Tapping Into the Communities We Serve

Note: This post is an excerpt from an article posted last month at North Carolina State University's Philanthropy Journal and is published here with permission.

When I joined the Robins Foundation in 2014 – which aims to advance the greater Richmond community through strategic partnerships, collaborations and education – the role of director of inclusion and community impact didn’t exist. As the foundation became proactive in the region, our role evolved in responding to our partners’ needs.

In 2017, my position was created to address fairness and equitable access to quality resources. We have a strong interest in investing in programs that enrich whole families and whole neighborhoods, with a particular interest in children and their academic opportunities and success. We have three main principals – partnership, innovation and fairness. It became clear that to achieve this, we needed to take a more intentional approach toward equity and inclusion. One of the ways we do this is by embracing the idea that communities know what they need.

Here’s an example of how this has worked within our foundation. Each year, we hold a $500,000 Community Innovation Grant (CIG) competition. Organizations from all over the Richmond region apply for the grant and propose actionable solutions that have a meaningful and measurable impact. The proposals address complex issues that our region has been wrestling with for generations, including trauma-informed care, the school-to-prison pipeline, housing instability, education, workforce development and health.

Previously, we finalized the competition in December, at a time when it was difficult for many local non-profits to include certain key information. Closing out the calendar year and managing fundraising and development needs while attempting to convene stakeholders around the holidays exacerbated capacity issues for smaller organizations.

We took the time to reimagine what the grant competition could look like. Three years into the CIG, we engaged a consultant to conduct an evaluation of the process and impact of the grant. They undertook a three-month study that gathered perspectives through one-on-one interviews of those who had previously received the $500,000 grant or a lesser amount, those who had applied but didn’t receive any funding, other peer funders, and CIG committee members. In addition, we hosted feedback sessions for the finalists every year to get candid responses about their experience within the process. It was really an exercise in trust building – the applicants exposed their wounds and headaches about the process. After a year of assessing these emerging impacts, we moved the competition to March, provided stipends to the finalists to cover technology expenses and changed aspects of the process to improve accessibility between participants and other stakeholders.

Because the idea is to be bold and propose new ideas, the CIG allows for proposals that are in the ideation phase and may lack details that could inform impact. But, extending the competition cycle allowed time to navigate those details and create space for organizations to apply while managing day-to-day operations.

Because the grant competition is wide open, we learned from youth with a lived experience of homelessness about their needs. In particular, one organization that worked in partnership with the LGBTQ community helped us recognize through the application process a gap that exists in housing services for this population. We recently announced a winner that is committed to ending youth housing instability – which disproportionately affects LGBTQ youth and people of color.

The changes we make to the CIG are ongoing and constantly reflect the voice of community partners who choose to participate in the process.  As a result, we have become more intentional about soliciting input from organizations through our other grant programs as well. We know that our community can improve exponentially when we work side by side with our grantees. They are on the ground within our community. It is our job to lean in and trust that they know how to best serve our neighbors.

Courtney Rice is director of inclusion and community impact at the Robins Foundation.


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