President's Corner

Focusing on the Business of Marguerite Casey Foundation

November 9, 2009

Luz Vega-Marquis
By Luz Vega-Marquis
President and CEO

We have invested in developing long-term strategies and in stretching our thinking about how to approach the Foundation’s work for some time.

During the past two years, we have spent considerable time exploring and discussing the overarching vision and broad strategies of Marguerite Casey Foundation’s work. A year after the Equal Voice conventions — a year of tremendous upheaval in our economy and for the families with whom we work — we are focused more than ever on the business of the Foundation in order to ensure stability and consistency in its core grantmaking and Movement Building efforts.

Our ambitious goal of building a movement of low-income families requires discipline, patience and risk-taking balanced with careful attention to the day-to-day work of the Foundation. We have invested in developing long-term strategies and in stretching our thinking about how to approach the Foundation’s work for some time. Now — in light of the opportunities presented by our refined grantee portfolio and the burgeoning Equal Voice Coalition, as well as the challenges presented by the economy and by several staff transitions — is an opportune moment for inward reflection and concentration on the fundamentals of our work.

In this time of transition, within and outside the Foundation, it is important to affirm our vision of success and our grantmaking theory of change, and to review our implementation tactics. We recently dedicated time at the board and staff levels to discuss the evolution of Marguerite Casey Foundation’s programmatic framework and to ensure clarity in its execution. In addition, we conducted a program team review of the role of program officers, completed the second annual Grantee Cumulative Impact Survey, refined our evaluation protocols, launched new communications resources for grantees and the Equal Voice Coalition and, through the October 2009 grantee convening, supported collective capacity building among grantees. Day-to-day, the care with which our staff tends to the Foundation’s grantees and non-grantmaking strategies exemplifies how it has been possible to build creative networks and momentum in a relatively short period.

Even as we push ourselves to pursue the Foundation’s bold vision with equally bold strategies, we are mindful that we do not always have to outdo ourselves. To sustain what we have built over time, we must tend to the business of the Foundation: our grantmaking, our program team, our systems and communications, and our plans for the future. With vigilance and patience, and with your guidance, we are doing this every day.

Equal Voice Policy Convening

Our grantee convenings have provided invaluable opportunities for grantees to build relationships, to engage in collective capacity building, and to share their lessons with us. When I reflect on many of our key strategies and initiatives, I find their origins in the discussions and relationships forged at our grantee convenings, which are consistently rich opportunities for analysis, learning and inspiration.

On October 9 and 10, 2009, approximately 300 Marguerite Casey Foundation grantees and Equal Voice family participants gathered in San Francisco for a policy convening with the theme Advocacy, the Media and You: Change in a Time of Uncertainty. The convening focused on policy advocacy and the use of media and included time for participants to identify the next steps for the Equal Voice Coalition.

When asked what actions the Coalition should take in the coming year to help bring about policy change, participants identified the following (ordered from most to least commonly recommended):

  • Mobilize for an action in Washington, D.C. (similar to the 1995 Million Man March)
  • Engage youth in the Coalition
  • Build the capacity of organizations to integrate the national family platform into local work
  • Hold regional convenings and strategy sessions
  • Develop a grassroots media strategy
  • Support local organizations coming together
  • Complete a power analysis of the national family platform

Participants were also asked what one message about the well-being of families they would like to communicate to policymakers. The top two responses were:

  • Listen to us — we have the answers .
  • Every issue is a family issue .

We will spend some time analyzing the ideas offered by the participants to guide the Foundation’s efforts to support the transition of the Equal Voice campaign to the Equal Voice Coalition and its work to advance the issues presented in the Equal Voice National Family Platform.

Update on ACORN

As you know, ACORN has come under intense national scrutiny because of some of its employees’ actions. The Foundation’s goal is to maintain a low profile and not be dragged into a smear campaign that targets community organizations that serve the poor, which, without a doubt, will ensnare other grantees and Foundations like ours.

I have informed the chair of the Board of Directors and the chair of the Communications and Advocacy Committee that the Foundation will not renew its grant to ACORN. Our decision not to renew ACORN’s grant is in keeping with our rigorous review of the organizations we fund, which must not only adhere to our mission but also be fiscally sound and have a strong management structure in place. At this time, too many questions surround ACORN’s fiscal management for us to continue to fund the organization.

“In light of the press calls beginning to come our way, we want to share with you the Foundation’s official statement (posted on the Foundation’s Web site) regarding our relationship with ACORN:

As a Foundation whose mission is to create a movement of low-income families, Marguerite Casey Foundation funds organizations with a successful record of improving the economic well-being of families. ACORN has been one of those organizations.

The Foundation funded ACORN to rebuild homes in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, to fight predatory lending practices, and to educate families about the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), the federal government’s largest income-support program. EITC, which provides more than $40 billion a year in wage supplements to lower-income workers, is credited with lifting more than 4 million people out of poverty annually.

In 2003, ACORN launched a four-city program, largely supported by Marguerite Casey Foundation, to provide tax preparation assistance to families eligible for the Earned Income Tax Credit. At that time, the Internal Revenue Service estimated that some 5 million qualified families failed to claim the credit.

According to regional IRS reports, during the 2003 tax season, ACORN’s tax preparation assistance sites and its outreach program resulted in almost $4 million in tax refunds to low-income families. The next year, ACORN’s EITC assistance programs generated $19 million in refunds to families.

We have supported ACORN’s mission to strengthen low- to moderate-income communities, and we recognize ACORN’s successes; however, Marguerite Casey Foundation’s funding criteria include fiscal responsibility and a strong management structure. At this time, too many questions surround the management of ACORN and its finances for the Foundation to continue funding the organization. As good stewards of the Foundation’s resources, we cannot fund ACORN until those questions have been resolved to our satisfaction.

We will, however, continue to support organizations like ACORN to ensure that low-income families have a voice, especially the 400,000 families who are members of ACORN.”

This statement is the first step in our effort to define our relationship with ACORN, stress our commitment to ensuring the economic well-being of low-income families and, as much as possible, prevent the Foundation from becoming distracted from its core work of supporting organizations that improve the lives of low-income families. We will continue to keep you informed about the situation and adjust our communications strategy accordingly.

Budget

The key budget challenge for 2010 is the uncertainty of the performance of our investment portfolio; therefore, the 2010 budget is constructed on a conservative and manageable basis. Spending is set at the level of grantee funding needed to accomplish MCF mission while mindful of future commitments and IRS consequences. We will continue to build on the prudent stewardship that has been a hallmark of our management but truly tested in 2009.

Upcoming Staff Retreat

Marguerite Casey Foundation will hold a full staff retreat in early December. The retreat will have a tactical focus, and staff will be expected to create action plans for 2010. I look forward to providing a report on the retreat and the action plans in my next report to the Board of Directors.

External Relations

I was pleased to have the opportunity recently to make presentations about the Equal Voice for America’s Families campaign to two regional associations of grantmakers: Northern California Grantmakers and Philanthropy Northwest. Both were wonderful opportunities to discuss the campaign with colleagues and share the lessons learned from the campaign.

I was honored to be invited to join the Board of Directors of the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial, which is dedicated to promoting human rights throughout the United States and the world. I am excited about the opportunity to contribute to this organization and to bring the voices of low-income families into its work. In addition, I was honored to be named, for a second term, as chair of the Public Policy Committee of Independent Sector; I also continue to serve as secretary of Independent Sector’s Board of Directors.

Focusing on the Business of Marguerite Casey Foundation

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