Imagining a New Approach to Nonprofit Grants

Special to the Philanthropy Journal

By Paul C. Miles, President and CEO, We Raise Foundation

Despite dramatic increases in wealth in our country, 43 million Americans live below the poverty line, with 1.5 million of them surviving on as little as $2 per day. Even with the continuing innovations in technology, communications, and social connection, for some in our communities, it can feel like the door to opportunity is closed.  This represents a failure of imagination – to imagine what individuals and communities could become if unburdened by the oppressive nature of poverty and its associated conditions. What could that 8-year old girl become if she lived in a community where she didn’t have to fear for her safety on the walk home from school? Where college was assumed and not a “lottery level hope.” Perhaps she might build and lead a company.  Hold elected office. Teach, create, inspire, lead.  The possibilities are endless if the restrictions to life are lifted.

This is the impetus for a new model of grantmaking being implemented by We Raise Foundation. We Raise was founded in 1905 as the Evangelical Lutheran Sanitarium in Wheat Ridge, Colorado, designed to serve those suffering from tuberculosis. In the early 1960’s, with tuberculosis no longer posing an existential threat to public health in the US, the sanitarium was sold and the resulting assets used to create a foundation. 

In the years since, as Wheat Ridge Foundation and more recently as Wheat Ridge Ministries, We Raise has supported Christian organizations and leaders around the world, providing funding for health and human care initiatives with the potential to grow and positively impact a larger segment of society. During this period, We Raise’s grantmaking model was to provide small grants to a wide range of causes in many geographic locations to support as many worthy organizations and leaders as possible. 

A New Approach

In recent years, We Raise underwent a strategic planning process to evaluate its future, during which three important questions were raised: 1) “How can the foundation increase its impact on grantees and continue to inspire donors?”; 2) “What are the issues shaping communities that need to be addressed?”; and 3) “How can the foundation adapt to a changing landscape to serve people for the next 100 years?” In answering these questions, it became clear that to achieve greater impact and to stay true to the foundation’s legacy of addressing the most pressing social issues of the day, a new direction was necessary. 

Moving forward, We Raise’s primary focus will be to support emerging Christian organizations working at the intersection of poverty, violence and inequality. The reason for this is simple. These issues represent the critical obstacle to forming healthy communities, and the problem is growing faster than the solutions. Poverty and inequality are pervasive, particularly in communities of color, and violence is often an unfortunate byproduct. In the most advanced country on the planet, no child should be relegated to a lifetime of deprivation based on the zip code in which they are born. We Raise is therefore imagining the ways these complex solutions can be solved using fresh and innovative approaches to funding.

Addressing Barriers to Healthy Communities

We Raise’s GrantsPlus recipients will fall into three broad programming categories: education, workforce development and criminal justice. To provide meaningful financial support that has long-term impact, the GrantsPlus program will focus on four geographic areas: Chicago, St. Louis, Milwaukee, and the San Francisco Bay area. These cities were selected following a rigorous review process in which need and potential for change was determined through a scoring process. Programs funded by We Raise will be new initiatives – less than three years old.  Where other foundations require a robust record of success, We Raise intends to invest early, because true change is only possible when people with fresh ideas and energy are empowered to challenge the status quo. 

Access to high-quality education early in life is a determinant of lifelong success, and it is critical that we support programs which give children the opportunity to break intergenerational cycles of poverty. To do so, We Raise will support Christian schools, before and after school care, and tutoring programs for low-income children in kindergarten through eighth grade. With this support, the next generation to enter the workforce will be equipped with the skills and tools necessary to become contributing members of society. 

Also critical to breaking the cycle of poverty is workforce development programming for parents, particularly mothers, which supports them as they seek the education, skills and training to acquire living-wage jobs which provide them with a pathway to stability.

Finally, We Raise will invest in programs that offer solutions to recidivism by providing inmates and ex-offenders with support and training to successfully re-enter society. We believe effective justice requires consequences for those who break the law, but every crime should not result in a lifetime sentence. Through programs that provide legal services to low-income individuals and those that offer prisoners and ex-offenders the tools necessary to re-integrate into society, including employment training, our communities will become more vibrant places for all. 

Through these three programming areas, We Raise Foundation is addressing the many barriers that affect the health of a community. The approach requires stepping back from the single, monolithic issue of “poverty” and imagining how poverty is affected by education, how education affects employment, how employment affects criminal justice, and so on.

Value Added to Increase Sustainability

Through a series of conversations with our grantees and other nonprofit leaders, it became clear that writing a check, while helpful, would be inadequate to truly support organizations with innovative ideas. It was another failure of the imagination to think all that nonprofits need is financial help. So, while We Raise is drastically increasing the monetary support available through each grant, the organization is also expanding its GrantsPlus awards to offer tools and services to strengthen the capacity of grantees in fundraising, resource development, crowdfunding support, and access to donor and foundation research to accelerate their growth. The landscape of public-sector funding is changing for these non-profits and we must change in order to help them meet the capital needs of their programs. By helping them become more effective at resource development, we are investing in a function critical to sustainability.

With this additional capacity building support, the value of a We Raise grant nearly doubles immediately but its true value is felt in the years after the award. This approach, combining significant financial support with capacity building services, is singular in its approach in the United States, and we believe will lead to results that could not be achieved otherwise.  

Looking Ahead

We Raise Foundation is often asked if we truly believe we can reduce the impact of poverty, violence and inequality. They are huge, global issues to be sure. But it is the willingness to dream, to imagine what is possible – and to not allow ourselves to be bound by the limitations of the past – that lets us respond with sincere hopefulness and conviction: “yes, for the people impacted by the programs we support, we will break the cycle of these limitations!” It can be done. It must be done. Where do we start? Right here. With the people and communities right in front of us.


Paul C. Miles is president and CEO of We Raise Foundation, an organization providing grants and fundraising assistance to Christian organizations in the United States with innovative ideas, people, and programs that raise consciousness, community leaders, and capital. We Raise Foundation seeks to support local solutions to poverty, violence, and inequality. To learn more, visit weraise.org.

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