THE BLOG

SMIRF's Up in LA

02/24/2015 03:13 pm ET | Updated Apr 26, 2015

There is a lot of talk about mission-related investing in the world of philanthropy lately. The very popular idea of putting our money ̶ our endowments ̶ where our mouths are. A good idea that has greater traction than execution. Achieving market rates of return and aligning our investments with our missions presents risks and hesitation.

But I want to turn our attention to other kinds of capital we are not investing. Outside of our money, we leave a great deal of other resources on the table of potential impact and change.

In today's world, if you are aiming at real change, money is never enough. Advocacy, community organizing, public policy and civic engagement are essential. We all know there are strict limitations on how much "lobbying" any charitable organization can do. Yet there is so much that foundations could do, and must do, if they truly believe in their missions for change.

This is the "SMIRF" capital model, as beautifully outlined by Ambassador James A. Joseph. We must deploy our social, moral, intellectual and reputational capital, in addition to financial capital. Many of our colleague foundations in Los Angeles are going through this analysis and shifting their focus to a more "activist" approach to grantmaking. At community foundations in particular, this shift is even more pronounced.

I believe that community is in our name for a reason. We cannot remain neutral about the community or agnostic to needs. As has been said, "If you don't stand for something, you'll fall for anything." This is particularly true in the case of SMIRF's moral capital. We have to lead positive social change based on our point of view ̶ a moral stance about right and wrong. As Robert Frost said, "....it begins with a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong..." We have to lead with our values and pursue change that will advance those values by engaging the communities we serve.

The California Community Foundation (CCF) has been in this evolutionary development in becoming what we call an "activist" foundation for many years. We have focused our discretionary assets on strengthening the overall well-being of Los Angeles, by addressing the tremendous needs of the poor and vulnerable. This has been a decade-long road of challenge and change. A persistent but varied path of learning and leaning towards our goal of applying our potential to our mission.

We started by "requiring" our grantmaking teams to make 15 percent of their grants to support advocacy and public policy initiatives in Los Angeles County. We then engaged our program officers in fundraising, donor relations and leveraging their budgets with funders and funding. We opened a convening center to generate collaboration and sharing between grantees to focus on change. We began making more grants in community organizing, policy research, parent engagement and neighborhood leadership development.

It has changed the way we hire and measure success. It has changed the way we budget and plan. It has also turned our limited grant dollars into the starting point versus the limit to our work. We are beginning to see ourselves as catalyzing persistent movements of change over a much longer time horizon. That's why our strategic plans span 10 years.

We are leading change through SMIRF. We are using our influence to begin focusing all of our investments and assets on the needs of our community. We spend a lot more time and effort engaging leaders and convening and funding cross-sector collaboratives of key players. We actively pitch other funders and donors to join our efforts. In short, we are re-defining our work ̶ all focused on engaging the community in long-term change.

Today, we are continuing our challenging and rewarding journey of integrating civic engagement, fundraising, advocacy, public policy, non-profit sustainability and communications into all of our initiatives and priority grantmaking areas. Previously segregated functions were not fully focused on the larger and common objectives of change. They were not fully aligned with community needs and our focus areas. We are at the threshold of going "all-in" in evolving into an activist foundation that is focused on leading change in the community.

While we are making progress, we have a long way to go. These subtle and not so subtle changes have altered our perspective, our point of view. They are altering our organizational culture and the way we budget. We see ourselves as more than grantmakers. We are SMIRFing in LA.

Philanthropy has a small amount of financial capital, so leveraging it with all of the other resources available to us is vital. Ambassador Joseph gave us more inspiration and the framework to advance the role of philanthropy in our community. While his speech made it sound so smooth and easy, it is not. We hope the results of harnessing all of our energy, our passion and our capital will empower our communities as much it has empowered us.

John E. Kobara is Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of the California Community Foundation. You can follow him on Twitter @jekobara.