Over the past year, “innovation” has been a central word in the world’s vocabulary. How do we create a vaccine, work from home or handle systemic racism in America?
For the Barra Foundation, a funding organization that serves the Philadelphia region, “innovation” has always been in the forefront. As the pandemic continues, so does the need for the grants that make innovative solutions possible.
“We think about innovation from the perspective of the scientific method,” explained Barra Foundation President Kristina Wahl. “How do we create the conditions for innovation?”
As a funder for organizations in the arts and culture, health, human services and education sectors, Barra felt the weight of the pandemic firsthand.
In a normal year, the foundation supports local organizations through the Catalyst Fund that gives grants to support new ideas, the Barra Awards, which reward nonprofits for a job well done and Beyond the Money, an initiative which provides supports and programming beyond the grant dollars provided.
When COVID-19 hit the region, the foundation looked for ways to get funding to vulnerable groups as quickly as possible.
This emergency response included $875,000 in funding, which supported short-term needs of area nonprofits, the PHL COVID-19 and COVID-19 Arts Aid PHL funds, Women’s Opportunities Resource Center and TRACE (Toward Response and Community Equity), a Generocity series on how the philanthropic, civic and private sector is working toward a more just recovery..
Barra had also been experimenting in impact investing, which Wahl described as a way to better align your investments with your mission and values.
The nonprofit’s $100,000 loan to the Women’s Opportunities Resource Center, which supported small businesses applying for the Paycheck Protection Program, is just one example of the organization’s mission-aligned investing.
“There were a number of immediate dollars that we tried to get out the door. Then there was the murder of George Floyd,” Wahl said. “We all needed to think again about our work and what was happening in the world.”
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The foundation took a hard look at the funds they still had after its initial emergency pandemic response and committed to supporting organizations that focused on the Black community.
“We looked at the impact on communities of color, specifically Black people, promoting the inclusion of people of color and under-resourced communities and addressing topics and issues that further racial and social justice,” Wahl said.
Barra built RARE (recovery and response efforts), to address the dual pandemics of COVID-19 and systemic racism. Barra utilized a modified nomination process (typically used in the Barra Awards) to tap into the expertise of peers to identify organizations. The process did not require a formal application.
“We wanted to make it really straightforward and pretty easy for organizations,” Wahl noted.
With about $1 million of uncommitted funding in Barra’s hands, it gave one time grants to the Greater Economy League of Philadelphia to help grow Black-owned businesses, the Enterprise Center to aid minority cleaning businesses in securing COVID disinfection jobs.
The foundation also provided funding for nonprofit and citywide initiatives focused on access to learning, health and human services, social justice and more in three rounds of grantmaking.
In addition to the grant, Barra’s board approved a $225,000 loan for the Enterprise Center.
Barra has been engaged in mission-aligned investing since 2016, but has expanded its understanding as part of the Philanthropy Network’s Mission-Aligned Investing cohort.
“We are working over the course of the year to get educated about mission-aligned investing,” Wahl explained. “To learn about it more broadly, but to think about it specifically through a racial equity lens.”
Barra’s staff and grantees underwent racial awareness trainings. They made a five year commitment to partner with the William Penn Foundation, to fund America’s Cultural Treasures, which provides resources for cultural organizations led by people of color.
"We've been innovating with a lowercase i."
“What we need to do is take the lessons learned from the past year and apply those to our work,” Wahl said.
“We’ve been innovating with a lowercase ‘i’,” she added. “We haven’t done anything in terms of breakthrough innovation. We do this to try to practice what we preach and try to adapt and be transparent and learn from our work.”-30-
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