The Butler Family Fund

Inspired by a vision of “a world where being low-income does not mean having to choose between housing and food, and where everyone can have faith in our system of justice,” the $11-million, Washington, DC-based Butler Family Fund is an important advocate in the realms of homelessness and criminal justice reform. It awards $800,000 in grants every year to organizations from California to London.

Spun off from the larger J.E. & Z.B. Butler Foundation in New York, the Butler Family Fund was created in 1992 with an asset base of $10 million. The seven nieces and nephews of Jack and Zella Butler established two program areas: homelessness and at-risk youth. By 2001, concerned that a lack of focus was hindering the fund’s effectiveness, the fund moved away from funding at-risk youth and began a program of criminal justice reform, including death penalty reform, juvenile justice, and drug policy reform.

As the fund’s award-winning 2004 report The Butler Family Fund: The First Ten Years notes, “Board members walk a fine line between focusing on the greater community’s needs and fostering a constructive working atmosphere among themselves.” One way the fund develops that atmosphere is through its program of board development.

In 2007, the fund successfully turned control over to the younger, second-generation family members, who had been serving rotating three-year terms on the board in anticipation of one day taking the reins.

More recently, though, the fund has undertaken an “exchange program” for trustees. Second-generation board members looking to expand on their training within the fund began to seek opportunities to learn from other family foundations.

“One of us had the idea to start visiting other foundations,” says Martha Toll, the fund’s long-time executive director. “We said, ‘Why not learn what others are doing?’ So over the last year, we’ve been arranging for our board members to attend other foundations’ board meetings.”

Trustees found foundations in their own backyards and brought their learning to the Butler Family Fund’s twice-a-year meetings. Board President Eve Wildrick, based in Philadelphia, attended meetings of the Philadelphia Foundation, the William Penn Foundation, and the Needmor Fund. Vice President Jennifer Gravin, based in California, met up with the Durfee Foundation in Los Angeles. Trustee Lisa Siegel visited with the staff of the Meadows Foundation in Dallas. Trustee Rebecca Morrison visited the New York Foundation.

“I was surprised at just how valuable the experience was for us, and how very open [the other foundations] were,” says Toll. The trustees’ visits pushed members to think more broadly about program and strategy.

“As a result, we don’t spend as much time talking about specific grant applications. We look more at the broader issues of policy and education,” she says. “We do longer site visits, for example. We’ve always done these things, but we’re spending more time with them now.”

As a passionate family grantmaker, the Butler Family Fund has gained much from these exchanges with other funders.

“The staff educates the board, and the board educates the staff—we have that circle,” Toll says. “But this is about family foundations teaching each other.”

For more information about the Butler Family Fund and its work, visit its website.

If you’re a family foundation trustee and would like to attend a family foundation board or committee meeting, or if you are interested in hosting a fellow trustee, contact the National Center for Family Philanthropy at 202.293.3424.

Taking a Risk

In 1999, an affordable housing trust fund was an untested idea, but the risk was one the Washington, DC-based Butler Family Fund was willing to take. The fund awarded a $20,000 grant to the Southern California Association of Non-Profit Housing (SCANPH) to help launch Housing L.A., an advocacy campaign to create such a fund in the city of Los Angeles. Leveraging the support of a national funder, SCANPH was able to raise additional funds and grow Housing L.A. into a powerful advocate for affordable housing.

The campaign succeeded in January 2002 when, despite a hiring freeze and budget cutbacks, Mayor James Hahn created the $100 million annual housing trust fund, the nation’s largest municipal housing fund. The coalition SCANPH, the Butler Family Fund, and others had helped build was simply too broad to ignore.

Today, the Butler Family Fund’s commitment to risk-taking, leveraging small grants, and, above all, advocacy stands as an important example of what an engaged giving family can do amid a new growing housing crisis. The fund’s November 2007 slate of grants included grants to New York Legal Aid Society and the Partnership to Preserve Affordable Housing, ACORN’s Stop Foreclosures Campaign, and the Center for Community Change and the Housing Trust Fund Project.