March 26, 2013; Source: National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy

The National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy’s (NCRP) just announced its Impact Awards for effectiveness, courage and leadership. The screen that NCRP uses is different from other such award programs and here the winners are described as organizations that “prioritize and empower the vulnerable, supporting policy and community engagement to come up with long-term solutions.” NCRP also notes that these four grantmakers work in real partnership with their grantees. The awards ceremony will take place in Chicago on April 8th, but this week, NCRP announced the winners of the 2013 Impact Awards, which are:

NoVo Foundation (in the large private foundation category): With a mission to “foster a transformation from a world of domination and exploitation to one of collaboration and partnership,” the NoVo Foundation focuses on empowering adolescent girls, ending violence against women and girls, advancing social and emotional learning, and promoting local living economies.

Woods Fund of Chicago (in the small/mid-sized private foundation category): The Woods Fund of Chicago’s mission is “to increase opportunities for less advantaged people and communities in the [Chicago] metropolitan area, including the opportunity to shape decisions affecting them,” which leads the Woods Fund to support nonprofits involved in “engaging people in civic life, addressing the causes of poverty and other challenges facing the region, promoting more effective public policies, reducing racism and other barriers to equal opportunity, and building a sense of community and common ground.” 

California Community Foundation (in the public charity category): Dedicated to “strengthening Los Angeles communities through effective philanthropy and civic engagement,” the California Community Foundation is one of the largest community foundations in the U.S. and it is known for delivering 10-20 percent of its assets as grants each year, focusing on arts, education, healthcare, transition aged youth (those who have aged out of foster care or probation systems), and housing and neighborhoods.

Levi Strauss Foundation (in the corporate foundation category): According to its website, the Levi Strauss Foundation “advances the human rights and well-being of underserved people touched by our business by taking courageous risks, supporting innovative community partnerships, and promoting the practice of good corporate citizenship.” Emphasizing the company’s core values of originality, integrity, empathy, and courage, the Levi Strauss Foundation’s philanthropic work has extended to HIV/AIDS, workers’ rights, and asset building among lower income people.

In announcing this year’s winners, NCRP Executive Director Aaron Dorfman writes, “Now, more than ever, we need smart, high-impact philanthropy that engages those directly affected by the world’s pressing problems to come up with lasting solutions. We need the kind of philanthropy that produces real results that benefit all of us, not just a few. We need the kind of grantmaker that uses its power and status to help nonprofits be effective agents of hope and change for many in our communities.”

The interesting development in this is that foundations have changed in their attitudes toward the issues raised by the nation’s premier philanthropic watchdog. Although there was some foundation griping when NCRP released its “Criteria for Philanthropy at Its Best,” in large measure the notion that foundations can be “smart grantmakers” prioritizing and pursuing efforts that target the needs of vulnerable groups, support advocacy and community organizing, and invest in the health and effectiveness of nonprofits themselves. In contrast to philanthropic dynamics some years ago, now foundations look to be nominated for NCRP awards and publicly sign on to NCRP grantmaking goals such as Philanthropy’s Promise.

In a note of historical importance, we point out that President Barack Obama is a former board chair of the Woods Fund of Chicago. It goes to underscore a critical issue of NCRP’s long track record of promoting foundation—and overall nonprofit sector—engagement in public policy advocacy.  NCRP’s Impact Award winners point to a strengthening philanthropic role of supporting nonprofits engaged in affecting, shaping, and changing public policy. The challenge going forward for philanthropy is how to leverage the models represented by these award winners into more widespread smart grantmaking. –Mike Keefe-Feldman and Rick Cohen