Strategic Partner

The Greater Houston Community Foundation donor-centered focus helps philanthropists make a bigger impact

Lessons Learned

Ramping up its advisory services for local philanthropists has been a multi-year process for the Greater Houston Community Foundation. Renee Wizig-Barrios, Senior Vice President & Chief Philanthropy Officer, offered some insights on how community foundations can become more of a strategic partner to donors.

Listen closely: A key part of developing new philanthropic services was engaging in one-on-one conversations GHCF’s largest donors and stakeholders, asking them what they cared about and how the Foundation could add value for them.

“We heard repeatedly that they wanted to engage the next generation, their children and grandchildren in philanthropy and that they wanted ways to come together to create a larger impact,” says Wizig-Barrios. “We continue to engage them in each of these efforts and have created a culture of continuous improvement by staying deeply connected to the donors and stakeholders who participate in the efforts.”

Make strategic investments: While GHCF does not have an endowment to fund community leadership, the Foundation has been able to develop new services through a small investment from its strategic reserve to subsidize the first years of program development for Next Gen and Community Impact Funds.

“As donors, private foundations, and corporations have realized the value of our services, they have started paying fees for these services,” says Wizig-Barrios. “This has allowed us to add the personnel necessary to evolve the services and staffing to keep up with the demand and continue to generate new ways to expand philanthropic impact. Expanding our focus has been very positive for our business model as service fee revenue now makes up about 30% of GHCF revenue.”

Focus on talent: Being a donor focused community foundation increases the need for leaders who have deep relational skills. GHCF has grown its team over the past three years with professionals with deep philanthropic knowledge and an understanding of the local community.

“Equally important to their philanthropic expertise is their ability to adapt to change and their desire to be part of a team dedicated to creating new ways of engaging with donors and expanding our community leadership,” says Wizig-Barrios. “We have looked for people who can collaborate, innovate, and bring a network of relationships.”

Philanthropists who work with the Greater Houston Community Foundation (GHCF) get services that extend well beyond just the distribution of their charitable dollars.

The philanthropists get a strategic partner that provides advisory services and support to help them fully envision and leverage their aspirations to create a better community and address issues they are passionate about. GHCF in recent years has bolstered its focus on advisory services to donors, offering tailored advice about the local philanthropic landscape, as well as helping to set up specialized funds, manage grants, establish strategic connections and more.

Donor Molly Gochman has experienced the benefit of GHCF’s advisory focus firsthand. Gochman, an artist and philanthropist, got interested in the issue of human trafficking after learning that Houston is a hub for the problem. She turned to GHCF to help determine the most effective way to approach the issue.

GHCF conducted strategic research, assisted Gochman in establishing a donor-advised fund, and coordinated a panel discussion on human trafficking that featured several national and local experts. GHCF also worked with Gochman to create a documentary style video aimed at raising local awareness.

“GHCF goes above and beyond with their efforts to help me make connections and navigate this issue,” Gochman says. “They are willing to look at things in different ways and are open to creatively thinking about new approaches to issues.”

Creating ‘Community Impact’

One of GHCF’s most significant advisory efforts has focused on establishing Community Impact Funds, which offer a small group of donors the opportunity to give together in a focused, strategic way to make a significant impact on a particular issue. The common thread for all of the Community Impact Funds is that they are all donor- focused – the GHCF staff works with the leaders of the funds to help facilitate the effort while providing administrative support, research and other resources, says Renee Wizig-Barrios, Senior Vice President & Chief Philanthropy Officer

“These donors come to the table with a passion for an issue,” says Wizig-Barrios. “We can help focus their efforts, provide strategic resources and leverage our knowledge of the non-profit arena and our connections to make the most impact.”

For example, the GHCF Strategic Education Fund aims to establish a critical mass of influence and funding to create a “breakthrough moment” in local education reform. Meanwhile, the Greater Houston Fund to End Homelessness is focused on building a local network of funders who are committed to reducing homelessness through leadership, education, strategic collaboration and grant-making.

The Community Impact Funds are set up with a steering committee of four or five donors that serve as general partners, and 10 or more others who are limited partners. The GHCF provides ongoing strategic support in a range of ways. For instance, donors involved in the Fund to End Homelessness(FTEH)were interested in identifying current gaps in understanding and addressing the issue.

After determining that there was little or no data on how homelessness was impacting children, GHCF helped facilitate an upcoming study of youth homelessness that will be conducted by the University of Houston. FTEH is the major funder of this study. The hope is that study results will help guide policy decisions while also providing insights into the most effective use of funding moving forward.

Corporate Partner

GHCF plays a similar advisory and consultative role with corporate donors, Wizig-Barrios says. For instance, when Hess Corporation decided to enhance its philanthropic efforts in Houston, they turned to the foundation. GHCF helped Hess strategically leverage its assets in the community by researching, designing, and implementing the L.E.A.P. (Learn.Engage.Advance.Perservere) Initiative in two of Houston’s east-end middle schools.

“We knew we needed to engage a partner that had a finger on the pulse of Houston’s needs and had the capacity to manage a multi-year, multi-stakeholder, and multi-million dollar education initiative,” says Doug Maddams, Senior Manager, Corporate Social Responsibility, Hess Corporation. “We found that partner in the Greater Houston Community Foundation.”

Advising the Next Generation

Another focus from an advisory standpoint has been the establishment of comprehensive program aimed at helping up-and-coming donors in the Houston area. The “Next Gen Donor Institute” is designed to connect, cultivate, and inspire the next generation of philanthropic leaders in Houston. The yearlong program helps participants develop “a deeper understanding of their own philanthropic journey” while also identifying and collaborating with peers and local leaders about community needs.

Specifically, participants get personal advising sessions with a GHCF philanthropic advisor, classes led by local experts and speakers that are focused on creating a philanthropic identity, understanding of the needs in Houston, developing a giving strategy, and measuring impact.

Wizig-Barrios says graduates gain a greater understanding of how philanthropy works, the latest trends and best practices, as well as the tools and resources to make strategic philanthropic investments. Importantly, they also tap into a dynamic network of likeminded donors to make valuable and lasting connections.

“Next Gen really helps these young Houstonians reflect on their own history and values while also getting a greater understanding of philanthropy and the needs of the community,” Wizig-Barrios says. “They leave the program with a clearer sense of their own philanthropic philosophy and strategy.”

GHCF is benefitting from the energy, leadership and perspective of the Next Gen participants, who have rapidly become an integral part of the foundation’s donor community.

The professional wealth and estate advisors which GHCF partners with have taken notice as well and are beginning to invite GHCF to provide some philanthropic education for their clients. As part of GHCF’s evolution, donors with large donor advised funds of $500,000 or more can now recommend a third-party registered investment advisors to manage donor advised fund investments. This new investment option has been well received by the donor community and allowed financial advisors to partner more closely with the foundation.

An ongoing and iterative process

Ultimately, GHCF’s shift in focus is built on its core value of honoring donor intent by evolving and growing new platforms and services to expand donor impact, says Wizig-Barrios. As part of this “ongoing and iterative process” the Foundation is building the resources, personnel and knowledge base to expand its capacity to be a philanthropic partner and advisor. While the transition has required a significant expansion of focus, Wizig-Barrios says longtime President and CEO Stephen Maislin has provided steady leadership and continuity throughout process.

“With the leadership of our Governing Board and staff as well as the advice of leading foundations we have created additional ways of providing value to our stakeholders,” says Wizig-Barrios.

Throughout the process, GHCF has bolstered its reputation as Houston’s strategic hub for advisory services, philanthropic resources, and networking with a wide range of sectors and leaders throughout the community.

“The broader community has expressed that they value us taking a leadership role and are seeing the Greater Houston Community Foundation as a leading resource for the future of Houston philanthropy,” Wizig-Barrios says. “Beyond being effective, this approach is a lot of fun. We have donors who are passionate about making a difference. When we are able to partner with our donors and provide them additional knowledge resources and connections, our impact can be far greater.”

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