The Evolution of CFSA’s Grantmaking

By Sandra Nathan, Senior Vice President, Philanthropic Services and Community Investments at CFSA

Since 1980, the Community Foundation for Southern Arizona (CFSA) has partnered with our donors and distributed more than $160 million to regional nonprofits and educational institutions. Our grant programs are designed to create and support a stronger nonprofit sector.

Grants to organizations generally fall within three categories: donor directed, responsive, and proactive. Additionally, we administer several grant programs for our community initiatives, including the Alliance Fund, the African American Initiative, and the Santa Cruz Community Foundation, our regional affiliate which expands our support even further. CFSA also assists private foundations in delivering their grantmaking programs according to their specific areas of interest and strategies. Each private foundation grant program is tailored to their funding priorities and proposal requirements. Our goal is to provide efficient, effective and fiscally responsible service and support to our funding partners.

In addition to grants, CFSA has supported numerous worthy college students through our scholarships. Many of these scholarships are supported by donors, and we are proud to have awarded millions of dollars to enable low-income students to achieve the dream of a college education.

We have also proactively awarded grantmaking dollars to priority areas where there have been specific community needs, as well as responsive grants, which are made in response to direct requests from the community.  However, the majority of the dollars granted through CFSA are directed by our generous donors based on their philanthropic goals and the needs they see within the community.

In the past, CFSA  provided both donor directed and unrestricted grants, typically in small amounts, to nonprofits through a competitive grant application process. During this same period, we were successful in leveraging national funding to support community issues, including a grant from the Ford Foundation to establish a fund for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender individuals (now the LGBT&S  Alliance Fund). We also received funding for the HIV/AIDS Consortium and the Border Philanthropy Partnership to support our work at and across the border.


Between 2010 and 2016, CFSA explored new and emerging trends in grantmaking. We changed our grant strategy by making larger grants to fewer organizations, as well as other changes to emphasize impact. These strategies entailed providing several capacity building grants on specific areas of interest that required deep collaboration between nonprofit grantees. This eventually evolved to an emphasis on collective impact- a systems change model. During this era, CFSA received national recognition for its collective impact successes through the Ajo Regional Food Partnership, recognized by the Atlantic Magazine and New York Times for creating a local, community-based food system.  Although our collective impact grants were effective for those who participated, the foundation encountered the inevitable tensions that occur when only a few organizations receive larger grants, and others feel left out. As a result, we listened to the needs of our nonprofits and returned to the approach of providing smaller grants to a larger number of nonprofits through our unrestricted funds.

In 2015-16, the foundation took a “pause” to engage in a year of learning and reflection. Staff and members of CFSA’s Community Investment Committee examined a wide range of grantmaking models and best practices. It invited in speakers and engaged in discussions about how to achieve deeper impact. The Committee also researched a range of issues to determine where the foundation could achieve the greatest impact. They landed in three areas of focus: education, health and well-being, and economic opportunity.

Over the past year, CFSA has continued with its traditional approach to grantmaking in key areas while at the same time creating a new framework that is forward-looking. After a series of community listening sessions, we are in the process of creating programmatic initiatives that are aligned with our three areas of focus: education, economic opportunity, and health and well-being.   We recognize that there are many vulnerable people in our region who face pressing and complex challenges in their lives, and we will be effectively leveraging our grant resources to work in collaboration with other stakeholders to more deeply impact these challenges. All of this will comprise our areas of proactive grantmaking for 2018.

Additionally, we recognize that a strong philanthropic community is one where grantmakers are providing support that sustains nonprofits, and where nonprofits can put their energy into fulfilling their mission through programs that have a real impact. In that regard, this year we awarded CORE operating grants to ten high-performing nonprofits in Southern Arizona,  and continue to move the needle in our commitment to be better partners with our grantees in changing lives and improving communities.

What’s Next? At CFSA we want to practice strategic, catalytic, effective grantmaking and beyond. After we evaluate our first round of CORE grants next year, we hope to learn from this pilot grant approach and continue to meet the needs, possible exploring multi-year funding opportunities. We want to partner more closely with Social Venture Partners, the Nonprofit Loan Fund, the Women’s Foundation and other funders by engaging in collaborative efforts to leverage our resources to more deeply support our nonprofit organizations. Most important, the foundation is always looking to build upon our grantmaking by listening more effectively to grantees and members of our communities and then share this information with our donors so they can make effective grant decisions.

One of the areas that the foundation is passionate about is leading the efforts to create more diversity, equity and inclusion in everything we do-from our grantmaking to our convening on critical issues impacting our region. We are also exploring ways in which we can deploy policy, advocacy and civic leadership as “levers for change.” And we plan to bring new sources of capital to our strategies through our impact investing and a revised CFSA loan policy.

We are excited about our new Community Foundation Campus, which will be completed in the fall of 2018, and the opportunities our new facility will afford in providing technical assistance and capacity building for the nonprofit community.