Smarter Grantmaking in Action: Vancouver Foundation

  • Shantaé François, July 20, 2017

How Vancouver Foundation made progress by getting out of the way and supporting nonprofits to do the work.

Founded in 1943, Vancouver Foundation exists to harness the gifts of energy, ideas, time, and money to make meaningful and lasting impacts in communities. The foundation is community inspired and takes its cues from those on the frontline of social change. By recognizing and staying true to the skills and assets it brings to its community, Vancouver Foundation thoughtfully convenes partners and funds community-based projects to enable social innovation and build capacity in the community to make progress on that work.

Key practices funders can incorporate to get out of the way

  • Connect. Make sure that you are in a diverse environment and start to assemble a coalition of partners that complement each other.
  • Engage. Engage a diverse group of partners to better understand the systems you are working in and the barriers to overcome.
  • Trust. The time spent building trust and getting to know each other and the systems you work in is time well spent.

Stepping Aside to Have Greater Impact

Vancouver Foundation’s Endowment 150 program was an initiative focused on strengthening financial security for people with disabilities by incentivizing them to open a Registered Disability Savings Plan — essentially a tax-free savings account. The initiative was popular immediately following its 2009 launch, but by 2011, there was a drop in the number of applicants and the foundation soon realized that $150 was insufficient as an incentive to get people to sign up. After having conversations with organizations that work with people with disabilities on a daily basis, Vancouver Foundation realized that the $150 incentive wouldn’t be most helpful. What people with disabilities really needed was one on one support to navigate the systems and requirements necessary to receive a RDSP.

This is when we realized we had to get out of the way.

Kevin McCort, president & CEO, Vancouver Foundation

“This is when we realized we had to get out of the way. We had to shift the program resources and move them into organizations that work with people with disabilities every day and enable them to do that work. Vancouver Foundation doesn’t have and never will have the connections and networks and the same degree of trust that these agencies have with the populations that they are reaching,” says Kevin McCort, president and CEO of Vancouver Foundation.

Every year, Vancouver Foundation funds hundreds of projects in arts and culture, education, children and youth issues, environment, animal welfare, community health, and social development. Because it doesn’t work solely with the disabled community, it got out of the way and made space for organizations that do — Planned Lifetime Advocacy Network Institute, Disability Alliance of British Columbia and British Columbia Aboriginal Network on Disability Society. “We shifted the program and we are now deploying the resources that were given to us to organizations that work directly with disabled communities. We found a solution that relied less on us and more on those actually working with the community we want to reach.” says McCort.

To get out of the way you need to find someone who can take your place.

Kevin McCort, president & CEO, Vancouver Foundation

In its new role, Vancouver Foundation provides the funding, ensures accountability, and supports the organizations to do the best work possible. Since the transition in 2014, the numbers of people with RDSPs have been growing again and McCort says, “Our partners are getting RDSPs into populations that we at one point thought might be inaccessible.”

Vancouver Foundation is proud of what it accomplished with Endowment 150 when operating the program. During that time, about 5,000 people with disabilities opened an RDSP, thereby strengthening their opportunity for financial security in the future. The foundation is equally proud of the redesigned initiative and has great hopes for what it can do to grow RDSP holders across British Columbia. By convening, granting, and enabling the conditions for social change, Vancouver Foundation is getting out of the way to get on with the work of social innovation.

Inspiring Ideas for Improvement from Kevin McCort

  • “Offering the incentive was no mistake. It worked and then it stopped working, so we had to find another way to work. It was an essential bit of innovation and created the conditions for us to learn about what to do next when that innovation ceased being the most effective way to get things done.”
  • “Getting out of the way enabled us to focus on our two core priorities of helping donors and granting. Rather than spread our capacities over multiple initiatives, we focused on our core and there was a definite payoff there.”
  • “To get out of the way you need to find someone who can take your place. And finding venues where you can form those relationships is really important. There are multiple ways to find these partners. You can do RFPs, solicited calls, working groups, etc.”
  • “Support organizations in the space doing the work without foundations doing the work. Ask yourself, ‘what community organization is doing the work and how can I help them do it better?’ and ‘how are we going to build capacity in the community to take this on?’”

Related resources:

Systems Grantmaking Resource Guide

Philanthropy is ever on a quest to increase effectiveness. Over the last few decades, there have been efforts to be more proactive, strategic, outcomes focused, learning oriented and inclusive. Along this journey, grantmakers have increasingly recognized that impact does not happen in isolation. The daunting problems facing society today are deeply embedded in a web of intractable issues, fragmented relationships and unpredictable events.

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Investing for Impact: Building the Capacity and Infrastructure of High-Performing Nonprofits

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