Community Philanthropy: Strategies for Impacting Vulnerable Populations

At the juncture of philanthropy, public health, and social justice 

Written while a Resident Scholar at the Clinton School of Public Service (Center for Community Philanthropy) at University of Arkansas, this piece seeks to show opportunities for philanthropy to intervene in the often-dismal life trajectory of vulnerable populations.


This publication highlights these points:

For Grantmakers: It’s easy for grantmakers (and everyone else!) to be overwhelmed with all the data showing the vulnerability of various groups in America, especially when these data are increasingly more dismal.   It’s a little less overwhelming if one focuses on a particular area of life (health, education, economic opportunity), and on particular indicators showing the performance of difference systems or markets (health, education, wage earning, dignity, etc) as they effect different sub-populations.  “Making a difference” literally means bending the trajectories.  Grantmaking efforts to close the measured disparities (“close the gaps”) are necessary if the fate of vulnerable populations – indeed all populations – is to turn more nearly upward.

For Nonprofits: Vulnerable populations are those for whom our systems and markets don’t work so well compared to less vulnerable populations. Many nonprofits and public agencies target particular disparities (in health, education, wage-earnings, etc) and struggle to close these gaps, using disparities data (which reflect these facts of life) to guide their efforts.  Nonprofits making the case their efforts can reduce a particular targeted disparity should be  favored in the funding marketplace.

For Activists: Activists applying their gifts towards disrupting the habitual cycle of, say, authorities using the records of wrong-doing as a 12-year old to harass, haunt and foreclose on the prospects of an otherwise aspiring adult, are truly “making a difference” that eventually show in improved disparities data.  The metaphor “level the playing field” is helpful, suggesting that our systems and markets can be re-tooled to reduce the effects of dis-advantagement faced by some.

For Evaluators: Organizations or projects intending to “close the gap” or “level  playing field” should be able to make the case that their type of effort (their theory of action) is likely to show such progress.  Showing progress in closing disparities should be a key goal for evaluators.  Funders asking an organization to prove that its efforts fix the ills of the world is an ask too far.  Asking instead that the organization demonstrate that its efforts are likely to change the operations of a particular disparities-producing piece of real-world action is a reasonable ask, and supporting them in “noticing progress” with such a demonstration is helpful.


Community Philanthropy: Strategies for Impacting Vulnerable Populations (pdf)

Originally appeared: Publication of the Clinton School of Public Service

Number of pages: 15    Original date: May 1, 2009

Author: Steven E. Mayer, Ph.D.

Effective Communities Project

Minneapolis, MN