Open Society offers new grants to spur charity collaboration

The Chronicle of Philanthropy
Ben Gose
Teams of charities in eight U.S. cities are competing for long-term grants from the Open Society Foundations that will be used to help improve opportunities for low-income people and minorities.

Each team will receive a planning grant worth $100,000. By the end of this year, Open Society intends to choose three to five winning communities, which will receive grants worth up to $1-million a year for at least three years and possibly as long as a decade.

The planning grants are going to teams of charities in Albuquerque, Buffalo, Denver, Jackson, Miss., Louisville, Ky.; Milwaukee; San Diego; and Puerto Rico. The foundation, created by the philanthropist George Soros, announced today.

Open Society’s U.S. program, which has an annual budget worth more than $100-million, has long supported charities that focus on issues like human rights and social justice.

The new program, called the Open Places Initiative, reflects a belief at the foundation that achieving real change will require greater collaboration among the local groups that have been tackling such problems independently.

“This investment is intended to help folks move beyond incremental approaches so that over a period of time they can see some real and lasting change,” says Ken Zimmerman, Open Society’s director of U.S. programs. “The longstanding nature of the commitment we’re prepared to make is really a key aspect of it.”

Modeled on Baltimore Programs

Open Society will draw on its experience in Baltimore, where it has had an office since 1998 that focuses on issues like drug addiction and overhauling the criminal-justice system. Diana Morris, director of the Baltimore office, will also oversee the new Open Places program.

In at least some of the new cities, including Denver and Jackson, Open Society took the unusual step of asking several charities to work together to seek the planning grant.

“We saw it as an invitation, rather than a directive,” Beth Orlansky, advocacy director at the Mississippi Center for Justice, in Jackson, which is working with four other nonprofit groups to seek long-term support from Open Society. “They’ve encouraged us to find more partnerships, and in the process of doing this strategic plan I’m sure we’ll find other people who need to be at the table.”

Ms. Orlansky said the group will propose a strategy to help middle-school students stay engaged in school. More than 95 percent of the students in Jackson Public Schools are Africa-American, and fewer than two-thirds graduate from high school.

Evaluation Criteria

Mr. Zimmerman says the winning communities will be selected based on the strength of their ideas, the capacity of the applying charities to carry out the plans, and potential for drawing in other supporters, including foundations, corporations, and government, to help sustain the projects over time.

In Colorado, five nonprofit groups will submit a plan for creating a hub to integrate efforts to help immigrants and to change the criminal justice system.

Christie Donner, executive director of the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, says that, historically, her organization and the four others submitting the planning grant “really haven’t worked together as much as we probably could.”

“There’s always an opportunity to understand problems in a more sophisticated or complex way,” Ms. Donner says. “We look at issues from a particular lens, and so do other organizations. When we put all those lenses together, perhaps we’ll see a deeper connection.”