As one of the largest community foundations in America — with more than $760 million in assets — the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving has long been a lifeline for Hartford area nonprofits, awarding more than half a billion dollars since its inception in 1925.
In 2011 alone, the grant-making giant invested nearly $29 million to support 414 organizations across its 29-town service area.
But with evidence of two major gaps — education and workforce readiness — widening in the Hartford region, the foundation's strategic plan, entitled Accelerate Success, is calling for the organization to move beyond its traditional grant-making role to a more active player.
It's an expanded role that many community foundations nationwide have embraced and with good reason. "Community foundations like ours have the focus, resources and network to address big issues in partnership with nonprofits, business and government," said Cyrus Driver, vice president for strategy and planning.
And, in Connecticut, some issues are particularly pressing. The state has the largest educational achievement gap — between wealthy and poor students — in America, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress. The Nutmeg State also boasts the second highest income gap in the country, according to the most recent U.S. Census figures, reflecting a lack of job readiness among the state's lowest-income residents. In fact, a recent survey of 151 Connecticut manufactures found that nearly 89 percent were unable to fill jobs due to untrained workers.
In response to those realities, the Hartford Foundation has shifted its program staffing roles and is crafting strategies to tackle these challenges.
"While we will continue to support the issues that matter to the community — and our donors - like arts and health causes," said Donna Jolly, the Foundation's vice president for communications, "there will be greater emphasis placed on these core areas." Last year, nearly 25 percent of all Hartford Foundation grants supported educational initiatives, including the Adult Literacy Project and Hartford Community Schools, according to Jolly.
Of course, narrowing the achievement gaps in Hartford will take more than just big checks, Driver acknowledges, but the Foundation's strong ties to the business, nonprofit and policy-making sectors provide a unique opportunity to facilitate collaboration.
"We want to build a continuum that addresses the gaps [in service] that exist around education and job training," he said.
He points to the Foundation's community indicators project — designed to share and track social service outcome data region-wide — as an example. "We can become a nexus for information," Driver said. "We have the networks and relationships to tap into and engage the community."
Driver acknowledges, at this stage, the Foundation's implementation of its strategic plan is a work in progress, noting the number of organizations involved — and the financial commitments of the Foundation — is still in flux. "We will work with the community to identify where our involvement can have the greatest impact," he said.
And that involvement, contends Jolly, may change over time. "We want to continue to hear from our constituents and as we try things, we'll learn and adjust," she said. The one thing she's sure of is that the Foundation, moving forward, will be playing a larger leadership role in the Hartford region.