In 1990, a family trust in Connecticut decided to pursue an audacious goal: to end homelessness in America. The board thoroughly studied the issue, and eventually committed themselves to an equally bold strategy – creating a national movement. The Melville Charitable Trust’s considerable impact since then was recognized recently when its long-time executive director, Robert Hohler, received the Council on Foundations’ 2009 Distinguished Grantmaker Award.

Ultimately, the Trust is setting out to change public thinking about the ways to consider and end homelessness. Its conscious strategy has been to move policy, decision making and the structure of government and philanthropy away from emergency, palliative responses that serve only to perpetuate homelessness, toward proven, lasting and cost effective strategies, such as permanent supportive housing. Since 1990, the Trust has invested over $85 million in grants and Program Related Investments (PRIs) to local and national nonprofit partners working to alleviate homelessness.

“The Trust’s board has always had a passion for fairness, a passion for equity,” Hohler says, in explaining what drives his work. “They believe that in a healthy society no one should be left behind, and because of this we’ve aggressively supported programs and policies that alleviate and reduce the damaging impact of homelessness on children, adults and our communities.”

Today the Trust is governed by a six-person board that includes three family members. Stephen Melville, grandson of the donors and current board chair, asserts that “Homelessness is a solvable problem. Our work seeking out, supporting and testing good and effective programs has helped to show the shape of a private-public collaboration that can work. But private charity is no more able to solve the problem of homelessness than it was 20 years ago. The question remains one of political will.”

Family Passion Leads to a Mission

The Melville Charitable Trust was originally funded by the estate of the late Dorothy Bigelow Melville. She was the widow of Ward Melville, who headed the Melville Corporation, a successful retail company that included Thom McCann shoes, Marshalls department stores and the CVS pharmacy chain. Mrs. Melville did not specify any requirements for how the Trust’s funds should be allocated, leaving the direction and specifics up to the couple’s son, Frank.

At the Trust’s first board meeting in 1990, there was unanimous agreement to consider a common concern — homelessness — as an initial funding focus. As Frank explained in a subsequent Letter from the Chairman, “Philanthropy can experiment and test, working in partnership with government to find the best solutions, but the plight of the homeless is a societal responsibility which the society as a whole must be asked to meet.”

Before formally launching the Trust’s grantmaking, the board members embarked upon an in-depth learning process to understand the complexity and enormity of homelessness and to assess how much impact their giving could make.

To learn about innovative funding strategies, Trust board members visited housing and services programs and interviewed advocates, practitioners, researchers, experienced donors, and the homeless. The board came to realize that, despite the explosion of private wealth in many sectors, hundreds of thousands of individuals and families were still without that most basic of necessities – a safe and decent place to live.

One of the board’s most critical meetings was with Peter Goldmark, long-time head of one of the nation’s most prominent philanthropies, the Rockefeller Foundation. Goldmark enthusiastically encouraged the board members to pursue their bold goal of ending homelessness. He also advised them to retain the family’s leadership on the board, so that their personal connection and dedication to the issue would not be lost in the Trust’s long-term grantmaking.

Goldmark introduced the board to the leadership of The Philanthropic Initiative (TPI), a consulting firm in Boston known for its expertise in strategic philanthropy. TPI provided research, technical assistance and administrative support to the Trust, giving it a home base for more than 15 years.

One of the Trust’s first initiatives was co-sponsoring—with the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving—Connecticut’s first-ever statewide convening of funders to discuss strategies for ending homelessness. This helped to attract the collaborative support to launch the Connecticut office of a national organization, the Corporation for Supportive Housing in 1993. It was an early example of what was to become the Trust’s modus operandi as convener, leader, and advocate for change.

As one of the largest foundations in Connecticut – with a current endowment of around $130 million – the Trust’s sustained focus on homelessness and affordable housing has played a key role in building networks and strengthening the state’s provider, developer, research and advocacy communities. The Trust has funded innovations in supportive housing development that have become models for a nationwide movement. In 1998, the Trust founded the Partnership for Strong Communities, a statewide policy and advocacy institute which helps to build and nurture partnerships between nonprofits, government agencies and others to more effectively address housing, homelessness and community development. The Trust’s Lyceum Conference and Resource Center in Hartford, completed in 2004, is at the heart of its efforts to build wider involvement in seeking solutions and opportunities for progressive change.

On the national level, the Trust has used its experience in Connecticut to strengthen and extend the reach of advocacy, education, research and capacity building organizations like the National Alliance to End Homelessness, the Corporation for Supportive Housing, and the National Low Income Housing Coalition. (For short descriptions of each of Melville’s key grantee partners at the state and national level, please visit the Trust’s website.)

Ending Homelessness Through Collaboration and Partnerships

The Trust’s leadership recognizes that philanthropy has a unique role and opportunity as a convening and leveraging force, and they are constantly reaching out to engage new collaborative partners. Five years ago, the Trust helped launch Funders Together, a national movement of foundations and corporations supporting strategic and effective grantmaking to end homelessness. Collaborating with some of America’s leading foundations – including the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, among others – the Trust has engaged more than 120 funders to help provide the philanthropic investment needed to develop 150,000 units of service enriched housing and thereby dramatically reduce chronic homelessness. Strategic and financial backing by the Trust and other funders has helped to reduce chronic homelessness in America by over 30%.

The Trust is also a founding member of Reaching Home, a campaign to end long term homelessness in Connecticut through the creation of 10,000 units of supportive housing in the state by 2014. Reaching Home is the result of an innovative collaboration among state agencies in Connecticut, funded by the Trust in 2000. Called the Connecticut Supportive Housing Pilots Initiative, the project involved numerous state agencies as well as local service providers and non-profit and for profit housing developers. The Pilots Initiative secured interagency agreement on the roles, responsibilities and commitments of the agencies in the supportive housing program, and outlined the process for funding. In 2006, the groundbreaking work of the Pilots Initiative was recognized by Harvard University Ash Institute of Government with an Innovations Award in Affordable Housing.

Patience Pays Off

Almost all of the Trust’s grants are multi-year grants. “We’ve seen again and again how patient money pays off,” says Hohler. Patient and consistent investment has provided the Trust with a broad view of the field and a growing confidence in what strategies work.

“What unites our board, and our partners, is the vision of a society where everyone has a place that they can call home,” adds current board chair Stephen Melville. “It is a vision we all believe can be achieved.”

Lessons Learned

In a 2005 internal history of the Trust, Joe Breiteneicher, then president of The Philanthropic Initiative and a long-time advisor to the Trust, outlined several “guiding principles that are central to the Trust’s persona.” These lessons are valuable to family philanthropies regardless of their mission, and regardless of the grantmaking strategies they use.

Among these principles:

  • Invest in leaders: seek out leaders with vision, passion for social change and an effective way to address a critical issue in homelessness, and concentrate on patiently building long-term relationships that hold the greatest potential for productive change.
  • Don’t assume, learn: understand issues through the lens of those engaged in trying to make change, and let this knowledge inform the Trust’s critical thinking and strategy making.
  • Focus and focus on stuff that really matters: The Trust’s overall approach to addressing homelessness has four core elements – housing; support services that model or test effective practices; income security (jobs, training/education, stability of benefits); and public policy engagement (research, public discourse, advocacy, litigation).
  • Be actively opportunistic: find the critical gaps in key issues and policies, and the potential for long-term leverage.
  • Be a respectful partner: Be humble, curious, willing to explore, experiment and take risks, collegial, accessible and hands-on.