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

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.

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.

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.

4) Look at the big picture.
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.

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.

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.

Read the full article about catalytic impact by Martha Anne Toll at Exponent Philanthropy Outsized Impact.