Ashley Snowdon Blanchard, Hill-Snowdon Foundation

By Ashley Snowdon Blanchard
Lessons learned in becoming a leader for social justice

To commemorate its 50th anniversary, one family foundation shares its lessons learned in transforming from an organization that writes checks around the kitchen table to one known nationally for leadership in the social justice arena.

The past 10 years have been exciting ones for the Hill-Snowdon Foundation and the Snowdon family.

For 40 years prior, we acted as a typical family foundation, coming together once a year to nominally approve grants recommended by family members. Certainly we funded some wonderful organizations reflecting the varied interests of the family, but you would have been hard-pressed to say what it added up to.

Ten years ago, family members agreed that it was time to think bigger. What could we achieve, we asked, if we focused our resources (roughly $25 million in assets) on one or two issues? What kind of difference could we make? We’ve spent the past 10 years trying to answer that question. It has been a wonderful journey, and we’ve learned a ton in the process. As we thought about how to commemorate the foundation’s 50th anniversary, we discussed how much we’d learned from others during the past decade—from our foundation peers, from our grassroots partners, from experts and advisors.

We certainly don’t assume that what we’ve done represents best practices, or even necessarily good ones for every family foundation. We hope that by telling our story, it may help others understand how we made decisions and what some of the tradeoffs have been.

Finding a Focus

One of the key lessons we’ve learned is that what has been good for us as philanthropists—getting more focused and thoughtful in our giving—has also been good for us as a family.

When we sat down to figure out what we valued and what we hoped to accomplish with the foundation’s giving, we found common ground in the values of social justice and equity, and the belief that the people most affected by problems need to be involved in their solutions. For us, this meant that community organizing would play a major role.

One of the reasons we agreed on organizing was because we agreed on the fundamental democratic nature of it. In some ways, it’s a lot easier for a family with divergent views to agree on community organizing and the basic idea that the people who are most affected by a problem should have some say in the solutions. We may not agree on education reform—whether charter schools or standardized testing are good or bad—but we can agree that the families with kids who are falling behind in failing schools know what they need to achieve.

We’ve learned together firsthand about the power of community organizing to empower individuals, improve communities, and create more equitable policies. When we get together several times a year, it’s to discuss significant social issues: immigration reform, community development, education. We share a commitment to achieving the foundation’s vision of a fair and just society for low-income families.

These are big issues, and, as we’ve learned about them and about philanthropy, we’ve come to believe that we can have an impact greater than our relatively meager grants budget allows.

Small Grants, Big Impact

We try to ensure that our foundation’s values are reflected in all aspects of our grantmaking. For example, we never use the word “grantee.” Instead, funded groups are called “grassroots partners.” It’s an important distinction to the staff and board who recognize that the power dynamics between grassroots groups and their funders can be a major barrier to developing authentic relationships. We consider these groups to be our partners in social change, and we rely on them to help us achieve our mission.

We try to be a conduit for insights gleaned from our grassroots partners and bring attention to critical opportunities, issues, and ideas. We’ve done this by investing in an amazing staff with vision, expertise, and dedication to the foundation’s purpose. We hired our founding executive director 5 years ago, marking another important milestone in our development, and have since added three more staff members.

Another value we embrace is patience. As with many funders, this was not our trustees’ natural inclination. The direct services funding of our early years had the immediate payoff of showing an increase in number of people served. But, as we began to fund grassroots organizing and saw the small steps necessary to achieve victories, we grew in our understanding of what a long time social change takes. Although our grants are made in 1-year increments, they average 5 years (with a range of 2 to 10 years).

Early on, recognizing how challenging it can be to obtain operating funds when so many funders limit their grants to specific projects, the board agreed to make general operating grants. Our staff develop close working relationships with our grassroots partners, and we trust them to make the best use of funds to achieve their missions.

The staff are also sensitive to the paperwork burden of small nonprofits. We only ask organizations for the information we consider essential. Grassroots partners applying for their next grant simply state what they accomplished with the previous grant, and what they plan to do with the next one. The staff believe that their ongoing conversations with grantees tell them more than a multipage grant proposal would.

Looking to the Future

As with other foundations, Hill-Snowdon has struggled recently as our assets declined. The upshot is that it has forced us to take stock of what we’ve accomplished so far, what we still want to achieve, and how we aim to get there. We’ve had frank conversations about perpetuity, what motivates us, and what success may look like on such intractable problems. And we’ve renewed our commitment to our mission, our philanthropic approach, and the family’s involvement.

As we look toward the next decade, we envision numerous opportunities and challenges for philanthropy and the quest for social justice. We are excited to continue on the path of helping to create a more fair and just society, and we hope that our paths will cross with yours on this journey.

As board member Ted Snowdon puts it: “We have positioned ourselves like David vs. Goliath, fighting social injustice, and we encourage other family foundations, saying, ‘You can do this too.’” For the full anniversary publication Values to Vision to Action: The Hill-Snowdon Foundation Journey, see www.hillsnowdon.org.