A Voice From Philanthropy: A Call to Action for Tomorrow’s Philanthropic Leaders

By Tamara Copeland
Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers

Years ago, Julie Rogers of the Meyer Foundation told me, somewhat wistfully, that there used to be a time when a core group of funders in the region could come together and make big things happen.  It wasn’t just Meyer. It was AOL and Fannie Mae. Freddie Mac and Annie E. Casey.  Except for the Meyer Foundation, those stalwarts of philanthropy in our region are gone.

Julie’s comments came to mind last week when WRAG co-hosted an event to celebrate the impact of the MARPAT Foundation.  MARPAT focused its work on Wards 7 and 8 in the District. Somewhat quietly, it used its resources to invest in efforts like  Academy of Hope and Fair Chance DC, programs intended  to enhance the likelihood of low-income residents getting out of poverty. After six years, the trustees have made the decision to sunset their philanthropy.

And, they aren’t the only funders to make this decision. Soon, the Summit Fund will cease its support of Anacostia River cleanup efforts and the prevention of teen pregnancy in the District, after many years of successfully leading the charge on both fronts.

A few years ago, the Fannie Mae Foundation closed its doors. Then, last year, without much fanfare, a letter went to grantees announcing that Fannie Mae itself was ending its philanthropic investment in the region.  At a time when George Mason University’s Center for Regional Analysis is warning the region about the critical need for affordable housing, one of the major housing funders has totally ended its philanthropy.

I am happy that next week, the Freddie Mac Foundation will celebrate over 20 years of impact that its partner grantees have had on the region. Fortunately, Freddie’s signature adoption initiative, “Wednesday’s Child” has moved to the Dave Thomas Foundation. But the powerful voice that it leveraged on foster care issues is now silent.

MARPAT, Summit, Freddie, and Fannie represented upwards of $25 million in annual giving to the Greater Washington region.  Last year, we reported in our giving report that WRAG members gave $279 million in our region in 2012. A loss of $25 million is not inconsequential. And when considering the earlier closure of the AOL Foundation and the decision by the Annie E. Casey Foundation to cease their grantmaking in our region, that figure is even higher. Certainly familial and corporate realities make such decisions necessary, and perhaps even prudent. But the impact on our region cannot be minimized. We are losing philanthropic dollars and leadership at a time when we need them more than ever.

The problem of poverty east of the Anacostia remains, as do hidden pockets of poverty throughout our region. Affordable housing is not yesterday’s problem. It is today’s.  And while the lovely Yards Park now sits alongside the Anacostia River,, the river is still not safe for swimming.  Important inroads have been made, and to all of the philanthropic leaders who made that possible, we say “thank you.”  Now we need the mantle to be picked up. Who will champion the eradication of poverty east of the river?  Who will champion the production and preservation of affordable housing across our region? Who will be the philanthropic leaders whose  impact we celebrate in the next decade?