Fred Brown joins Natalie of Five Minutes With (for a bit more than five minutes) to speak about The Forbes Funds and its history and role in the western PA nonprofit ecosystem, its pivot during COVID, how partner organizations are receiving support, social work as applied at the community level, leadership, and more. Watch the video or play the audio above, and see the transcript below for more information and helpful links.
Hi everyone I’m Natalie Bencivenga host of Five Minutes With, and this week I am really excited to chat with Fred Brown. He is the President and CEO of The Forbes Funds. How are you doing today, Fred?
I’m doing great, thanks for having me on.
Oh, thank you for being here. You know I’ve been talking with a lot of nonprofit leaders around how they had to pivot their organization during this unprecedented year and I’m so glad that we’re getting a chance to connect. But before we talk about COVID Let’s talk a little bit about The Forbes Funds generally and its history.
That’s a great question. The Forbes Funds has been around since 1982. We’re a supporting org of the Pittsburgh Foundation, and we’re what we call an intermediary Foundation, we basically grant dollars or recurrent dollars. As a result of getting grants from bigger institutions like Heinz Endowments and the Pittsburgh Foundation. Organizations like that. Hillman Foundation. Our goal is really to advance the well being of the nonprofit sector, looking at Human Services and Community Development, and really create the capacity those organizations to operate at their fullest support are, I would say, to the best of their ability to be agile and iterative given the stress and shocks coming to the sector. I would say over the years since its inception, it’s moved from its original construct which was to support nonprofits who had government contracts, and those contracts sometimes got held up and it, it this larger functionality around their money coming in, and we served as a support mechanism to provide that financial support to more of a framework where, how can we be forward-facing, and looking at how do you mitigate that risk by being more regenerative around grantmaking, more focused on sustainability, looking at resource allocation, strategic partnerships, back-office supports, streamlining services. So we have taken on this whole framework of optimizing the sector by both looking at the reduction of duplication of efforts, looking at strategic alliances and partners, mergers in some cases acquisitions, to really skinny down the nonprofit sector, to produce a more agile, iterative organization that is more effective, efficient, and community-friendly.
What are some of the organizations just like a few that you directly been able to support?
We support, you know, so many organizations when I think about the ones that pop up. The Healthy Village Learning Institute is one in McKeesport, Braddock is another community that we’ve done some significant work. And when you think about our work, GPNP, the Greater Pittsburgh Nonprofit Partnership, serves over 500 members in this body, then our Executive-in-Residence (EIR) program serves over a couple hundred organizations, a year, and that’s executive coaching. Coaching for capacity building, coaching for consultants that do particular things in an organization. And then our C3 Catalytic Community Cohort, our C3 work, is really focused on identifying emerging organizations, to have the mentor and coach by high performing organizations are in different atmospheres, such as you might identify an organization that has $3 million or less budget to work in education, have them partner with a $50 million more organization and really teach them how do you navigate this work around education, what are some landmines, you need to be concerned about. Here are the things we’ve learned, is we really want to create this space where we optimize those institutions. So they serve the greater ecosystem so C3 was really looking at the 90 communities in Allegheny County, assessing that over 50 of them had a number of vulnerable resilient people in them and organizations that had been around, they were like at the edge of being having a new thrust into the sector. And what did they need to move into that new level of functionality? What is alignment and leadership? Another is more resources. Another is more capacity, measurable outcomes, and things like that.
It sounds like your organization is doing quite a lot and what I loved when I learned a little bit more about you is, you are also a fellow social worker, which I think puts you in a great position to be able to understand and navigate these spaces, having worked on the service end and having worked on the other side of it, can you talk a little bit about why social workers are so invaluable across all sectors? Totally Biased.
I think the training for social workers, at least at the University of Pittsburgh, was–it steeped me in this cross-sectoral application of the power of relationships to build relationships. The cross-sectoral application of which you had to understand and not be an expert in, but be able to speak cogently to–what is sustainable community design? Well, I’m not an architect or engineer, but I have some sense of that. What is regenerative applications? What is systems change? You know when you look at organic community-based applications, what is CBPR (community-based participatory research)? I think social work forces you to understand the importance of understanding people without pre assuming that you understand the situation because you grasp some data, somebody told you a story. And so, social work forces you to go beyond the paper, and into the person and the way that we got trained was–beyond the postpositive narrative–where you actually went into the community and became enthralled or infused in the community as not an outside agent, but as a co-conspirator. And so for me, that background and experience and discipline has afforded me at least this sense of understanding multiple systems. In 2018, we partner with the London School of Systems Change when I came to The Forbes Funds–to really understand the link between the global applications of our work, and the local applications. I thought it was important, and I shared this with the board when I interview, because of Pittsburgh’s trajectory regarding artificial intelligence and robotics–we needed to ensure that nonprofits understood that framework, and to reverse engineer the support they needed to the sector. And so over the past 41 months but we’ve done to really start that process–we froze our assets, we restructured our grantmaking, and we use the social service platform to partner with the CRAB, the Community Resource Advisory Board, to remove implicit bias from our grantmaking, so there are grants came in because you knew me that didn’t mean anything; did the grant meet the metrics? So, removed my implicit bias that I may have about certain organizations, and then moved into external metrics, that were meant for everybody. Once we restructured our grantmaking, opened up our grantmaking, it increased by 400%.
That’s incredible. During COVID, during this last 16 months, this unprecedented time, what had you have to do at your organization? What did you have to do for your organization to pivot to hit these new metrics and these new marks because of these circumstances?
Well, fortunately for us we have been predicting that there will be stress and shock to the sector 41 months ago. So that pivot that we talked about, we made before COVID So we had a sense of the sector’s needs. So one of the things we pivoted to do was really how do we increase the awareness of what’s going on at the community level so that our decision making would represent the greatest needs of the sector, in real-time and so since the avenues, for example, we facilitate it. 2368 Zoom meetings, we also purchased another 50 Zoom accounts for nonprofits who didn’t have that technology offered it to them. And then we facilitated and had over 22,383 participants from Zoom, alone, not counting GotoMeeting, not counting other platforms that we’ve used on a daily basis. And so, that work really has transformed how we do our core work because that real-time feedback allowed us to be more agile and iterative.
Now, what I can tell you is it has put a tremendous strain on our program and organization, and staff because we historically got grants, they went through a cycle we made a decision. Now we’re looking at issues, restructure and grants to effectively address the nice COVID, that as you know, change from day to day, week to week, month to month. So we’ve had some notion that there will be a cliff effect–as a result of COVID stimulus money running out. And we’ve begun to see people expressed that they’re in dire straits. And so three months ago they were doing great. Three months later they are not. And because we’re so much proud of people’s work it’s really difficult to get people to admit they’re having a problem. So we’ve been really working behind the scenes to really help people through assessment tools to help us get a sense of what they’re doing.
We also initiated doing COVID Three new projects. One is scenario planning, which helps organizations look at if this scenario happens. What is your most primary delivery of service that you want to harness and keep? Should you keep your building? Does this particular program need to be shelved? Do you need to look at mergers and acquisitions? So we looked at that. Then we looked at sustainability. How has your organization looked at diversifying its revenue streams? Has it optimized its donor base? Are you looking at where you are place-based? Have you expanded through technology? And so what we tried to do is build the case that organizations need to take an earnest look at themselves through that self-assessment determine what their value and contribution would be to the sector, and then seek us and partner with us to really create a pivot in that work. And I can tell you one of the most critical things for us is in the shift 41 months ago we moved from being seen as a grantmaker, an intermediary, to a partner. So our grantees, we don’t really call grantees, we call them partners. And what we try to leverage is our three C’s: build capacity, convene, coordinating resources. So for example, we put $1.4 million into the first phase of our Catalytic Community Cohort model and in 18 months since COVID. That group is only drawn down $400,000 What am I asked, well, how is that possible. Well, in instances, where they were going to spend money, we were able to step in and go, well you know let us make a phone call because we know somebody else is gonna do that. And let’s see if they’ll provide you with some of those resources. So, we were able to step in and kind of quarterback resources that they were, are not aware of, that could be brought to the table where they could preserve their resource because we’re saying there’s gonna be a real emergency. If you spent all your money right now when you have an emergency, you’re not gonna have anything. Let us help you figure out these other spaces and places where you can access resources and to me, that’s if I had to say like one of my, one of my proudest moments is that work is that people have not spent that money down just because they could, they really looked at the value of our platform and partnership, and have used it extensively.
That’s incredible, it’s so encouraging to hear how you’ve been able to be innovative as leaders in this space during such an intense time. I appreciate you taking the time to chat with me and let me learn more about the organization if people want to get involved if they want to donate if they want to support where can they find you.
Oh, www.ForbesFunds.org is our website, we have a donation box on it, we just revamped our website. We just won [the internationally-acclaimed 2021 Communicator Award of Distinction from the Academy of Interactive & Visual Arts], for its innovation as well. And I’m really appreciative of the foundations that have been supportive of us. And the people who make our work really meaningful. I’m excited about where we’re going, our staff, and our core competencies, and overall it’s an exciting time, even in the face of COVID to see organizations pivot and innovate. So thank you for having us home. And talking about our work we’re greatly appreciative of that. We look forward to a future interview to see how we’re doing post-COVID.
I was just gonna say I can’t wait to have you back on in a little while and hear how things are going and thank you so much, Fred for just spending a little bit more than five minutes with me.
Thank you. This was great. Thank you.