Sylvan Lebrun, Contributing Photographer

Since the start of the new year, the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven has begun to implement their $26 million “Stepping Forward” philanthropic initiative targeting the dual impacts of racism and the pandemic.

Over the next three years, the Community Foundation plans to distribute $15 million of these funds to local nonprofits through responsive grantmaking as part of the “Stepping Forward” initiative. The remaining $11 million is dedicated to the establishment of three permanent issue-focused endowments — the Basic Needs Fund, the Racial Equity Fund and the Civic Engagement and Awareness Fund. In addition, the Community Foundation has created two new grant programs to support BIPOC leaders in the arts and nonprofit sectors.

“In 2020, we were thinking about the impact of the pandemic and our response to that,” said Christina Ciociola, senior vice president for grantmaking and strategy at the Community Foundation. “The pandemic was really shining a bright light on racial disparities and exacerbating them in a very unfortunate way. We started thinking about our work differently, how we could be more deliberate to advance racial equity and address the lasting impacts of COVID-19.”

When the pandemic began at the start of last year, the Community Foundation had to refocus its efforts towards immediate relief, accelerating their distribution of funds. Each year, the foundation typically designates 5 percent of its endowment for grantmaking, according to Matthew Higbee, content and engagement manager for the Community Foundation. However, due to increased need from the pandemic, annual grant resources for 2020 were depleted by early June. 

According to CEO of the Community Foundation William Ginsberg, he and others at the foundation then realized that significantly more funds were needed to effectively address the devastation caused by the pandemic.

Over the summer of 2020, the foundation formed plans to restructure its resources, focusing on the disproportionate impacts of the pandemic on communities of color and the crisis the pandemic created for the financial standings of many nonprofits. 

“We essentially targeted unrestricted money in the endowment, that we could then take a loan against and pay that loan back with these unrestricted funds over three years,” Higbee told the News.

The loan generated more than $11 million of the $26 million in extra funds, with the balance coming from other foundation assets and from donor contributions. Stepping Forward was officially launched at the start of 2021.

The three permanent endowments created under Stepping Forward are in the process of forming advisory boards and accepting donations. The Basic Needs Fund will address pressing community needs for healthcare, food and housing. The Racial Equity Fund will support Black leadership and advocacy in New Haven. Lastly, the Civic Engagement and Awareness Fund will fund nonprofit journalism, like the New Haven Independent, and civics education.

In a typical year, the Community Foundation receives between 120 and 140 grant requests, of which they can only fund about half. Higbee told the News that this year, with the additional $15 million in the grantmaking pool, they are hoping to accept a much greater portion of applicants, if not nearly all of them. Applications for the foundation’s existing small grants program opened on Jan. 4 and grants have started to be distributed on a rolling basis.

“We’re looking for organizations who are working to advance … what we’re calling the social and structural determinants of equity, which include access to health, access to housing, civic awareness,” Ciociola told the News.

As part of Stepping Forward, the Community Foundation has also established two new grant programs, which will fund specific community projects and individuals instead of organizations. 

The “Racial Equity + Creative Healing Through the Arts” grant is in partnership with the New Haven Arts Council. It will focus on funding artists and arts organizations in projects that address racism and support collective healing for communities of color. Applications opened on Feb. 1, and will be reviewed on a rolling basis by an external panel of artists, patrons and arts administrators.

The “BIPOC-led Leadership Cohort” grant is expected to open for applications by mid-March and is intended to support people of color working towards senior management roles in nonprofit organizations. It will include both a nine-month training program for selected individuals and a $30,000 grant for each participant’s affiliate organization.

Through this project, the Community Foundation is also attempting to hold themselves to a higher standard on issues of racial and economic bias in New Haven. 

“Philanthropy has been criticized as both a symptom and as a cause of inequality,” Higbee said. “Our funds are here today because of wealth inequality, because people have been able to amass enough wealth in order to create funds. Our endowment now is $600 million. And so there’s a critique that, why is that money sitting there when there’s all this need in the community?”

In addition to increasing grant spending through Stepping Forward, the Community Foundation is also expanding their internal fellowship program to address bias. According to Ciociola, they are looking to take on at least one new fellow in a pipeline for a permanent role at the foundation. This fellow will focus specifically on “healing and reconciliation” within the foundation, researching the foundation’s history around issues of racial inequity and creating a plan of action for the organization. 

Patricia Melton, executive director of New Haven Promise, expressed optimism about Stepping Forward. Her organization provides college scholarships and academic support to local youth. They operated within the Community Foundation until 2016, and continue to receive significant funding from them.

“The Community Foundation has led with leadership and foresight, realizing that we’re going to need more investments at this critical time to maintain and to pull through so that we’re stronger than ever as a nonprofit community,” Melton told the News.

Melton told the News that she expects funding for New Haven Promise and similar organizations promoting equitable access to educational and workforce opportunities will increase under Stepping Forward. 

As part of Stepping Forward, the Community Foundation will continue to collaborate with United Way of Greater New Haven on their joint COVID-19 Community Fund and plans to invest in minority-owned and small businesses through their Mission Investments Company. 

“We can’t do this ourselves, and the philanthropic sector can’t do this itself, and the nonprofit sector can’t do this itself,” Ginsberg said. “This is about government, and grassroots organizations, and individual leaders of color. This is about the big institutions in town, including [Yale] and the hospital. It’s about the corporate sector, the Chamber of Commerce. It’s about helping the community respond to COVID and seize the opportunity around greater racial equity.”

The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven was established in 1928. It is the largest grantmaker in New Haven and its surrounding towns.

Sylvan Lebrun |

Correction, Feb. 27: The loan used to help fund Stepping Forward generated over $11 million of the $26 million, not all of the $26 million. Also, Higbee originally told the News that the Foundation’s endowment is valued at $600 million. Higbee later clarified that the number is in fact over $720 million. The story has been updated.

Sylvan Lebrun is a Managing Editor of the Yale Daily News. She previously served as City Editor, and covered City Hall and nonprofits and social services in the New Haven area. She is a junior in Pauli Murray College majoring in Comparative Literature.