When you consider the origins of many great ideas, you’re often left to wonder, “what took so long?” Wheels on suitcases and upside-down squeeze ketchup bottles come to mind.
Then there was that lightbulb moment at a funders conference in Charlottesville in 2017, organized by a small group of funders and Dr. Bill Hazel, the former Health and Human Services secretary for the commonwealth, when many participants wondered why Virginia did not have a statewide alliance of funders. There are hundreds of funders investing in Virginia and a few informal networks of funders have formed over time, but there had not ever been a singular network where all types of funders could engage in meaningful discussions, share ideas, collaborate, even pool funding for greater impact.
Had there been a video of the gathering, you’d likely find it was one of those moments that had audience members nodding along. After all, as Dr. Hazel pointed out, state policymakers and lawmakers have many of the same conversations as their foundation counterparts about identical issues. Wouldn’t a statewide funding network make sense?
The answer arrived beginning last year where it was punctuated with an exclamation point. After an initial field scan of similar organizations in other states conducted by Christine Nardi and Holly Hatcher, and some research and analysis conducted by fundraising consultants Bobby Thalhimer and Patte Koval, the nascent Virginia Funders Network began to take shape. Initial funders of the idea coalesced as the organization’s founding board. Nearly 100 member funders were recruited. And earlier this year, Katy Moore, the former managing director of corporate strategy for the Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers with some 15 years’ experience in philanthropy, was named VFN’s first CEO.
“Virginia funders had a history of self-organizing for many years, but a state-wide philanthropic network had never extended across the state,” Moore says. “Funders in Northern Virginia, for example, did not have any ongoing relationships with funders in Southwest Virginia. Many other states already had those connections in both formal and informal ways. It was time for VFN!”
Moore has hit the ground running and is busy with all of the administrative details that come with starting a new organization – developing a logo, building a website, writing bylaws, creating an identity and operating structure. But she’s already focused on bigger picture issues as well, including VFN’s core networking mission. She is busily laying the foundation for VFN’s organizational rubric. She’s pulling funders together by funding type (corporate, family, community) as well as by issue areas (education, health, social justice, and economic transformation) – a structure that will spur conversations amid those with common interests and objectives.
“One of the areas of great potential for VFN is the increased capacity it gives funders to work with governments,” Thalhimer says. “When philanthropy works independently from government, you lose the cross-sector collaboration and potential to scale solutions. To be truly successful, you must bring policy into the equation, and the Network will give funders a more powerful and effective voice and make philanthropy a more effective partner with policymakers. That’s not been our history here. Virginia philanthropists have historically had an aversion to talking to government. That is changing.”
Amid the initial membership of close to 100 funders, some networking traction is already taking place. Moore points to an email she got recently from a large regional corporate foundation focused on healthcare who wanted a list of other funders around the state that they could talk to about a state-wide, $100M affordable housing and related initiative. In the past, the foundation would have had nowhere to go to make such connections.
In January and March, VFN hosted pre and post-General Assembly briefings for members to keep them informed of policy action (and inaction) affecting the commonwealth and the populations they serve.
And VFN is only just getting started. Like wheels on a suitcase, the Virginia Funders Network will continue rolling along.