problems. First of all, we have to help them understand that they have a legal problem. What we’re really trying to do with this reset is affect vulnerable communities — some communities that have been vulnerable for a very long time.” The foundation’s reset focuses on three primary strategies:
- Maximizing the impact and effectiveness of civil legal assistance to low- and moderate-income individuals and communities in Florida
- Expanding the foundation’s role as an expert and facilitator of effective civil legal assistance
- Serving as a catalyst for broad-based systemic change and innovative solutions to reduce and eliminate the civil justice gap in Florida
The foundation embraced the fact that it could reach more people and have a greater impact by partnering with others, and the reset positions the foundation to establish itself not only as a source of funds and expertise, but as a strategic leader in the goal of increased access to justice for all.
We’re looking for collective impact. We’re trying to bust out of silos, and collective impact is different thinking overall — for us and our grantees.
– Jennifer Wimberly, director of grants, The Florida Bar Foundation
How It Works
To accomplish its new goal, the Florida Bar Foundation will revisit its practices to ensure all of them support justice for all through collective impact. That means carefully examining current funding and delivery models and grant evaluation methods —changing benchmarks, measurable outcomes and accountability measures where necessary. The foundation is empowering its existing grantees to become self-sustaining and independent. Moving forward the foundation requires that grantees also collaborate and build meaningful partnerships with other nonprofits and social service agencies and be prepared to share their best practices, successes, and lessons learned. Over the next five years, The Florida Bar Foundation will be seeking out collaborative relationships and strategic partnerships and expanding its communications program to increase awareness of the foundation’s expertise.
In support of its strategic reset, The Florida Bar Foundation launched the Florida Racial Justice Fellowship to emphasize and facilitate community-building. The fellowship helps legal services attorneys in Florida explore questions of equity, implicit bias, root causes and systemic solutions. Participants join and build deeper relationships with a network of attorneys through five webinars and two overnight retreats. The fellowship is a community-driven project with an overall goal of improving outcomes for communities of color. It is also one of many ways the foundation helps create access to equitable legal aid to communities in Florida.
In the wake of Hurricane Irma, the foundation has set aside $500,000 to help affected legal aid organizations get up and running again to meet the storm-related civil legal needs of their clients. It is supplementing these funds by soliciting donations to the Florida Hurricane Legal Fund. As the foundation responds to the storm, it is applying the principles of its strategic reset by seeking to partner with other organizations and funders. On its “Storm Aid” web page, which encompasses initiatives of the foundation and its partner organizations, are links to civil legal aid resources for hurricane survivors and pro bono attorneys interested in helping them.
Inspiring Ideas for Improvement
- “If you’re going to be in this space, don’t be reticent about being willing to fail. If we’re going to live up to what our mission says we should do, we need to implement change. We have to be a change agent and bring people along in some cases.” -Bruce Blackwell, executive director
- “Be transparent when communicating about funding changes. We set up a page on our website with information about the strategic reset and we made very clear what our financial outlook was and how it would impact grantees well in advance of when that impact actually affected them. We did everything we could to make sure that no one was taken by surprise.” –Nancy Kinnally, director of communications
- “Understand what drives and motivates millennials. They are already leaders and they understand the disruptive influences on every part of our society. If we’re not planning and understanding what drives and motivates millennials, we’re planning for the past, not the future.” -Melissa Moss, deputy director/strategic initiatives
- Tap the knowledge and energy of other change agents. “Participating in GEO’s Change Leader’s in Philanthropy Fellowship has changed my way of thinking and has advanced it more rapidly than if I were just here in this space alone. I’m now looking at philanthropy as a whole and see a bigger picture across sectors.” -Jennifer Wimberly, director of grants