As the COVID-19 pandemic subsided, the Zilber Family Foundation watched as federal aid programs for low-income families dried up just as rising inflation created more economic hardship. Seeing the impact on the Milwaukee community – particularly on underserved populations – the foundation in February set out to increase support to its existing nonprofit partners and forge new partnerships by awarding $3.9 million in grants to 15 local nonprofits, including $300,000 in “Gratitude Grants” specifically targeting employee wellness. BizTimes Milwaukee associate editor Maredithe Meyer recently spoke with ZFF executive director Gina Stilp about how economic uncertainty has shaped the foundation’s grant-making strategy. The following portions of their conversation are edited for length and clarity.
Prioritizing renewed support
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“Many of the groups that we’ve worked with have faced increases in rent, increases in energy bills, increased cost of staff retention. We went to our board a year ago and started this conversation on what else we could do and how we could structure our grant making to consider these increases in costs so that we can prioritize the groups that we love to work with. Many of the organizations we work with, we have partnered with for 10 years or more in some circumstances, so we renew funding for them frequently. We looked first and foremost at those partners that we’ve had long-term relationships with and put an 8% booster on all of those organizations that were applying for renewed support – if they applied for $100,000 for a year, they got $108,000.
“We know it’s just a drop in the bucket in terms of what the organizations need, but I think it really represents the way the foundation tries to work, which is listening first, hearing the struggles our nonprofits are having and then trying to act as quickly as we can to help fill a gap.”
Selecting new grantees
“Our current strategic plan in Milwaukee focuses primarily on the issues of affordable housing and economic development as our two flagship program areas. When we’re looking at (grant) requests, we look through the lens of the goals we set out to accomplish in one of those buckets.
“We just started working with the Reclaiming Our Neighborhoods (RON) Coalition, which was a really exciting opportunity for us. It’s a coalition that works across central city neighborhoods in Milwaukee, north side and south side, and what they do is prioritize resident leadership and identifying affordable housing issues or housing quality issues in each of their neighborhoods. They’re a great example of the foundation really looking to local organizations and local leaders to come up with the right solutions for their neighborhoods. It’s not a top-down approach.”
Caring for caregivers
“When we hear from our executive directors or program directors that they are burning the candle from both ends and they know that their staff, volunteers and boards have gone above and beyond during this time of considerable need, they also say, ‘I don’t know what to do, how to say thank you. I don’t want to spend valuable dollars that could be helping our program participants.’ And so, while our objective normally is to be a very flexible funder and allow nonprofits to decide how to use the dollars, in the instance of our Gratitude Grants, we required recipients to use those dollars to take care of their teams, whether it was bonuses, gift cards, (or) an appreciation party.
“As funders, we have an obligation to make sure that the nonprofit community that we partner with is OK and is better than OK, is thriving. This was a very small step for us to acknowledge that, and hopefully it’s something we can build into our practice and encourage other funders to think about when making their commitments.”