The history of Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Local Funding Partnerships offers lessons about the importance of local ownership and control of programs, developing open lines of communications among partners with sometimes differing agendas, and establishing equality in relations among people working for large national foundations and smaller local philanthropies.
In 1987 RWJF staff member and philanthropy trailblazer Terry Keenan recognized the need for a new model of grantmaking: partnering a national foundation with local funders and organizations. “No big foundation had ever done anything like this,” Keenan said. “But who knows better what’s needed and where it’s needed than the local foundations?”
By collaborating with local funders instead of acting alone, the Foundation could leverage its resources and motivate more local funders to invest in health and health care. Also, RWJF leadership hoped that some of the funded projects would yield innovative approaches that the Foundation could bring to scale at the national level.
The RWJF Board of Trustees authorized a two-year trial of a new, broadly focused matching grants program called Local Initiative Funding Partners. Except for a brief hiatus in 1989, the program was reauthorized continuously for more than 20 years. In 2008 RWJF changed the name to Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Local Funding Partnerships. For clarity, this article uses Local Funding Partnerships (LFP) throughout.
A funded project would have to fall within RWJF's scope of interest in improving health and health care, but eligibility was evaluated using a very broad definition of health. Promising, creative—although as yet, unproven—projects were encouraged to apply.
Explaining the standard of “innovation” remained elusive. However, long before the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation established its Vulnerable Populations portfolio, LFP projects operated outside of the traditional medical context. They approached health within the social context—family and neighborhood, income and housing, education and prejudice.
Each year on the deadline date, proposals arrived from communities across the country: small and large, urban and rural; from Alaska to Puerto Rico and from Hawaii to Maine. It is remarkable to see how proposals that were considered novel at the time are now well-accepted best practices; while some of the health concerns they addressed continue to challenge us today.
For example, in the program’s early years, local funders and LFP matching grants supported:
- Teen pregnancy prevention in the Hmong refugee community in Minnesota (1988)
- Supportive services so frail elderly people could remain at home in Maryland (1989)
- Dental care for people with HIV/AIDS in Texas (1992)
- Advocacy for families with developmentally delayed children in Alaska (1993)
- Professional training for Latina promotores in California (1995)
- Diabetes screening and education at a farmers market in Hawaii (1996)
Responsive to Local Funders
While the initial funding partners were mostly established independent and family foundations, the openness of LFP’s partnership model readily accommodated the growth of community foundations and donor advised funds, health care conversion foundations, corporate giving programs and other philanthropies.
Under the original design, local grantmakers were unhappy with the requirement that they make a formal funding commitment to the proposed project at the time of application. In 1990, revised rules required only a nominating letter from the lead foundation stating its intention to help secure the necessary dollar for dollar match.
Once awarded, the RWJF grant would be conditional on fulfillment of the local match––with local funders as equal partners contributing dollars at the same time as the national foundation.
RWJF also listened to community feedback regarding the amount of time and dollars needed to launch these complex, collaborative projects. As the economy fluctuated over the 23 years of LFP grantmaking, the guidelines for Local Funding Partnerships awards were adjusted.
Ultimately the applicant organization could request a specific dollar amount between $200,000 and $500,000 to be paid out over three or four years. Applicants were instructed to be frank about their budget needs to reach measurable objectives. One size would not fit all.
By 1999 more than 300 proposals were received annually, though only six percent of the applicants were funded each year. After RWJF and LFP staff and National Advisory Committee members reviewed initial concept papers, about 25 percent of the applicants were invited to submit full proposals. Of those, approximately one third received a site visit.
This rigorous screening process took a full year to complete. While stakeholders waited to learn if they received an LFP grant, funders and applicants tended to become increasingly active in planning the project. Some coalitions faltered. Others strengthened their passion and commitments, even beginning the work.
Attaining an RWJF LFP grant became a “seal of approval” that ultimately helped attract more partners and leverage more support. Policymakers and grantmakers who did not ordinarily get involved in health-related programs felt more confident championing a project selected by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
Leading the Way
Selection criteria continued to emphasize innovation and community engagement. While proposals varied widely in goals and methods, trends emerged. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation received valuable, real-time information on new concerns and fresh solutions gaining traction around the U.S.
Looking back, one can see that LFP projects called early attention to the need for:
- Dental care for uninsured immigrant children (See Providence Smiles, RI, 1997)
- Teen programs to build life skills and combat obesity and substance use (See Students Run L.A., CA, 1998)
- Reducing emergency room visits for low-income families (See Health-e-Access, NY, 2002) and homeless adults (See Healthcare for the Homeless, GA, 1999)
- Physical fitness for adults with mental illness (See In Shape, NH, 2004)
- Mental health services for infants (See Child First, CT, 2005)
In a few cases, the Foundation invested in bringing a Local Funding Partnerships model to national attention. Examples include:
- Vote & Vax to provide flu vaccinations to seniors at polling places (LFP grant in 1996)
- CeaseFire, a strategic public health initiative to redue gang violence in Chicago neighborhoods (LFP grant in 1999)
- E.D.I.P.P. to provide Early Detection and Intervention to Prevent Psychosis in teenagers (LFP grant in 2002)
More Than Financial Support
The characteristics that make LFP projects most interesting—new ideas to solve daunting health and social problems, new coalitions of people who have not worked together, new staffing needs to find the right expertise, new objectives with uncertain financial resources—also comprise the greatest challenges to success.
Through phone calls and e-mails, site visits and conferences, the LFP director and deputy director stayed in close touch with each project director and many of the funders. Their role includes guiding organizations whether they need help with budgeting or business planning, marketing or fundraising, finding professional evaluators or reaching policymakers.
They worked closely with project staff from the “orientation for new grantees” to the “closing grant graduation seminars.” Every active grant sent senior staff to the LFP Annual Meeting—three-day conferences with skill-building sessions and thoughtful speakers. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation also provided consultants to train project leaders in strategic communications, evaluation, and outreach to elected officials.
Some years projects were clustered together because their needs coincided around their issues or the populations they served. LFP convened meetings of programs working on violence, substance abuse, and mental health as well as conferences on senior services and youth at risk.
LFP Adds a New Grantmaking Initiative
In 2009 the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation created a new opportunity to fund in communities that have been traditionally under-resourced by mainstream philanthropy due to race, ethnicity, tribe, gender, sexual identity, or frontier location.
Using the LFP model of seeking input and nominations from local grantmakers, RWJF would partner with funders who are already devoted to specific communities—such as Hispanic Philanthropies, Black United Funds, Asian American/Pacific Islanders Foundations, and Women’s Giving Circles.
RWJF provided matching grants of $50,000 to $200,000 to accommodate smaller scale projects and nonprofits with smaller budgets and less infrastructure. Through Peaceful Pathways: Reducing Exposure to Violence, LFP considered applications to build upon community strengths, wisdom and skills to address violence as a serious barrier to good health. We were proud to welcome 14 Peaceful Pathways projects into the LFP family.
Examples include projects that:
- Develop a culturally appropriate prevention program to address teen dating violence in Montana. (See Power Up, Speak Out!, MT, 2010)
- Teach boys to rethink gender roles and violence by developing video games. (See Reinventing Manhood Project, NY, 2011)
- Expand domestic violence prevention and intervention for Muslim women and children. (See Peace in the Home, TX, 2011)
The Last Call
The last LFP Calls for Proposals were issued in 2010 with awards given in 2011. By then, matching grant programs partnering a national foundation with local funders had become an accepted practice. “Innovation” had become a popular description in grant applications. And with the economic downturn, some local funders were striving to sustain the operations of existing programs.
In total, 355 grants were awarded through the LFP Annual Grantmaking Program and 14 awards were made under LFP’s Peaceful Pathways Program. In a 2002 evaluation conducted by Mathematica Policy Research, an astounding 75 percent of LFP-funded projects—many considered risky when they received their matching grants—had sustained their operations and were making a mark in their communities.
We look forward to seeing the impact of more recently funded projects, especially those we are working with now whose grants are ongoing through 2015. Please review the descriptions and stories of our extraordinary projects. You will find a number of them under Featured Projects.
The Local Funding Partnership staff is available to answer your questions from our national program office in Princeton, NJ. Pauline M. Seitz, formerly an RWJF senior program officer who helped Terry Keenan develop LFP, left the Foundation in 1994 to become the second LFP national program director. She and the other senior staff members as well as Robert Wood Johnson Foundation leadership welcome opportunities to speak about the program.