Collaboration across the pond

By Martha Toll 4 July 2013

Martha Toll is the founding Executive Director of the Butler Family Fund, a fund focused on ending homelessness, abolishing the death penalty, and ending the sentence of juvenile life without parole. Ms. Toll serves on the board of Funders Together to End Homelessness and is a member of Funders for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. Prior to her work at the Butler Family Fund, Ms. Toll served in the Office of the General Counsel at several key federal agencies, and in the litigation department of a major US law firm.

How does a philanthropic foundation with a clear mission and big vision, but  a relatively small endowment extend its reach? Since its inception, the Butler Family Fund has grappled with this challenge. Governed by a family board whose members live in the US and the UK, the Fund has two primary giving areas: criminal justice reform, and preventing and ending homelessness. The Butler Family Fund strives to be lean and strategic, with the flexibility to address pressing needs and test innovative solutions. We consider it a “tugboat pulling the ocean liner” approach.

Although Butler recognises the importance of funding direct services such as food banks, we believe our homelessness dollars have a greater impact when they leverage resources in the service of improved social welfare policy. For example, in 1999 the Butler Family Fund was the first national funder to help launch “Housing LA”, a campaign to create an affordable housing trust fund—a dedicated public revenue source for affordable/low income housing. Our $20,000 grant helped attract other funders—funding that we renewed over the next couple of years. As a result, the Mayor of Los Angeles signed a $100 million annual housing trust into law in 2002. To date, an estimated 5,810 new affordable housing units have been built.

The Butler Family Fund’s effectiveness has been greatly enhanced through our deep connections with other funding organisations. We collaborate out of necessity: innovative partnerships with other foundations are key to extending our reach. Because we value collaboration so highly, we were delighted to be selected by the Geneva-based Oak Foundation as a re-granting partner. This alliance between a relatively small, endowed family foundation (Butler) and a large, worldwide foundation (Oak) is one of the first of its kind.

Butler’s core giving has been extended by two large grants from Oak to expand our homelessness work nationwide. We design the funding programme, conduct due diligence, provide staffing and legwork, and make the grants—and throughout the whole process, we work hand-in-glove with Oak staff to ensure that our mutual funding interests are met.

Despite the difference in size, our transatlantic partnership thrives on the shared values and mission of the two families who govern our respective boards. Crucially, the Oak-Butler partnership gives each organisation the opportunity to expand its presence and impact. Through this re-granting collaboration, Butler has made grants to help open the US public workforce system to homeless jobseekers, forge connections between employment and homeless programmes, and re-purpose scarce public welfare dollars to lift families out of homelessness.

The ripple effects of this funding extend far beyond money spent. We have helped spur new learning that has informed advocacy and policy changes up to the highest levels of the US government. Together, we are more than the sum of our parts.