Can a Foundation Collaborative Advance Economic and Racial Justice?

Feb 09, 2022

In this piece written for, Cesar Aleman, Director of Connecticut Urban Opportunity Collaborative, and Will Ginsberg, President & CEO, The Community Foundation for New Haven, discuss the role of community foundations in promoting economic and racial justice.

“Traditionally, advocacy has been a few people speaking on behalf of others. But…it is also about movement building and power building, grassroots engagement, and community organizing. It is about people being able to create the paths and environments to speak for and advocate for themselves.”

~ Cesar Aleman, Director, Connecticut Urban Opportunity Collaborative

This past June, three Connecticut community foundations—the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven, the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving, and Fairfield County’s Community Foundation (based in Norwalk), which combined have assets that exceed $2 billion—announced their joint hire of Cesar Aleman to direct a newly-formed Connecticut Urban Opportunity Collaborative (CUOC).

The foundations’ agenda is ambitious. As their press release states, CUOC seeks to coordinate senior staff across the three foundations to “develop collective strategies to dismantle structural racism and advance social and economic mobility; aligning the strategic and programmatic efforts of the three foundations to create an actionable plan that builds on each organization’s individual strengths.”

In an interview with Aleman shortly after his hire, New Haven radio station WNHH program host Babz Rawls-Ivy expressed her surprise that community foundations would take on promoting racial and economic justice as primary goals. Her implied question: Is this real? Just a half year later, it is too early to say. To learn more, NPQ interviewed Aleman, along with Will Ginsberg, who has led the New Haven foundation for the past 21 years.

A Pre-COVID Shift in Foundation Philosophy

Ginsberg credits his colleague, Jay Williams—former mayor of Youngstown, Ohio, and head of the community foundation in Hartford since 2017—with initiating a cultural change in Connecticut philanthropy. “When Jay Williams became head of the Hartford Foundation, it seemed like an opportunity to have this [justice] conversation in a way that hadn’t really happened before.”

Ginsberg notes that while he and Williams came from very different backgrounds, they share a passion for the pursuit of racial and economic justice, with a focus on urban communities. They also, as it happens, both served for presidents in the exact same role as assistant secretaries of commerce in the Clinton and Obama administrations, respectively. As Ginsberg recalls, “When Jay came to the Hartford foundation, we started having this conversation. And we talked about focusing on the cities. And we created a six-community foundation collaborative.”

The six-foundation group included the three members who now are the foundation members of CUOC, along with smaller foundations in New London, New Britain, and in Waterbury (Connecticut Community Foundation). Ginsberg notes that while the coalition had fewer resources and operated informally, it did make some steps toward developing a common policy agenda and narrative. This included supporting a series of articles in the Connecticut Mirror on urban issues as part of a joint narrative change strategy to lift up cities, where most residents of color in the state live, as vibrant places of possibility rather than “problems” to fix.

Three of the six Connecticut foundations in that initial coalition were also members of a national network, the Community Foundation Opportunity Network (CFON), which Terry Mazany—former president of the Chicago Community Trust—discussed with NPQ in the fall of 2019. As 2019 ended, Mazany and his colleagues were aiming to recruit a cohort of community foundations to create a community of practice within which foundation leaders could deepen their racial and economic justice grantmaking and investment. At the same time, in New Haven, the community foundation adopted its 2020-2024 strategic plan, with a dual focus on opportunity and equity. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

The COVID Accelerator

As Ginsberg observes, the foundation’s work, “changed dramatically as a result of COVID—what we do, what we focused on, our processes, our schedules.” At the same time, “the focus on opportunity and equity did not change.” Ultimately, both in Connecticut and nationally, the COVID-19 pandemic—along with the national racial justice uprising of May and June 2020 in the wake of the murder of George Floyd—acted as an accelerator.

At the national level, CFON launched its NEON (Nexus for Equity + Opportunity Nationwide) cohort program. Foundations within CFON had to apply to join what became a cohort of nine community foundations that aim to be a peer learning community. The three Connecticut foundations that were members of CFON applied as a group and when their application was accepted, the CUOC experiment advanced considerably.

At roughly the same time, the community foundation in New Haven launched its “Stepping Forward” initiative, which dedicates $26 million in foundations resources over three years to COVID relief and recovery and to advancing racial justice. A unique feature of this fund is that $15 million of the fund is borrowed from the foundation’s endowment (the other $11 million is solicited from foundation donors), with the money scheduled to be repaid to the endowment over seven years. Effectively, this raises the foundation’s spending from 5.5 percent of its endowment to roughly 6.25 percent for a 3-year period.

Ginsberg emphasized that the foundation’s board agreed to this shift not only because of the extraordinary needs “but also because we saw an opportunity to make real progress on racial equity because of the protests that emerged last year after George Floyd’s murder and everything else that was going on.” The foundation, he added, saw a chance to invest in “new voices, new energy, new ideas, and a new generation.”  One area that Ginsberg cites where the foundation is applying its approach is its New Haven Equitable Entrepreneurial Ecosystem program, which seeks to “build an equitable entrepreneurial ecosystem designed for historically marginalized entrepreneurs, such as those who identify as Black, Latinx, and women” and is overseen by a council of movement and community development leaders.

-This article was originally published on Nonprofit Quarterly on January 25, 2022.

Learn more about the Connecticut Urban Opportunity Collaborative and its members.