6 Ways Family Foundations Can Make a Difference in Immigrant and Refugee Lives

With all the changes in the political climate over the past year, I’ve been especially concerned for immigrants and refugees. Many families in my city and community have been affected by the new executive orders and administrative actions, and I’ve read stories about many others across the country that are at risk. This can feel overwhelming when I think about the impact on people I know. The issues we’re dealing with are daunting and complex; it makes me wonder how I can be most helpful.

You may believe that it would take massive investment to have even a minor impact in this climate. But the truth is, we can all make a difference. Family foundations are no exception.

In fact, family philanthropy is critically important in this moment. Private resources can help ensure the stability of organizations facing sharp city, state, and federal budget cuts. Unlike governments, family foundations have a pool of resources that can be allocated flexibly and quickly to help nonprofits adapt to emerging threats. With fewer bureaucratic structures than other philanthropic institutions, family foundations can provide emergency funding where and when it’s needed most.

As a Consultant at TCC Group, a 40-year-old social impact consulting firm, I partner with foundations of all kinds – including family foundations – to help them advance their social missions. Several of our family foundation clients have been asking how to get involved in supporting immigrant and refugee communities – many for the first time. They want to know how to source and support impactful organizations, how best to leverage their resources, and how to tailor funding most effectively to existing grantees.

Based on our client work and years in the field, here are six essentials we encourage funding partners to keep in mind.  While these ideas are particularly relevant to addressing the challenges facing immigrant and refugee communities, they are also applicable in responding to other complex and timely issues.

1. Provide Flexible Rapid-Response Funding:

Family foundations are uniquely positioned to provide emergency support. They tend not to be as bound by cumbersome approval processes as other larger, public and private, institutions. This means they can move quickly to get discretionary resources out the door. Being nimble can make all the difference in critical times. According to Phil Li, President & CEO of the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation and a family foundation trustee, “Even a small investment, deployed quickly, can make a huge impact.” While other institutions may require nonprofits to wait months before issuing a grant, family foundations have the flexibility to respond quickly in a fast-moving policy climate. Rapid response funds might, for example, enable front-line organizations to mobilize networks; provide emergency legal aid; disseminate “know your rights” information; or issue responsive press announcements.

General operating support is considered best practice for rapid response funding because it gives nonprofit leaders the agency to determine how resources should be spent. For many nonprofits, this not only helps them keep their lights on in the face of public funding cuts, but also ensures the quality of their work, their ability to stay attuned to community needs, and their ability to adapt as circumstances change. 

2. Learn from Local Experts

Many family foundations are deeply rooted in the communities they serve. Funders with strong, longstanding relationships can engage their networks to learn more about how the political discourse is affecting people in their area first hand. We recommend family foundations and donors listen closely to their grantees, as there’s much to learn from their insights and perspective. Conversations with nonprofit leaders are likely to help funders more clearly understand how issues affecting immigrants and refugees connect to their mission and vision, and identify how they might leverage their resources, networks, or influence most effectively.

Furthermore, family foundations often fund locally in the places where their wealth was generated or where board members reside. There are numerous opportunities to support local organizations that serve immigrants and refugees, including food pantries, academic centers, healthcare facilities, neighborhood-based agencies, and workforce programs. Funders may wish to consider such organizations or expand support to existing portfolio grantees to help them deal with the new challenges their constituencies face.

3. Collaborate

Family foundations should consider the ways they can learn from and collaborate with other funders that have a track record working in immigrant and refugee rights. Funder collaboration can range from exchanging ideas and information to “co-investing” or pooling funds in an entity or initiative. We recommend funders take advantage of learning opportunities, such as conferences, webinars, or networking events hosted by affinity groups such as Grantmakers Concerned with Immigrants and Refugees, Human Rights Funders Network, and regional grantmaking associations. (See Council on Foundations for a comprehensive list of funder networks and regional associations.) Funders can also consider the possibility of pooling resources with others to address immediate and long-term needs. For example, the Brooklyn Community Foundation launched an Immigrant Rights Fund in late 2016 as a direct response to current threats; other groups, like the Four Freedoms Fund, have been addressing immigration issues for more than a decade, having invested $105 million to date through the combined resources of 13 foundation members. Joining such efforts can quickly strengthen grantmaking strategies and expand your reach. It can also help broaden your horizons. As Phil Li says,

 “Collaboration is not just about the dollars you put in. The real benefit is that you     can learn from others and be part of something larger than yourself.”

4. Don’t Shy Away from International Efforts

Many of the same national 501c3 nonprofit organizations that are supporting immigrants and refugees at home, whether through direct service or advocacy, are also working across borders to ensure an effective continuum of support. This type of international, cross-border coordination is critical, particularly for vulnerable populations. For example, organizations such the International Refugee Assistance Project and the International Rescue Committee support refugee resettlement and work to help families as their claims are being processed to enter the United States. Others, such as Alianza Americas, a coalition, amplify the voices of migrant workers, children, and families, while seeking to address the underlying conditions that drive migration.

5. Think Long Term

Many of the core issues we’re grappling with – xenophobia, discrimination, racism – are not easy ones to “fix.” Nor are they new. As funders consider how to help immigrant and refugee communities, we also encourage recognizing that change will not happen overnight. Policy changes are most often achieved through the persistent efforts of advocates, lawyers, nonprofit leaders, grassroots community groups, and philanthropists over years, sometimes decades. Moreover, it can take generations to sway public opinion. Complementary to rapid response funding, we encourage funders to think about long-term opportunities, such as public education and communications efforts, to foster more positive notions of immigrants and refugees and build a more tolerant society.

6. Take Risks and Embrace the Unknown

Learning requires a willingness to take risks and make mistakes. There are many ways to get involved in supporting immigrants and refugees, and you will need to find the approach that’s right for you. That said, engaging in a new set of issues – and perhaps, new grantmaking strategies – will undoubtedly provide an opportunity for funders to reflect on their impact, work, and approach. We encourage you to embrace new dilemmas, confront setbacks with courage and curiosity, and keep an open mind.

We suggest a few guiding questions to help you get started in grantmaking concerning immigrants and refugees. These questions apply to grantmakers newly entering this issue and other complex areas as well. It is helpful to consider:

  • What motivates your interest in supporting immigrant and refugee communities?
  • How can you tap your deep knowledge of your community to identify organizations that are meeting pressing needs?  Can you share your knowledge with national funders in this space?
  • How can you learn from your current grantees?
  • Which established funders and funder networks can you learn from?
  • What is your foundation’s tolerance toward risk?
  • How might your grantmaking processes be adapted to enable rapid response funding and general operating support?
  • What low hanging fruit can you identify to get started?

Immigrant and refugee communities face profound uncertainty and numerous, unprecedented challenges. We have found that many family foundations are wrestling with how they can best add value on an issue that is so large and complex; yet family foundations have important strengths to bring to the table. These often include deep knowledge of community needs, a history of strong local relationships, and institutional flexibility. Drawing on these assets and contributing with intention, we have found that family foundations can make a critical difference locally while addressing larger, systemic concerns.

Check out what NCFP friend The Sobrato Family Foundation is doing to support immigrants and DACA as highlighted in this recent post by Inside Philanthropy.