Visit to the Refugee Development Center – Lansing, Michigan,” Corey Seeman

September 5, 2019; Crain’s Business Detroit

Changes in administration often lead to shifts in policy with real-world impact on funding for nonprofits. Under President Donald Trump, no sector has been harder hit than nonprofits that serve refugees and immigrants.

As the Trump administration reduced the number of refugees allowed in the country each year, federal funding to provide services to refugees also plummeted. Numerous nonprofits rely upon steady government funding to drive their business models, which enable them to provide flexible services and meet the needs of vulnerable populations. In this case, as public revenue allocated to serve new refugees declined, a ripple effect occurred, reducing operational revenue for nonprofits assisting existing refugee populations living in the United States.

One community severely impacted by these cuts is Southeast Michigan. Michigan has ranked consistently in the top five over the past several years for the number of refugee placements. However, given federal policy changes, the number of refugees declined precipitously. According to Sherry Welch, writing for Crain’s Detroit, the number of refugees entering Michigan dropped 85.7 percent to 610 in fiscal year 2018, compared to 4,258 in fiscal year 2016.

Given these decreases, funding cuts have prompted large refugee and immigrant serving nonprofits to lay off staff and consolidate offices. These cuts have left organizations like Samaritas, which as of a couple years ago was the fourth-largest refugee resettlement organization in the country, with a remnant of their capacity to serve refugees. Propelling this capacity stripping are the downstream effects of policy change: the organization has seen their refugee numbers cut by well over 90 percent over the past few years, from 1,400 in 2016 to less than around 100 last year. And despite constricting nonprofit staff and operations, the needs of these communities, especially in Southeast Michigan, continue to grow.

According to a recent report, A Landscape Scan of Immigrant- and Refugee-Supporting Organizations in Southeast Michigan, prepared by a Lansing-based firm, Public Sector Consultants, in 2016 the total foreign-born population in Michigan reached 6.7 percent, or 653,000 total, with more than half being naturalized US citizens. Of that total, more than 455,000 reside in Southeast Michigan. Given both the concentration of refugees and immigrants, along with their unique needs, the nonprofits in Southeast Michigan have had to adapt their resources and strategies to continue to provide a range of relevant, and often scaled-back, services to accommodate and support these communities. These reductions have prompted funders to step in an address the gap.

A funder collaboration called the Southeast Michigan Immigrant and Refugee Funder Collaborative, currently comprising The Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan, The Kresge Foundation, and Grantmakers Concerned with Immigrants and Refugees, has pooled $450,000 to support nonprofits facing cutbacks. In addition to funding essential programs and services, this collaborative aims to provide strategic guidance to the ecosystem of refugee and immigrant nonprofits in the area, to catalyze other support throughout the region and to address poor public perception of immigrants and refugees.

The funders acknowledge on their website that the $450,000, which is to be disbursed over two years, is “a small figure compared with the overall need.” Indeed, according to the report published by the Collaborative, federal refugee funding for southeast Michigan nonprofits fell from $3.73 million in Fiscal Year (FY) 2017 to $1.04 million in FY 2018. In short, the $225,000 a year might compensate for one twelfth of the funding decline.

Still, bringing the philanthropic community together is an important first step in developing an approach to strategically address the needs of area immigrants and refugees and the nonprofits that support them.

While the Michigan effort is relatively new, it is not the only one of its kind. For example, the Oregon Immigrant and Refugee Funder Collaborative is dedicated to coordinating and creating a collaborative funding approach to address the issues of immigrants and refugees in the state by supporting local organizations responding to these issues. Hosted by the Oregon Community Foundation, this collaborative supports legal services, outreach and education, information gathering and research, basic human needs, and community organization/advocacy. Using a common grant application and shared reporting system, this collaborative aspires to be nimble, transparent, and responsive.

In addition to formal collaboratives such as these, other funder collaboratives and partnerships are being forged to respond to other immediate needs resulting from policy changes. As NPQ reported this August, Together Rising, an organization that uses online crowdfunding it refers to as a Love Flash Mob, raised $2.6 million in June to support legal services for immigrants and family unification efforts as a result of the child detention policies. In tandem with this effort, The James Irvine Foundation partnered with Together Rising to donate to the Immigration Law Clinic at the University of California, Davis, with the money covering the costs of legal fellows for three years and additional legal services to families who need it most.

On one hand, it is refreshing that funders are collaborating to raise money and support immigrants and refugees, and that these efforts are gaining media attention. At the same time, the recent past paints a different picture for philanthropic sector at large, as actual allocation of dollars to this important cause are dismal. According to the Foundation Center, between 2011 and 2015 less than one percent of all money granted by the largest 1,000 US foundations was intended to benefit refugees and immigrants. While there has been an increase recently, this trend underscores the impact that changing tides can have on philanthropic culture, where policy transitions galvanize investment.

Perhaps philanthropy’s impact is most important when it comes to building a larger pro-immigration movement. A few foundations across the country recognize the need to strategically combat the anti-immigrant narrative that pervades today’s media. This movement building effort is highlighted by the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP), specifically their Movement Investment Project. In a recent report, State of Foundation Funding for the Pro-Immigrant Movement, NCRP emphasizes the importance of supporting a broader movement and highlights the fact that a mere five foundations have provided more than 50 percent of all pro-immigrant movement funding.

According to this report, more funders and donors should recognize the unique opportunity to counteract the anti-immigrant narrative being pushed institutional philanthropic dollars. As NPQ noted last June, the NCRP report identifies five practices for funders and donors to consider when supporting the emergent pro-immigrant movement:

  1. Give unrestricted multiyear support to immigrant base-building organizations that are accountable to affected communities at the state and local levels.
  2. Don’t shy away from funding both community organizations and direct services.
  3. Help grantees access 501c4 funds, which have greater flexibility to carry out critical political activities.
  4. Collaborate and coordinate with other movement funders to ensure the full movement ecosystem is well resourced.
  5. Support the movement beyond grant dollars, including exploring moving investments from companies that invest in detention centers.

As future policy shifts limit nonprofit funding in other areas, nonprofits can look to the funder collaboratives and movement building efforts showcased above as hope for philanthropic institutions to enact their values.—Derrick Rhayn