The nonprofit sector is not the first place that business people would look to for advice, but it should be. Community leaders, especially women, do some of the hardest work under the least forgiving circumstances. And they get results. My team at The New York Women’s Foundation (NYWF) knows this because we’ve been investing in women for 29 years. Over that time, we have invested over $50 million in women-led, community-based organizations reaching nearly 6 million of NYC’s women and girls in greatest need. The Foundation is catalyzing partnerships and leveraging human and financial capital to achieve sustained economic security and justice for women and girls. As a community funder and partner, we are looking for return on investment and we see it every day.
The Foundation and its grantee partners have accumulated years of experience regarding how best to promote powerful leadership, robust entrepreneurship and wise investment in a world that does not always support women’s efforts. And we are eager to share some what we’ve learned:
1. Take risks and take them early
We pride ourselves on being early investors. This means that we’re meeting with newly formed not-for-profit organizations that are still at the early stages of their work. For some funders, this is an uncomfortable predicament in which they are often unable to take the risk. But our ability to listen to plans forged at the grass-roots level — and to step in before other investors and before extensive advance evaluation — has invariably produced impressive results. We know that problems and solutions are found in the same place, and we shape our grant-making strategy from a community-driven approach. Time and time again we have seen that the most impactful and innovative solutions are born out of risk-taking courage combined with ground-level knowledge of what is at stake.
2. Start from a place of strength
Our grantee partner Hot Bread Kitchen (HBK) works with low-income, immigrant women and women of color, helping them break into the male-dominated culinary industry where they can earn a living wage to support themselves and their families. HBK asks nothing more from those women than a passion for cooking, a commitment to hard work and a determination to help themselves and their families achieve a better life. In return, HBK offers them training in English language, financial literacy, business planning – training in skills that can serve as further stepping stones in their careers. This training also removes an initial lack of those skills from serving as a barrier to joining the program. HBK’s approach works. It has successfully equipped cohort after of cohort of women to earn good livings, move on into new positions and even launch their own enterprises. Their focus on the strengths that women possess, allows them to get started right away on their path to success.
3. Embrace challenges because they lead to innovation
Among the challenges facing women, particularly low-income, immigrant women, are the poor working conditions with low wages and without appropriate protections against exploitation. In the face of these conditions, NYWF’s grantee partner, Center for Family Life (CFL) has propelled a progressive business model, worker cooperatives, that allows for more ownership and economic independence for the women that they work with. CFL supports their community through training and technical assistance to incubate businesses such as cleaning services and child care centers. The solution that these bold women forged proves that with grit, vision – and a willingness to listen – the most difficult of challenges can be overcome. The business model they have created holds the potential for extensive replication and has helped to shift the landscape of NYC’s marketplace for immigrant women, proving that every problem has a creative solution.
4. Leverage your network, especially in times of crisis
Times of crisis demand quick thinking and broad cooperation. After Hurricane Sandy, we leveraged our network of nearly 300 grantee organizations and were able to quickly disperse funds to communities that were already facing terrible conditions of poverty and violence. These conditions, exacerbated by the storm, required an immediate response and we were able to respond quickly because we had developed a strong network.
Over the past nearly 30 years, our strategy of astutely seeking out and funding women-generated entrepreneurial ideas has produced clear results. We have supported our grantee partners in bringing a host of nascent businesses, worker cooperatives, loan programs and training programs to the point of impressive and sustainable growth. The $50 million that we have channeled into our partner organizations has played a crucial role in those organizations’ success. The lessons we have shared here are exemplary of the power of investing in women. Their leadership is effective and meaningful because they are resourceful, innovative and measured without being risk-averse. We know that when you uplift women, you are uplifting their families and communities. It is in this spirit that we continue our commitment to the vision and leadership of women in communities across New York City.