‘Everything has shifted’: Spurred by pandemic, N.J.’s foundations are collaborating in ways — and at levels — never before seen

If there’s any way to convey an enthusiastic head nod over a phone call, Tanuja M. Dehne, when asked about a possible trend among foundations, pulled it off.

With some combination of “yes,” “definitely” and “100%,” Dehne was quick to confirm what others interviewed by ROI-NJ said: Collaboration is happening among New Jersey’s disparate swath of foundations and other philanthropic organizations.

Tanuja M. Dehne. (Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation)

Dehne, CEO and president of the Morristown-based Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, said her organization has more than ever been leaning into participating in (or inviting others to participate in) cofunding initiatives and programs with the state’s other foundations.

“Whether it was pooled funds for COVID relief, or most recently, climate change disasters in New Jersey and immigrant issues, or collaborating on census redistricting initiatives … we’re regularly working with others in areas where we don’t have the infrastructure or subject matter expertise,” she said.

Formal partnerships between foundations with shared goals wouldn’t be news enough to generate special enthusiasm. What those in the world of philanthropy are getting excited about is the frequency of this harmonious labor, and even some pairing up among foundations that might not have traditionally found alignment.

That’s something that started when the rapid spread of COVID-19 meant every nonprofit suddenly shared much of the same goals. Collaboration was an important trend for foundations to embrace at that time, Dehne said. And, she added, it’s going to continue to be an important one in the future for her organization.

Jeremy Grunin. (Grunin Foundation)

Jeremy Grunin, president of the Grunin Foundation, a Jersey Shore-serving organization that helps nonprofits be better fundraisers, expects that will stay true for many of the state’s philanthropic groups.

“Clearly, there’s always going to be multiple points of view,” he said. “But, the most forward-thinking nonprofits understand the collective impact is the ticket. And, also, when applying for government money or programs, the more resources you bring to the table, the more appealing it is. But are there still organizations with a pride of authorship? Of course there are.”

There may be more foundations than one would guess serving New Jersey’s nonprofits. The number exceeds 4,000 foundations, according to nonprofit support company Instrumentl.

“And the truth is, so many of those foundations and the nonprofits they serve are duplicating efforts,” Grunin said. “They are people with good hearts who say, ‘I wanted to start a nonprofit to do X or Y.’ And it takes a lot to say, ‘Well, there’s already someone else doing that, so how can I help them be better?’”

The duplication of efforts in philanthropy in a state so densely populated with nonprofit funding organizations might have something to do with some prior hesitancy among organizations considering collaborating.

As Grunin pointed out, if philanthropic agencies are competing in the exact same space, they’re also competing for the exact same philanthropic dollars.

“And that means that partnering with anyone else might risk, in their view, cannibalizing their funder pool,” Grunin said. “Is that shortsighted to a large extent, and ignoring the end goal of helping people and creating impact? 100%.”

Those anxieties fell away when foundations across the state faced 2020’s health crisis.

Jeffrey Vega. (Princeton Area Community Foundation)

Jeffrey Vega, CEO and president of the Princeton Area Community Foundation, provided an example of this in action: As a blizzard-packed winter approached in 2020, his foundation paired up with other funders and nonprofits to get a newly vulnerable population into indoor warming centers. They also established with some collaborators a significant rental assistance initiative.

In another example, the foundation found common ground with a handful of other foundations that sought to help train teachers, bus drivers and other school staff to identify trauma children might have experienced during a year of isolation at home.

“These were collaborations that were deep and meaningful, and might not have happened without the pandemic,” he said. “With the pandemic, everything has shifted. It required a lot of collaboration between nonprofits, as well as donors, to really come together really quickly to meet the need.”

Philanthropic dollars for some organizations might not be what they were in a more insulated pre-COVID environment, which made a helping hand that much more helpful.

“At least for us, when we didn’t have all the money we needed, we’ve been able to leverage what we do have to go to different foundations and donors and say, ‘Please help us with this fund,’” Vega said. “And we’ve found a lot of people wanting to work together to respond to the needs of people as they occur. That sort of collaboration has existed, but never quite at this level.”

The cooperative spirit in New Jersey’s nonprofit scene has paved the way for more involvement with civic leaders, as well, Grunin said.

As Grunin served as a chair of a committee with state Sen. Vin Gopal (D-Ocean Twp.), exploring options for reopening local businesses once COVID-19 relented, he watched nonprofits collectively bring to light the fact that underserved communities didn’t have an adequate number of test sites. The Democratic lawmaker worked alongside Republican county commissioners to free up funds to get testing sites established in nonprofit houses of worship in those communities.

“So, that’s a real-world example of how government is supposed to work and how it can interact with the nonprofit sector to make a real, tangible impact,” he said.

Grunin believes there’s been a mindset change in the nonprofit and foundation space. But, he’d like to see those in the sector make new investments into marketing themselves and telling their stories, too.

And, hopefully, they’ll be telling them together.

“Otherwise, you risk ending up having a lot of trees falling in the forest with no one around to hear them,” Grunin said.

Pushing for diversity, equity

Jeremy Grunin, president of the Grunin Foundation, is white. His dad, and one of the family foundation’s founders, is white. The three folks on his leadership team are all white. They’re all from the same geography; all bringing to bear the same life experiences.

As the nonprofit sector took a turn reckoning with the murder of George Floyd and the country’s emphasis on racial accountability, Grunin said his organization had to do its share of self-reflection. It hired a consulting firm and committed to “become an antiracist organization,” Grunin said.

It was about walking the walk. Because Grunin already talks the talk. He speaks in terms of the privileges he’s been afforded in life that don’t avail themselves to everyone.

And, he’ll admit, he didn’t always.

“To be fair, the person I was four years ago probably wouldn’t have understood the person I am today,” he said. “I’m sort of like a converted alcoholic. I was there, now I’m here. And I want others to come with me.”

Foundations around New Jersey hardly need convincing.

After many years of reports highlighting the lack of diversity in the upper ranks of nonprofits, with many citing figures of 80%-plus of foundations and nonprofits staffed in leadership posts by white individuals, the race toward equality is already underway.

“Funders in general are asking more questions about an organization’s diversity and inclusion from a leadership standpoint, as well as their impact in underserved communities,” Grunin said. “With funding communities asking those questions, everyone is committed to doing better.”

Jeffrey Vega of the Princeton Area Community Foundation said his organization has also brought in consultants to not only look at the organization’s diversity and inclusion, but to plan for how its philanthropic work could better implement those values out in the community.

Vega said it wants to move collectively with other foundations on this issue.

“So, along with other foundations, we’ve formed a racial equity task force to understand best practices and how we move forward as a sector,” he said. “The work to build that framework is still going on.”