“An Essential Priority.” What a Local Funder is Doing to Expand Opportunity

Photo: ra2studio/Shutterstock

Photo: ra2studio/Shutterstock

There’s lots of opportunity in America—it’s just not available to everyone in equal amounts. These disparities are central to the difficulty some groups have in their pursuit of the American dream—not just in their lifetime, but from one generation to the next.

Inequities in education, employment, housing and more are heavily shaped by national and even global factors. Large-scale shifts in the economy and federal policy can have profound impacts at the community level. Yet, while we’re always quick to remind IP’s readers about the limits of local interventions, it’s also true that the nonprofits and funders closest to problems are often best positioned to address them.

The Austin Community Foundation is one local funder taking on opportunity gaps for two of the largest groups in their central Texas community: Latinos and women. The foundation’s home base of Austin is among the fastest-growing cities in the country, and is now a majority-minority city.

In 2017, ACF launched its Hispanic Impact Fund, and recently awarded a total of $180,000 to six nonprofits serving local Latino families. It also awarded $200,000 through its established Fund for Women, which focuses on supporting local women and children.

The ACF’s focus on women and Latinos echoes funding and demographic trends across the country. In 2016, Latinos accounted for 18 percent of the U.S. population and comprised the second-largest ethnic group behind whites. Grants serving this growing population are taking center stage during the racially charged and divisive Trump era, with causes ranging from immigration and the 2020 census to disaster relief.

And women's and girls’ issues are also receiving attention from an increasing number of funders, both national and regional, in multiple focus areas including workplace gender gaps, stem education, and direct services in disadvantaged neighborhoods.

Still, only an estimated 5 to 7 percent of all foundation funding is specifically directed to women’s and girls’ initiatives. For women and girls of color, the number is closer to 2 percent. Meanwhile, a 2012 study from the Foundation Center and Hispanics in Philanthropy stated, “Over the past decade, U.S. foundation dollars explicitly designated to benefit Latinos have remained steady, comprising about 1 percent of total foundation funding.”

That’s not good enough anywhere in America, but especially in a place like Texas and a changing city like Austin.

In 2017, an ACF report, “Understanding Austin,” produced through a collaborative data initiative with the University of Texas at Austin and other partners—identified some of the opportunity gaps in the community. “The data said a lot of good things—our economy is strong, our region is diverse, and people are optimistic and believe in Austin. But the data also clearly showed that not all Central Texans have the same access to opportunity: access to education, good-paying jobs, and safe and affordable housing.”

Some of the related findings ACF has shared in recent years include a poverty rate three times higher for Latinos than for whites in Travis County. Austin is the seat of Travis County, but extends into Hays and Williamson counties; ACF focuses its funding in these counties as well as Bastrop and Caldwell. ACF also reported that only 25 percent of local low-income Latino children enter school kindergarten-ready, and that Latinos are disproportionately uninsured.

“Hispanics will become the largest demographic group in Central Texas by 2040, yet they face major disparities in access to economic mobility,” says ACF CEO Mike Nellis on the group’s website. “Investing in the economic security and advancement of Hispanics in Central Texas is an essential priority when considering the future of our region.” Latinos are also expected to be the largest demographic group in Texas by 2020.

ACF awarded the $180,000 in recent grants at the inaugural grantmaking event for the Hispanic Impact Fund called Somos Austin 18 (somos means “we are” in Spanish). ACF awarded grants to three emerging nonprofits and three established nonprofits for programs in early childhood education, health and wellness, and job skills and entrepreneurship.

Along with the Hispanic Impact fund, one of the key avenues the foundation has created to address the multifaceted opportunity gaps in Central Texas is the Women’s Fund, which is about 15 years old.

“The Women’s Fund recognizes that when women are economically secure, our whole community thrives,” ACF states. Its recent research found that while local women have made gains overall in the realms of education, business and representation in elected office, they continue to be paid less than men. And one in three families headed by a single mother lives in poverty. Affordable housing, child care, healthcare, public transportation and job training are some of the areas of local need ACF has identified.

In 2018, the Women’s Fund granted $200,000 to four local organizations working in housing, child care, education and “unintended pregnancy prevention.” ACF finds that local adolescents who identify as Latino account for 77 percent of all teen births, illustrating an overlapping, or intersectional, area of need in the populations it seeks to serve.

ACF’s programs for Latinos and women may only scratch at the surface of disparities that are rooted in a range of structural factors. Historically, though, America’s biggest challenges have typically been tackled by a combination of national and local action. And one notable trend in philanthropy right now is that community funders like ACF are getting more sophisticated and effective.

“Continued investment in our community through these programs will ensure coordinated and strategic efforts to close the opportunity gap in Central Texas in ways that are both data-informed and community-led,” Meagan Anderson Longley, vice president of community impact at ACF, told Inside Philanthropy.