Balancing Power: A Profile of the New World Foundation

“I think everybody’s responsible for trying to make the world somewhat better,” Colin Greer, President of The New World Foundation (NWF), reflects in his Upper West Side office situated off of the lobby of an elegant prewar building. It is appropriate that The New World Foundation is based in one of the most refined neighborhoods in Manhattan where the money and the power is, because it is this money and power that the foundation is trying to shift from the highest economic strata to the grass roots community based organizations (CBO’s) that need it most.Image

Greer describes the NWF as “multi-issue” but primarily concerned with “American communities being democratically run, fully participating in the national polity and being able to martial its own human and financial resources to address the problems it faces”. These problems range from racial discrimination, to inadequate schools, to water pollution. However, the problems themselves are secondary. “We’re as interested in the democratization and emerging power of communities to speak for themselves as we are in solving the problem.”

“So you’re helping them help themselves?”

“No.” The people they give grants to already know how to help themselves. “We’re adding resources to their capacities to help themselves.”

The three major categories of funds that the NWF created include The Phoenix Fund for Workers & Communities, which funds local labor organizations and other community based organizations; The Global Environmental Health & Justice Fund, which funds international environmental clean up efforts, and The New Majority Fund, which funds the “political participation component” of community organizing, aiming to bring the lowest third of the population into the electoral arena. The NWF also funds progressive media work and follows a careful investment strategy.

But the NWF’s most prized scheme is their Resource Lab, a partnership with the Ford Foundation that helps community-based organizations achieve independence from foundation support in the form of roughly 30 different experimental financing projects. One of these projects takes the form of a micro-lending fund, which allows a CBO to borrow money to invest in local fundraising activity, interest-free, for two years. The CBO’s often have good ideas about how to raise money but limited resources with which to implement these ideas because their staffs are so overworked. The loan provides financial support to these poor communities; communities that traditionally respond with a payback record of over 90%.

Another project is in the e-commerce area, and involves assigning debit cards to retail stores so that if a member of an organization buys from a particular store chain, that store chain will give back a discount to the organization. Thus “the membership power of the organization provides income to the organization.” The Resource Lab is currently testing this out on a collaboration of Worker Centers across the country and on a store in Kentucky. Both the micro fund and the e-commerce projects demonstrate the foundation’s efforts to add resources to the CBO’s capacities to help themselves, with financing options that differ from straight grants.

Doing things differently has always been a defining feature of the NWF. To begin with, the foundation pays out a higher percentage of value than most other foundation entities, and significantly more than the government required minimum. This means a pay out of between 9-12% of their end of year value in grants instead of the government dictated minimum of 5%. “We don’t set our payout at a level where we’re gonna destroy ourselves, but we stretch to be considerate and responsible in relation to the sustainability of the organizations we fund”. It is important for the foundation to nourish itself, but it is equally important, perhaps more so, for the foundation to protect its mission. The NWF was the first foundation to divest from South Africa during the anti-apartheid movement, inspiring 30 other foundations to divest as well. “As it turned out none of us lost money,” Greer recalls, “As it turned out betting against apartheid was a good bet. But at the moment we did it, it wasn’t clear. So we take risks around the mission in relation to the longevity of the foundation.”

Another differentiating feature of the foundation is its status as a public charity with an individual endowment. As a public charity, the NWF has innovated from within by creating the Rye Collaborative, a network of about 18 public charities that look at the economies of scale (i.e. – creating a more efficient back office and going in for group health insurance). Additionally, the public status allows the NWF to have relationships with a “universe of donors”, whereas a private foundation is limited to doling out its own assets. In the case of the NWF, industrialist heir Anita McCormick Blaine’s bequest of almost $7 million in 1953 allows it freedom from donor influence. Greer describes the foundation as an “intermediary” between donors and grantees, unique in the sense that “we have our own endowment so we’re not dependent on donors to do the work we do.” The foundation is thus less of a charity than a partnership.

When asked about the foundation’s other distinguishing qualities, Greer reveals, “We make only general support grants. We don’t require projects because we think that disables organizations. We fund multi-year and we have no automatic cutoff in funding for a long time.” And if grantees have been with them beyond three years, they become “Anchor Organizations” that the house staff helps with fundraising, enabling the grantees to become true partners in long-term sustainability. “That’s all pretty unique,” Greer says.

But perhaps the most interesting aspect of the foundation is who is on the board. There is “an academic or two, a lawyer or two, and an investment person or two, but certainly 50%-70% at any given time are grantees.” Greer explains that most foundations have grantees on their board, and that it is normally not questioned because these grantees come from prestigious institutions. “But when it’s community groups, the question is asked differently because there is kind of a visceral cultural suspicion of poor people and people of color and women.” On a typical board, board members not only get grants but they also get discretionary funds to make grants. “The fact that we include grantees is not that unusual, what’s unusual is that we fund poor communities and we give them board status.”

The primary goal of the NWF is to get people to be democratically engaged by creating a lively citizenship that can speak on its own behalf and function in organizations that teach them how to be democratic. “We think that the future of democracy in America is about both dealing with equity questions by people speaking for themselves, and dealing with democracy questions by people learning to function in democratic organizations,” Greer says. “You have inevitable conflict between community and government, community and business”. In business this conflict takes the form of a corporation’s drive for profit over the needs of the community and in government it takes the form of a politician’s commitment to their own incumbency over the ideals that first took them into politics. “What’s critical in a democracy is the power of people that get hurt by the inherent conflicts in our society to be able to defend and protect themselves,” Greer explains. “Because if they can’t do that, then the weight of the conflict will create increasingly a burdened passive underclass.”

Greer’s single-minded focus on grassroots structural change is what he considers to be the only truly effective way to make a difference, and he is not afraid to endorse it. “Socially responsible investing is not political, it’s consumerist,” he says. Allowing communities to mobilize their own democratic capacity “is a trajectory that you can’t possibly get to by socially responsible investing or by policy reform or by media outreach and reform, not that those things aren’t valuable . . . but it won’t deal with structural questions.” Additionally, Greer points out that 90% of all philanthropy goes to support the lifestyle of the rich. Between benefits, opera and ballets, there is a danger for philanthropy to become just about networking. “If that’s all that philanthropy buys, what you’re doing is creating a lifestyle of elite culture, and it’s important for a culture to have that, but some balance is critical.”

Greer’s commitment to revamping the approach of the NWF changed the organization significantly during his stint as its director. When he joined in 1985, the original board “was a very elite board chaired by Hilary Clinton.” Within five years the board contained a significant representation of grantees. The foundation also went from national grant making to community based grant making and acquired a public charity status. His reasons for changing the nature of grant making were theoretical. “Change is a given. The world’s gonna keep changing. The management change is the art of politics and policy. And the management change is typically funded by philanthropy through elite institutions, think tanks, advocacy organizations, all of which do very important work. But ultimately if communities aren’t mobilized into democratic life, those changes are gonna be superficial.”

Although a lack of funding of community based organizations remains, Greer has faith in the power of the power of the individual. “Gandhi says ‘we must be the change we wish to see in the world’, so if you have some sense of how you’d like the world to be, the first obligation is to live in your life the way that you expect the world to become. So if the world seems to be an unkind place, find a way to be kind. If it seems to be ungenerous, find a way to be generous. If it feels to be conflict ridden and competitive, then find a way to undercut that. It’s important to try to incorporate the way you want the world to be in your life, not just to write checks to satisfy some ideal that you’re not really committed to.”

Dr. Dimitra Takos is a Newport Beach Psychologist specializing in the treatment of adolescents and adults suffering from depression, anxiety, and trauma-and stressor-related disorders.