Tamara Lucas Copeland, President, Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers

Tamara Lucas Copeland, President, Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers

Tamara Lucas Copeland was named president of the Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers in September 2006 after having served in a variety of leadership positions in the nonprofit and public sectors. Recently, PND spoke with her about Beyond Dollars: Investing in BIG Change (How Washington Area Grantmakers Are Creating Lasting Impact), a new report from Washington Grantmakers that looks at how D.C.-area grantmakers are driving change by attacking problems at their core, capitalizing on timing and momentum, leveraging resources, and building true partnerships.

Philanthropy News Digest: What was the sample range for the case studies referenced in the Beyond Dollars report — that is, how many organizations were surveyed and over what period of time?

Tamara Copeland: With Beyond Dollars, we are actually trying to focus attention on the critical grantmaker practices that are not easily quantified. So we didn't survey our members, exactly, but we did reach out to the entire membership asking for stories. How has your philanthropy led to systemic reform? How has it had significant impact on a broad audience? As we sifted through these stories, we noticed some common themes: the importance of timing and momentum along with the value of partnerships, leverage, and voice. We shaped the report around those elements that seemed to be examples of BIG change.

PND: The report's first recommendation is to "capitalize on timing and momentum" with respect to national initiatives. How can local funders learn out about national initiatives that coincide with their grantmaking priorities?

TC: I think most grantmakers do keep up with national initiatives. With this recommendation we're basically saying to funders, "Avoid swimming upstream." As a broad matter you may fund "Health," but if, for example, the first lady announces an ambitious program to end childhood obesity, maybe you should see if you can align or frame your efforts to build on that momentum. National campaigns, scandals in the news, a disaster, a pop culture development — we're competing with all of that when we work toward social change. The point of "timing and momentum" is that we should acknowledge new realities and build on them. It's not enough to be aware of these trends — you'll have a bigger impact if they inform your grantmaking strategy.

PND: What kinds of partnerships do you envision being created as a result of the report, and how should these partnerships be structured to ensure maximum engagement over the course of the collaboration?

TC: First, we're hoping to see more cross-sector partnerships, because no one sector can solve an entrenched problem. Philanthropy is a neutral convener. We are typically viewed as having no vested interest other than what is for the good of the community. So, when philanthropy calls the meeting, our reputation and our resources can attract the diverse partners and unlikely bedfellows that can produce change.

We're also hoping that more grantmakers will realize their dollars simply go further when they collaborate with their colleagues. Don't waste money duplicating a study that someone else is about to release; do tell your colleagues why you stopped funding a certain nonprofit and started funding another. Share that information! In the long run, your knowledge can be more valuable than your dollars. If the culture of your organization is not to put a premium on partnerships, then you likely aren't maximizing your resources.

As for the structure, various approaches could work — there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Some partnerships will be simple information sharing among funders and some will work through formal channels such as working groups, multi-sector committees, and funding collaboratives. The best approach is to be networked both in your sector and beyond: know your colleagues and which of them are doing good work.

PND: As the economy improves, what, if anything, is likely to keep foundations from adopting a more "go-it-alone" approach with respect to their giving? And what might encourage them to continue to look for ways of achieving impact beyond cash grants?

TC: Interesting question. I believe there really is a "new normal," a term that has gained great popularity over the last year. As I listen to foundation leaders, I hear them discussing ways to maximize their investments, approaches for collaborating with other funders, and an openness to considering new ways of grantmaking. We're learning so much that it's difficult for me to believe that we'll "unlearn" it when the economy improves. Take, for example, the Defeat Poverty DC coalition that formed when funders convened representatives from across all sectors — those new relationships and friendships will persist. Grantmakers are practical. If they find that an approach is working, they will stick with it.

PND: What are some ways that grantmakers can engage other funders, particularly smaller family foundations that may not have much contact with peer institutions, in these kinds of undertakings?

TC: I'm really glad you asked that, because one of the primary roles of a regional association like Washington Grantmakers is to bring peers together. In Beyond Dollars, we included a short profile of the Strauch Foundation. They don't have a huge endowment, but as part of one of our funding collaboratives, their dollars and voice are leading to big change.

If you're not already engaged with the grantmaker association in your region, you can get in touch via the forum's Web site. Because it's good to stay connected; from the largest private foundation to the smallest family foundation, everyone has something to share and something to learn.

Emily Robbins