By Jennifer Alzate González, PhD Candidate, English Language and Literature
Nonprofit grantmaking, impact assessment, the philanthropy sector — before my 8-week fellowship at the Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation, I had only the haziest idea what these terms meant. And I often joked, to appreciative laughter, that my dissertation had nothing to do with these concepts. But with the help of mentor Jillian Rosen and AAACF’s small, tight-knit staff, I found myself and my whole outlook on academia changed through this eight week immersion into the world of community foundations.
You can think of the Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation as a middle-person between philanthropists and the nonprofits who rely on their generosity. Why not just donate to a nonprofit directly, you ask? Because the AAACF is committed to helping nonprofits fulfill their missions in perpetuity. They do that through financial advisers who invest the initial gift in order to grow it, so that an initial donation of $5,000 might be worth much more in a few years. The AAACF then disperses that gift right back to the community in alignment with the donor’s original wishes.
Although that makes sense to me now, that wasn’t always the case. In my first two weeks on the job, I felt a little bit like a graduate student who has never read any critical theory in their first 800-level class. But instead of a slew of incomprehensible references to Derrida, Althusser, Muñoz, and Cohen, it was to donor advised funds, field of interest funds, administrative endowment funds, and much much more. But as a “professional learner,” as I’ve come to call PhD students, it was thrilling to read and read and read about something I’d known so little about before. And moreover, it was easy to connect the dots to things I did know and care about — like the incredible work of queer and trans of color nonprofits like the Audre Lorde Project and the TransLatin@ Coalition, which rely on grants and gifts to run their daily operations.
Putting aside my reservations about the nonprofit-industrial complex (as brilliantly illuminated by The Revolution Will Not Be Funded), I dove into the challenge of learning how to realistically assess a community foundation’s impact: that is, how much of a positive change their grants made on the strength of local nonprofits and of the Ann Arbor area nonprofit ecosystem overall. To do that, I researched philanthropy best-practices for measuring impact and then used that research to problem-solve for specific metrics that the AAACF could use to measure the impact of their grantmaking.
Over the course of my time at AAACF, I leaned on many of the skills I’d been honing as a PhD student: the ability to research and mine vast quantities of information for what is immediately useful; the ability to see a problem from multiple angles; the ability to ask the right questions of both the problem and the potential solutions; and the persistence to see the project through. Additionally, I picked up some experience with data collection and visualization, including Excel sheets, Google analytics, and infographic tools like Visual.ly.
In the end, I was able to present something I was pretty proud of: an impact assessment report with data from the past 5 years on how AAACF’s grantmaking had matched their priorities, as well as an impact assessment tool for future use. But even more importantly, I gained confidence that with a positive mentor and an openness to learning, I was capable of adapting to and thriving in a new field. For these reasons, I would highly recommend applying for the Mellon Public Humanities Fellowship!
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