After 26 Years, What I’ve Learned About Making Catalytic Impact

It is with tremendous gratitude that I come to the end of my 26 years as Executive Director of the Butler Family Fund. It’s been my joy and privilege to work with extraordinary, courageous, innovative, and inspiring advocates and organizations. This constellation of brave people and groups has done so much to make our world a better place.

Martha Toll

Exponent Philanthropy has generously asked me what I’ve learned over these years. There’s too much to say in a short blog, but I’ve tried to capture some headlines below.

The Butler Family Fund is a small-staffed foundation focused on preventing and ending homelessness, on criminal justice, and the intersection of the two. We fund nationally and support local groups as well.

We operate within the following principles:
  • Racial equity is imperative for a just society
  • Long-term change requires investments in leaders and organizations in historically underrepresented communities
  • Organizing at the local level is necessary to make change sustainable
  • Investing in systems change and advocacy creates lasting impact
  • National policy investments leverage impact
  • Collaborating with funding partners is essential

We are governed by a family board who live between California and London. Our board is entrepreneurial and forward thinking. They are flexible and independent-minded and seek an impact beyond what our relatively small asset base would suggest. I am so lucky to have worked with them.

One area where the Butler Family Fund has made catalytic impact — our partnership with federal agencies to better support people experiencing homelessness and other vulnerable jobseekers.

With the U.S. Departments of Labor, Housing and Urban Development, and U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, we co-sponsored a summit on integrating employment and housing strategies to prevent and end homelessness.

The summit provided an opportunity for communities, federal government agencies, and national organizations to identify promising program practices, emerging community practices, and common misconceptions and barriers to using federal funding to support these practices.

We followed the summit with outreach to funders. They came together to support an ongoing nationwide project to advance employment to end homelessness. And Funders Together to End Homelessness launched Foundations for Employment and Housing, a philanthropic learning community. Lessons and work from these efforts are ongoing.

As I look back on 26 years, I see that the following mindsets have guided our practice, and may be helpful to other donors, trustees, and staff at leanly staffed foundations.

1) Keep your ear to the ground.

We funders must engage with people on the ground doing the work. Those on the ground know the most, have the best information, and are the best sources to flag upcoming trends and issues.

The operative warning here is, don’t be extractive of people’s time, talents, skills or any other resources.

Keeping our ear to the ground is relevant to our due diligence. We check grant applicants for phone and email references, and we call them. We never request reference letters because they’re burdensome and do not generally provide useful information. We learn a lot from talking to organizational colleagues, both funders and people who work in organizations that collaborate with applicants. At the same time, we must be sensitive to taking up valuable time.

We talk to people beyond the executive directors of organizations. Staff members are key to the way any group functions. We have had instances where we were not permitted to speak to other staff. That can signal lack of a real organization behind the director, or a host of other problems. Such information is useful.

Our board is interested in immersing themselves in the work. We have taken opportunities to do racial justice site visits in Montgomery, Alabama; Atlanta, Georgia; and at Race Forward’s Facing Race conference.

2) Know your colleagues. Sit down with everyone.

At Butler, collaboration is built into our DNA. We could not do our work without close relationships. We cannot operate in a vacuum, and thus make it our business to sit down with our fellow funders and share notes. Since we are national, sitting down often means having phone meetings. Nevertheless, it is our practice to cultivate a network of contacts around the country with whom we can align work, pool funding, and share advice and ideas.

Perhaps most important, we value our contacts as a means to open doors for our grantees to obtain further funding. It is part of our staff job descriptions to support our grantees and other organizations in navigating the funding world.

Relationships lead to more aligned funding, and in some cases direct, collaborative funding.

We serve on the boards of affinity groups and steering committees, another way to get to know our colleagues. These relationships offer us excellent information, including specific work going on around the country, and trends we should know. Serving on the boards and committees of funder groups working in our field enables us to share what we see. For example, we can share how the criminal justice system affects homelessness.

As a result of my service on the board of Funders Together to End Homelessness, we brought together two large foundations to fund a multiyear, national project to boost employment for homeless people. I have presided over webinars sponsored by Funders Together to End Homelessness to educate colleagues on our country’s history of government-sanctioned housing discrimination. I’ve also shared the work of our grantee, Law for Black Lives, which advocates for criminal justice funding to be redirected to investments that help communities thrive (divest/invest). We do not serve on the boards of our own grantees. We think it best to stay at arms-length.

3) Invest in people. Trust grantees. Don’t micromanage.

Grantmakers will always be somewhat removed from grantees. We and many colleagues try to level the playing field. We try to be transparent. But the playing field will never level completely because one party has money, while the other seeks it.

As part of this effort, we try very hard not to micromanage our grantees. We encourage them to tell us about challenges and difficulties, as everyone doing this work faces monumental challenges.

We believe in investing in people, and see potential leaders as those with imagination and vision. They are not always charismatic, but they have drive, knowledge, insight and creativity. They can inspire, mobilize others and get things done. The ability to nurture relationships and follow-through on commitments are also important qualities.

Sometimes we invest in leaders, even though we don’t know exactly where their paths will take them. We recognize that these individuals have the capacity to accomplish things.

4) Look at the big picture.

We’re committed to helping organizations fundraise by opening doors to colleague funders. We try to respond to gaps and needs, forge collaborations and weave networks.

Small funders are well positioned to look externally at the big picture of need — the ecosystem. And we have to do this because we cannot accomplish anything alone.

In terms of the funding ecosystem, we observe that program officers at large foundations can be more internally focused than those at small and medium foundations. Perhaps this is because staff at large foundations have to defend their internal budget requests, and make the tough internal case for their projects and grantees.

5) Take risks and innovate.

Too many of us in philanthropy have a tendency to fall in love at first sight, which can be misleading. We have an unfortunate habit of following the next shiny object. It takes experience and knowledge to be discerning, to see past what is shiny, and find the potential in people, organizations and networks.

Practices that position you to take bigger risks include:
  • Patiently immersing yourself in your issue
  • Engaging with those doing the work
  • Trying to see the big picture
  • Finding specific places to make a big difference

The Butler Fund is pleased to have been the first in on projects and organizations that achieved exceptional outcomes and made catalytic impact. We’ve developed something of a reputation, so that an early grant from us can serve as a seal of approval to attract additional funding.

I credit our board for our risk taking. They’re entrepreneurial. To that end, we are incredibly grateful and honored to have partnered with the Oak Foundation over the past 10 years. Oak has awarded us re-granting funds, which go out under the Butler Family Fund’s name. These funds have expanded both of our foundations’ footprint in homelessness and housing around the country, and have been critical to sparking new work around employing homeless people, housing people with criminal records, developing innovations in youth homelessness, and much more.

6) Stay focused but be flexible.

We have always been issue oriented. There are vast choices within our issues. We try to stay focused, and recognize that it usually takes many years to make change. At the same time, we aim to be nimble and flexible. There are times when we need to be forward thinking and times when we have to be reactive.

We do our best to honor the work of those on the front lines, and hope to do so for many years to come.

Martha Anne Toll recently completed 26 years as the founding Executive Director of the Butler Family Fund. Under her leadership, the fund developed and expanded two major philanthropic programs with a deep commitment to racial equity: advocacy to end homelessness and to fight injustices in the criminal “justice” system. Martha now works fulltime as a writer. Her debut novel, Three Muses, is the 2020 winner of the Petrichor Prize for Finely Crafted Fiction and is forthcoming in fall 2022. Martha regularly publishes book reviews and essays on NPR Books and in The Millions, as well as in the Washington Post, The Rumpus, and elsewhere.