Photo of CORE grantees in 2019

Building Community Capacity Through CORE Grants

CORE Grants offer nonprofits the flexible working capital necessary to maximize their impact and increase their organizational capacity.

CFSA’s CORE Grants provide highly qualified nonprofits with general operating funds to be used where they are needed most. The CORE program is rooted in the philosophy that well-governed, impactful nonprofits understand where funding will have the greatest return for the organization and the communities they serve. To qualify, nonprofits must first meet our C-O-R-E criteria:

They are active in the community, both as problem-solvers and collaborators; they show organizational sustainability in their fundraising and capacity; they demonstrate results in their services and their improvement over time; they offer effective programs aligned with the greater good of their clients.

Creative, Responsive, Intentional Growth

Eighty percent of grant funding in the U.S. is awarded based on proposals, with grantmakers investing in specified deliverables. But a different approach—general operating grants—marks a growing trend in philanthropy. CFSA adopted this approach in 2017 through its CORE Grant Program.

General operating support gives nonprofits the flexibility to direct their spending where it is most needed, enabling them to build the strong and sustainable infrastructure necessary to run effective programs. It also fosters innovation and risk-taking, allowing nonprofits to take advantage of new opportunities as they arise. In addition, it helps bring new transparency and trust to the relationship between grantmaker and grantee.

In 2019, five of the country’s wealthiest foundations noted general operating grants among a handful of ways they pledged to provide more effective support. While these grants are often seen as a way to cover basic expenses, three of our recent CORE grant recipients explain that they can also do much more.

The Power to Create

Nonprofits across the country often face a catch twenty-two. They have an idea for a new program they believe will help those they serve. To get a grant for it, they need proof that it works. To prove it works, they need a grant.

“Part of our mission is to offer innovative treatment options,” says Blanca Acosta, executive director at Circles of Peace, which provides restorative justice services working with courts and schools in Santa Cruz County. Circles of Peace or Círculos de Paz provides services in the restorative justice paradigm, working with courts and schools in Nogales, AZ, and throughout Santa Cruz County. Rooted in ancient “talking circles” of Native cultures, its model considers not only how crime affects direct victims but also families and communities.

Through group dialogue and meaningful action, peace circles focus not on punishment but on problem-solving, responsibility and healing. Its founders believed in the peace circles model long before studies validated its effectiveness.

Now Circles of Peace is testing another modality: mindfulness training in treatment and crime prevention. Acosta explains that while there’s growing support for mindfulness, programs are still difficult to fund. “There’s not enough hard data showing that they contribute to behavioral change,” she says. General operating grants offer a way over that hurdle.

“When we find promising options that don’t yet have enough data to apply for a big grant, these funds help us continue to achieve our mission,” Acosta says.

The Power to Respond

Just as general operating funds empower innovation, they also help nonprofits respond to urgent and emerging needs.

In September 2019, wall construction along the US-Mexico border suddenly cranked into high gear. “Construction plans cross the heart of the region, and the administration is waiving dozens of environmental laws to fast-track projects,” says Louise Misztal, Conservation Director at Sky Island Alliance, which works to protect and restore 50+ forested mountaintops that together form a biodiverse ecosystem like nowhere else on Earth.

“Sky islands” are mountaintop environments that drastically differ from the lowlands surrounding them. They exist around the world, but none like our own Madrean Archipelago: 57 peaks crowned with woodlands that are home to more than 7,000 species, including more than half of all bird species in North America.

Sky Island Alliance protects and restores these ecosystems and ensures that wide-ranging species have safe pathways between them.

With CORE funding, Sky Island Alliance was able to fast-track its response to an urgent need that could have otherwise taken years to fund. “We quickly redirected a lot of our citizen science to sound the alarm about this very special place that stands to be destroyed,” Misztal shared.

The Power to Grow

While general operating funds help nonprofits to be agile, they also help them grow with steadfast purpose.

Like other nonprofits, Sky Island Alliance, at times, has had to match its work to available grants. CORE Grants make it easier to stick to long-range planning and “get out of that cycle of following the money,” Misztal says.

That ability to align growth with vision is a benefit well understood by Dr. Marcela Molina, executive director of Tucson Girls Chorus, which reaches more than 4,000 youth annually through its “home” choirs and extensive outreach. Tucson Girls Chorus is a multilayer organization that, through music and mentorship, offers opportunities for young women to share their voices and grow into confident leaders.

Tucson Girls Chorus is committed to access for underserved youth, and nearly 40 percent of program participants receive financial aid. Their work also includes choirs at Title 1 schools, a co-ed/all-abilities choir, and free clinics to support Tucson’s music educators in public, private, and charter schools. A CORE Grant recently helped the nonprofit open a second location on Tucson’s Northwest side following due diligence to confirm the site would draw ample participation.

“We feel strongly about not starting programs that are not sustainable,” Molina says. “We are extremely cautious about not growing too fast, but with the CORE Grant we had the flexibility to use funds where they were needed the most, and that was one of them.”

CORE funding also allowed Tucson Girls Chorus to forge new paths for other areas of their mission, such as the future of music education. To that end, it recently partnered with the state chapter of the American Choral Directors Association and the University of Arizona to create internships for undergraduate and graduate students.

“The key is that we were able to jump in and do it,” Molina says, noting how general operating grants help nonprofits act on opportunity. “We were able to create one more way to invest in the future leaders of our community and support young people, regardless of where they live or what their situation is at home.”

CORE Collaborator Program

Last year, CFSA debuted the CORE Collaborator program. The program allows donors to truly partner with CFSA in the grantmaking process. Collaborators share their thoughts on CORE Grant applications, attend in-person nonprofit presentations, and then select where to allocate their gifts.

CORE Collaborator, Eileen Graydon Ketchum, began giving to CFSA to honor the memory of her husband, retired Navy officer Timothy Ketchum, who died in 2015. She chose to review all 70+ proposals and attend every nonprofit pitch!

For Ketchum, who herself spent a career pitching to fund investigations in federal law enforcement and projects in a variety of governmental agencies, the experience cast philanthropy in a new light: “When you’re donating money, if you say, ‘This only goes for this program,’ you may actually be limiting the ability for a nonprofit to function at its best.”

For Larry Adamson, serving as a CORE Collaborator offered the chance to learn about additional Southern Arizona nonprofits. “CFSA does a lot of due diligence, which provides the Connie Hillman Family Foundation an important service, and this confirmed that the Community Foundation is doing an excellent job at vetting proposals.” he says. “Reading the grant applications and listening to the oral presentations was a good way to become aware of organizations that are worthy of support.”