In the 15-year existence of her girls’ empowerment organization, Joanne Smith has dealt with funders and donors but never quite like this: a foundation putting $90 million toward helping girls of color by letting them determine their needs instead of being told what the funds have to be used for.
The NoVo Foundation, founded in 2006 by Jennifer and Peter Buffett, the youngest son and daughter-in-law of billionaire investor Warren Buffett, officially announced on Thursday how its $90 million commitment over seven years will be carried out.
It comes a year after the New York City-based foundation first announced the investment and spent the intervening time talking to minority girls and advocates around the country about how best to carry it out. At the time, the foundation said it was the largest single investment aimed specifically at this demographic.
What was heard was that different communities of minority girls face different issues, and “one size fits all was never going to work in terms of the kind of support we offer,” said Pamela Shifman, executive director of the foundation. “We wanted to let girls of color and their advocates really determine their most important needs because they are the experts on their own lives.”
Minority girls are disproportionately affected by a number of social ills, including poverty and sexual assault, but are largely overlooked in philanthropic giving, she said.
The foundation is allocating money in three ways. One stream of grants will be open to community-based organizations around the country that work directly with minority girls. Another stream will focus specifically on the Southeastern United States and, through a regional partner, allocate funds to existing groups as well as new organizations and even people working with minority girls outside of formal organizations. The third will go toward supporting national policy and research organizations that focus on issues facing women and girls of color.
Shifman said applications for the various streams would be accepted over the next several weeks, with the first grants being distributed in the fall. She said the foundation was expecting to distribute about $13 million in the first year of funding.
The foundation said the focus on creating the first regional hub in the Southeast was because of how much the area has been neglected by philanthropy, especially in terms of supporting work focused on girls of color, even though it said 40 percent of the nation’s girls of color live in the South.
That’s very welcome, said Kameisha Smith, who works with girls in Durant, Mississippi, and throughout the Mississippi Delta through the Nollie Jenkins Family Center. She appreciated the process, which saw people from NoVo coming down to her area and being taken through their rural communities.
“Our organizing work looks very different from organizing in New York,” she said. “Our success looks different than success in New York.”
Smith, founder of the Brooklyn-based Girls for Gender Equity, said she’d never had a funder approach grants from a position of following the guidance of the people doing the work to say what the needs are. She’s worked with NoVo before and appreciated the opportunity “to be able to do the work that you have set forth as a priority, not them.”
That’s the point, Peter Buffett said. Instead of picking a singular focus area, “I’d rather see organizational capacity get built so they can decide.”