Ever thought about doing an in-house “quick and dirty” strategic plan for your giving? To be honest, I hadn’t either. But after receiving 400 requests for funding in the first year after establishing an additional focus of sustainable agriculture and food systems work, we knew we had to do something.
The requests covered a wide array of projects: urban farming, barn restoration, new farmer training, heritage breeds protection, food hub development, and farmer’s market development, to name just a few. Clearly, we had to narrow this down to a field in which we could work diligently over time to make a real impact. Because it was just one segment of our granting portfolio, and not our main focus of historic preservation, we decided to tackle the process of narrowing this field ourselves.
Using a very practical, measured approach (and avoiding as many strategic planning buzzwords as possible), we were able to develop a focused plan for the sustainable food systems segment of our granting.
We engaged in the following process:
We asked trustees individually about desired impact:
- Why does this field of interest matter?
- What is the change you would like to see in the world within this focus area? (invoke Magic Lamp if needed)
- What would success look like?
- Who are the “thought leaders” or stakeholders in this field you would like interviewed?
- Which programs or organizations do excellent work in this area?
We compiled all the answers and sent a “ballot” to all trustees asking them to choose the three they felt were most important. We tallied results and sent them back out to trustees.
We chose 5-10 “stakeholders” to interview based on results of the trustee survey. We asked the stakeholders: What will it really take to make these desired changes happen? Is it foundation money, or is it something else? We compiled the information gleaned from the stakeholder interviews and sent the results to trustees.
The interviews revealed that regional food systems were critically important to urban areas. In particular, the periurban farmland mile (within a 100-mile radius of urban areas) was critical to protect, as that farmland was being gobbled up at a pace that threatened the food supply for all of us, urban and suburban, in the crowded Northeast Corridor. There was some government funding, but not enough, and many of the groups responsible for protecting critical farmland were understaffed and underfunded.
With knowledge of the field and board’s preferences now in hand, we drafted a clear 1-3 year granting plan that addressed the goals discovered in #1 and refined in #2, and the real-world parameters discovered in #3.
The results of the trustee interviews and voting were that trustees wanted to see more healthful, local produce in more bellies in urban areas like Newark. Initially, we thought the most effective strategy would be through stronger local food programs and “food hubs.” But, through stakeholder interviews, it became clear that local programs might not be the best place for our funds for the following reasons:
- The public was already beginning to demand local food, a free market solution.
- The USDA was going to begin targeted funding for food hubs.
- A wave of media attention had brought many local foundations to the table for school gardens, urban farming, and nutritional programs. As one stakeholder noted, “There are a lot of programs and funding sloshing around out there right now.”
Because of my understanding of our own foundation’s capacity and culture, I considered the difficulty of administering complicated programmatic grants in a rapidly changing field (not advisable) and our own core interest in historic preservation (which made the farming landscape doubly impactful as a form of historic preservation).
As a result of these factors, I proposed, and the trustees approved, a plan that focuses on protecting the farmland that feeds us all. As a result, we now fund the capacity building of land trusts that focus on farmland protection within a 100-mile radius of New York City and Boston, working in conjunction with the Land Trust Alliance partners. We know that permanently protected farmland is essential to regional food supplies, and especially to urban dwellers, and overlays nicely with our existing historic preservation focus. We have just completed our third year of farmland protection funding.
Mary Anthony is executive director of the 1772 Foundation, based in Pomfret, CT. She oversees a grantmaking budget that focuses on farmland protection and historic preservation. Mary has a BA from the University of Connecticut and an ALM from Harvard University.