Community foundations located in the Great Lakes Basin in the United States and Canada — Bay City, Michigan; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Burlington, Ontario; and elsewhere — are supporting a variety of environmental initiatives to improve the quality of life in their regions. However, that was not the case in 1997. Back then, there were 39 shoreline community foundations located in the Great Lakes Basin, but only nine had endowed environment funds to provide long-term protection for, and restoration of, the world’s largest freshwater ecosystem.
Many of these community foundations were not seeing themselves as environmental grantmakers, but the Great Lakes collaborative gave them a push in that direction.
Consequently, the Mott Foundation — in partnership with The Joyce Foundation, Great Lakes Protection Fund (GLPF) and the Council of Michigan Foundations — created the Great Lakes Community Foundation Collaborative. The goals were to increase the number of community foundations with permanent funds earmarked for environmental grantmaking and to strengthen the institutions’ collective ability to address shared concerns, such as brownfield contamination, unchecked development or watershed problems.
“The collaborative created a network of community foundations that could begin to tackle Great Lakes-wide problems together. It provided community foundations with an opportunity to start looking through the environmental lens,” said David Rankin, GLPF vice president of programs.
For many of the 21 participating community foundations, it was the first time they had met with residents and discussed environmental issues related to the Great Lakes. It also was the first time several of the institutions partnered with colleagues at other community foundations in the region to tackle environmental problems. The interactions enabled them to “get traction” around certain issues, Rankin said.
He added that, with a deliberate focus on environmental grantmaking, community foundations could be effective vehicles for pulling together local leaders to solve significant environmental problems. The institutions’ leadership ability — coupled with consultants’ guidance in how to develop boards, make effective grants, cultivate donors and engage residents — was a winning combination.
Mott provided two grants totaling $880,000 for the collaborative, which operated from 1997 to 2000. The grants required each community foundation to raise additional money to either establish endowment funds for environmental work or increase existing funds so issues affecting the Great Lakes could be addressed for years to come.
In all, more than $4.6 million was raised for endowments during the grant period, and an additional $4.2 million was secured in government grants through 2001 for collaborative initiatives — generating a tenfold return of $8.8 million to communities, Rankin said. He added that, when the current combined assets of all the environmental endowments are included, the total return is considerably higher.
“Many of these community foundations were not seeing themselves as environmental grantmakers, but the Great Lakes collaborative gave them a push in that direction,” Rankin said. In fact, he said the collaborative was so successful that it prompted community foundations located along the Mississippi River to create a network and replicate the coordinated approach of using community foundations to address common concerns.