Tate Williams

Busting the Silos of the Left: An Interview with the Compton Foundation

Tate Williams September 3, 2014
Zuccotti Park_11-11-11_D.M. GAINES

Originally published at Inside Philanthropy, August 20, 2014.

The Compton Foundation is a relatively small, progressive funder that’s been taking on some of the world’s largest problems since the 1940s. But three years ago, it turned its approach to giving on its head. Recently, I had a chance to chat with its top people about just what they’re up to.

For decades, San Francisco-based Compton has been supporting a mix of work in peace, national security, environment, and women’s reproductive rights, lately at around $3 million a year. But in 2012, it decided labels were overrated. Rather than the usual approach of chopping up its giving by topic, Compton scrapped explicit issue priorities and instead split everything into two programs—transformative leadership and courageous storytelling.

This might sound a bit, well, nebulous, but Executive Director Ellen Friedman and Program Director Jennifer Sokolove make a great case that the new approach has helped them focus, while allowing flexibility to take some risks and deal with the messy reality of the problems the foundation is trying to solve.

Related: Compton Foundation: Grants for Climate and Energy

First off, Friedman and Sokolove noted that the set of issues mentioned ealier remain their core commitments. But they realized a few years back that there was a lot of potential happening at the intersections, and outside the boundaries, of these issues.

“We arrived at this belief that the business of social change and environmental change, is changing,” Friedman said. “That movement building is an essential element to advancing a transformative action in society.”

With input from their grantees, Friedman and Sokolove arrived at the Leadership/Storytelling approach with the idea that bolstering these areas of social change work could have a deeper impact than drilling down on individual issues.

“We feel like issue area silos are often what actually prevent change from happening at the broader social level,” Sokolove said. People don’t experience issues on the ground with such clear distinctions, and the change in guidelines allowed them a little space so their grantmaking doesn’t have to either.

Climate change, for example, forces many nonprofits and foundations to think differently about what was once mostly framed as an environmental issue, but now falls just as easily into areas like national security.

“We need to look at how those things play out and what does that mean, so that climate activists and national security thinkers and policy people can actually sit in a room together and figure something out,” Friedman said.

That kind of thing doesn’t come easily, so the leadership portion of Compton’s giving is largely concerned with enabling staff in individual organizations to reach out of their typical realms of activity. One example is the CAARE Coalition, a network of about 60 groups working from different angles, that has developed a 30-year plan to overturn the Hyde Amendment restricting abortion access.

“They spent time up front really doing the deep work that they needed to do that will enable a diverse coalition, in a movement that has a history of being very divided, and I would say fractured in some ways, particularly between national and local groups,” said Friedman, formerly a vice president with the Tides Foundation.

Progressive organizations have been notorious for walling themselves off by pet cause, but a lot of Compton’s giving comes down to that idea that any organization (or foundation for that matter) can’t pull it off alone.

“We’ve all invested a lot in learning how to build strong organizations,” Sokolove said. “I don’t know that we’ve all invested the same amount in thinking about how to support organizations to be part of something bigger than their institutional boundaries.”

On the other front is the storytelling program, which funds work across the spectrum of communication, ranging from hard news reporting to art projects, to inspire change. They’ve funded media projects like Grist, as well as Climate Desk, a collaboration of major media outlets to improve coverage of climate change.

This is one program, particularly related to art projects, that seems like it has the potential to get fuzzy, and inherently involves a certain level of risk.

One example Friedman highlighted was the grantee One Million Bones, an art project that urged action on genocide by laying one million sculptures of bones on the Washington Mall.

“This was something that, when we saw it, we just kind of scratched our heads and said, we have no idea what’s going to happen with this. This is a wacky project,” she said. But it was compelling enough that they funded it. Three board members attended out of curiosity. “They said, we need to be there and see whether or not this kind of thing is fluff or not.”

But it was a success, with activists holding 200 visits on Capitol Hill in support of the event. Just weeks later, related or not, the State Department appointed a special envoy to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The foundation has kept a three-year relationship with the artist, and hasn’t looked back from the focus on storytelling.

It does raise the question though: With its flexible approach and often very long-term goals, how does it gauge effectiveness? Can you take the ever-popular venture capitalist approach to philanthropy while winning hearts and minds?

While the program staff said data are still very important to them, they suspect they’re less tied to strict sets of metrics, for example, than some other funders probably are.

While they monitor progress closely with grantees, Sokolove said Compton tends to be open to a wider range of ways their grantees will track that progress. They want to see a level of big picture thinking that can “really be stymied by a 12-month grant cycle that only funds things that can be counted,” she said.

To learn more about what Compton funds in climate change, see our IP profile.

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