Questions on Economic Opportunity Philanthropy

What exactly is economic opportunity?" The Philanthropy Roundtable is asking some committed donors.

The economic opportunity team at The Philanthropy Roundtable asked some committed donors, “What is economic opportunity?” Our first respondent, Jeanne Bistranin of the Adolph Coors Foundation, took the time to explain a common conundrum in economic opportunity funding: What counts as self-sufficiency?

Q: How have you come to define “self-sufficiency” at the Coors Foundation, and how has that affected your grantmaking?

Bistranin: The phrase our board uses is “helping people to help themselves”—if we accomplish our goals and execute the Foundation’s vision, more people will realize the American Dream. A few years ago, we realized some of our funding wasn’t truly being directed to self-sufficiency. We decided to focus on people who are ready to be self-sufficient in the near future. We are interested in job training programs, continuing education, vocational education, job placement services, and other interventions to help people get back on their feet so they can support themselves and their families, independent of government assistance.

Q: Do people define self-sufficiency differently?

Bistranin: Definitely. For example, let’s say you have a great homeless program that cumulates in moving participants into Section 8 subsidized housing. Does that count as self-sufficiency? Many would say yes—look how far they’ve come, from homeless to Section 8. We decided that moving into Section 8 housing doesn’t count as self-sufficient. The person is still reliant on government support. We want to move beyond that.

Q: Do you get resistance on this definition?

Bistranin: People have different opinions. For example, I was talking with an organization placing homeless women in jobs. The organization’s job placement rate was 50 percent, and the question became whether or not that rate was good. You have to really take into consideration how much leeway you should have. What is reasonable, and what will be outstanding?

Q: What characteristics do you see in successful organizations in this field?

Bistranin: The most successful organizations are the ones that work with clients who want to change. The only organizations that are successful are the ones that have some criteria to select their clients. They are stringent about their criteria. Is there anything wrong with that? It’s a hot question.

Q: What kind of measures do you use to evaluate self-sufficiency?

Bistranin: We look at the actual employment rate for the participants at a living wage. Participants can get minimum wage, but in that case they usually need a government supplement as well. We want them to get a living wage so they can support themselves and their families.

We also look closely at retention. Six months later, are these people still in their jobs? We know they need to stay in these jobs to keep their feet on the ground. We have high expectations.

Q: Is it difficult to find organizations that fit your parameters?

Bistranin: It can be very hard at times. For example, our board really wanted to do something about veterans unemployment. We were looking to help veterans navigate education benefits and connect with employment. We wanted to help their skills in the military translate to civilian jobs. We started looking for an organization in Colorado that fit the bill, and couldn’t find one that provided these services. Eventually we asked organizations to submit proposals. We received a number of good ideas, and we eventually found an outstanding organization to run the program.

Q: Would you highlight any one organization as particularly good at self-sufficiency?

Bistranin: I wouldn’t highlight any one group as the flagship organization in this field. There are pockets of nonprofits doing great things. They are generally tough organizations that are picky about who they serve, and they hold their clients to very high standards. They are entrepreneurial and not cookie cutter in any way.

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