Bush Foundation to focus on three new funding priorities

The Bush Foundation has announced new priorities and a new way of doing business, and the move is sure to send nonprofits leaders scrambling for more information.

The foundation is a major player in Minnesota, South Dakota and North Dakota. It ranks fifth in total grants among Minnesota grant makers, according to the Minnesota Council on Foundations. It gave $40.2 million in 2006.

The foundation has been working on a new direction since 2006. It just released its three new priority areas: Developing courageous leadership and engaging entire communities in solving problems, supporting the self-determination of Native nations, and increasing educational achievement.

President Peter Hutchinson said the foundation plans to work more closely with grantees than it has in the past. It will make fewer total grants, but the grants will include larger ones with longer-term commitments. In some cases, Bush will invite organizations to apply rather than use the traditional open-application process.

“If you thought of the Bush Foundation in the past as a place that had letters of inquiry and proposals submitted, we are not going to be like that,” he said. “We are going to be much more able to take initiative, to convene people and learn together” and jointly develop ideas into proposals.
The St. Paul-based foundation has posted the details on its website. It will have a webcast at 2 p.m. Tuesday, when Hutchinson and board Chair Kathy Tunheim will discuss the future direction and take questions. Interested? Preregistration is suggested.

New priorities
In developing its new goals, Bush leaders reviewed data and research on education, health, housing, education and more. Hutchinson said he felt he knew Minnesota after his 2006 gubernatorial run as the Independence Party candidate. This past winter he traveled the Dakotas, talking to community leaders and grantees.

As part of its strategic process, Bush brought in experts from around the country for two-day “design labs” to talk about possible directions and goals. One surprise for Hutchinson came during discussions with Indian country leaders on ways to improve the lives of Native American families.

Hutchinson expected to hear a litany of programs: asthma clinics, early childhood and economic development programs. Instead, attendees brought research that said nation building is the only thing that consistently produces better outcomes for Native Americans.

“They kept saying, ‘You can’t do it to the tribes. It has to be done through self determination,’ ” Hutchinson said. “The feedback was very powerful.”

For starters, the foundation will support a Native-led, Native Nation Building Collaborative to begin to define priorities and engage tribal leaders.

Bush also plans to work more closely with government, said Hutchinson, a former superintendent of Minneapolis Public Schools. The foundation decided to focus its education goal on improving instructional effectiveness, reshaping the way teachers are recruited and retained. That includes working with the state Department of Education and the boards of teaching and teacher-preparation programs.

While superintendent, he learned districts got to choose teachers from those who had been chosen to be part of the education program.

“If we weren’t getting the best and the brightest, there wasn’t much we could do about it,” he said. “This [initiative] is about that. Why do people choose to go into teaching? And how can we make sure that the best and brightest do go into teaching.”

Bush will continue its fellowships programs, for which it is known.

Measuring outcomes
Nonprofits face mounting pressure to show results. To measure its own effectiveness, Bush set three broad goals for 2018:

• “75% of people in all demographic groups in Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota say their community is effective at solving problems and improving their quality of life.” (A Northwest Area Foundation survey already asks this question, Hutchinson said, and the baseline number is about 50 percent.)

• “All 23 Native nations in Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota are exercising self-determination and actively rebuilding the infrastructure of nationhood.” (The measure of success will involve tracking progress in key institutions.)

• “The percentage of students in Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota, from pre-kindergarten through college who are on track to earn a degree after high school, increases by 50 percent and disparities among diverse student groups are eliminated.” (Bush plans to track progress using the traditional measures, such as third-grade reading tests and graduation rates.)

Grotto reworking priorities, too
Ellis Bullock, former head of the Youth Trust, knows the frustration of running a nonprofit and responding to funders’ changing priorities.

Today, Bullock is the executive director of the Grotto Foundation, and, like Bush, Grotto is in the middle of setting new priorities. Bullock says he feels bad for affected nonprofits, especially during what is already a difficult financial time.

Grotto (founded by Louis W. Hill, Jr., grandson of James J. Hill) is small compared to the Bush Foundation (founded by Archibald Granville Bush, former chairman of 3M’s executive committee, and his wife, Edyth Bassler Bush.) Grotto has a $23 million endowment.

Grotto is maintaining two of its targeted programs but eliminating its general grants program, which gave up to $10,000 to 50 to 60 small nonprofits (whose annual budgets are $1 million or less.) Grant outcomes were hard to identify and evaluate, Bullock said.

The board voted to target the general grant money to early childhood education programs. The new plan is still taking shape.

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