Funder’s Forum: The Princeton Area Community Foundation

The Princeton Area Community Foundation is a public charity serving the residents of Mercer County, New Jersey, that enables individuals, families, businesses, and organizations to create permanent charitable funds to help their communities meet the challenges of changing times and improve the quality of life throughout central New Jersey. Foundation Center asked Jeffrey M. Vega, its president and CEO, and Michelle Cash, its vice president of grants and programs:

Q: What are some of the ways in which the Princeton Area Community Foundation is collaborating to extend its impact, and what have you learned from these collaborations?

“We belong to a formal funders collaborative, The Trenton Funders Collaborative, which was born out of our local regional association of grantmakers in 1998. This partnership between us and the Mary Owen Borden Foundation, the Bunbury Company, and the Harbourton Foundation began in 1998 with shared concern that many small organizations in the area were too underdeveloped to take advantage of opportunities and grow. The group decided to play a role in increasing the capacity of Mercer County nonprofits, first by attempting to establish a nonprofit support center, which had some early success but ultimately did not survive, then by focusing on a specific organization, our local Big Brothers Big Sisters chapter. With multi-year funding from 2006 to 2009, this was a deep collaboration among the funders and between the funders and the grantee partner. The project brought enormous returns, and the grantee now routinely wins national awards.

“In 2009, inspired by that experience, the collaborative was looking for the next opportunity. By then we had learned that collaborations take time to foster. It takes flexibility and a willingness to ask, "Are we still going in the right direction? Is everybody still on board? Is this still the thing we want to keep doing?" We researched and chose another organization that we had all funded individually, and that we continue to fund. However, we quickly realized that the organization's board hadn't bought into the project, so it was not positioned for the deep collaborative relationship that is the secret sauce of this process.

“Then in 2012 we started a partnership with the Trenton Children's Chorus, a K-12 program that provides afterschool music plus supportive services for at-risk kids in the city of Trenton, a failing school district with a 50 percent graduation rate. Kids who stick with the chorus through high school all go on to post-secondary education. A small gem in 2012, the organization has made tremendous leaps in capacity since. We met with its staff and board quarterly for the last three years in a very hands-on, true partnership. It reworked its board, staffing model, and funding and has created the building blocks of long-term sustainability.

“We've learned that this kind of intensive partnership requires board and staff buy-in. While we don't usurp the organization's autonomy, we do expect that everything will be on the table for discussion. If we try something that doesn't work, there needs to be openness to discuss what we've learned and how we can move forward. So the process starts with building the relationship and trust. While there are elements common to successful capacity-building efforts, there's no simple formula. The collaborative has been a living lab that has helped us see what's possible. Through it, we have become real community partners with our fellow funders, which has been a humbling experience. We have had to hash out our differences, doing what we expect grantees to do, and we've experienced how hard that is.

“Now we're applying what we've learned to a data-driven program called Path to Impact. We began by asking ourselves how we could impact nonprofit capacity community-wide. The answer was that first we need to know what the level of capacity is currently. So we began working with a consultant, Quidoo Consulting, to repurpose the TCC Group's Core Competency Assessment Tool, an internal 360-degree capacity assessment for nonprofits. We offered this to 50 community nonprofits who received a report after completing the assessment then worked with a consultant to interpret their results. We received an aggregated data set that told us — across our community, in organizations big and small — where we are challenged and where we feel strong. Findings from that report — and the drive to help by being responsive to organization's needs without being directive — inform the three-part design of the Path to Impact program.

“The first part of the program, open to area nonprofits, is a bi-annual presentation from an expert speaker on areas of capacity identified by the needs assessment. The second level of the program is a peer-learning group of executive directors. The first peer-learning group just completed a six-month series of monthly meetings about fundraising, a topic that emerged from the assessments. We hired a facilitator, because they have better conversations without us. The direction was to emerge with an actionable plan they could take back to their organizations. The third component is a small grant pool available by application to that group as seed money to get those plans rolling. Interestingly, this initial group decided to apply to us for a collaborative grant to hire a trainer to work with their boards.

“We are evaluating Path to Impact at regular intervals to build on what works. The beauty of the community foundation model is in our ability to help donors learn, to help nonprofits learn, and to be an honest broker between those two worlds, amplifying the impact of each. We can see the need, get the data to understand it, develop a program in response, test it, refine it, keep working on it, and share what we've learned.”

View Resource