2017-05-25 / Around Town

A Strong Sense of Place at vBCF

By Betsy Sherman Walker


In 2015, a $400,000 gift to Lucy's Hearth from the vBCF played a major part in the "acquisition, renovation, and relocation" of the Hearth's new facility. “The entire van Beuren family walked alongside of us, every step of the way,” says Program Director Jennifer Barrera. “They have been a partner in every sense of the word." In 2015, a $400,000 gift to Lucy's Hearth from the vBCF played a major part in the "acquisition, renovation, and relocation" of the Hearth's new facility. “The entire van Beuren family walked alongside of us, every step of the way,” says Program Director Jennifer Barrera. “They have been a partner in every sense of the word." Twice a year, in February and June, the Newport-based van Beuren Charitable Foundation invites non-profit organizations in Newport to apply for grant money. If they make a strong enough case for their project, program or initiative, funds from the family-based foundation make it possible for the grantees to provide a lifeline, serve as an agent of change, educate, inspire, or all of the above.

The next round of applications is due on Thursday, June 1. For the area’s approximately 150 non-profits, it represents an opportunity to transform lives.

Lucy’s Hearth, a homeless shelter for women and their children in Newport County since 1984, recently received a $190,000 grant.

“Working with the staff at vBCF is very different than working with many other funders,” said Jennifer Barrera, program director at the Hearth since 2007. “It is clear that they want us to succeed and they want to be partners in our success.”

“[The application process] includes one-on-one meetings, [and] the actual funding application questions are engaging and thoughtful.”

This is the foundation’s trademark, said Executive Director Elizabeth Lynn. The van Beurens, she said, “are committed to this community.”

When vBCF was founded in 1986, it awarded grants that year totaling $171,000. It has since expanded its reach, and by its own estimate has distributed more than $65 million throughout the Aquidneck Island community. From food, shelter and good health at one end, to arts, culture and recreation at the other, the family-run organization supports a broad spectrum of need and opportunities to be agents of change.

“Aquidneck Island and Newport County communities are exceptional places,” reads the vision statement on the website, “where people can flourish at all stages of their lives.”

“Their connectivity and engagement with the community has been so effective,” said Lynn, adding that in no way does it resemble the version of philanthropy “that parachutes in with its own agenda.”

The scope and the intent of the foundation’s support, she said, is deeply rooted in the family’s collective conviction that such exceptionality is a right, not a privilege.

Citing the foundation's four guidelines for giving, identified as strong starts, healthy lifestyles, community prosperity, and excellence in the commons (a commitment to the common good), Lynn said “If we can make an impact in those four areas, the county is in a stronger position.”

She calls it “place-based philanthropy.”

If one sits for a while with the most recent list of grants and reads descriptions of what the money is being used for, what emerges is a map of Aquidneck Island and the people who call it home. Among the grants are: $670,000 to the International Yacht Restoration School, $500,000 to Sail Newport, $400,000 to the Saint Clare Home, $235,600 to the Aquidneck Island Planning Commission, $209,200 to the Aquidneck Land Trust and $200,000 to Redwood Library and Athanaeum. At the other end, grantees include Reach Out and Read Rhode Island ($6,000), the Middletown Tree Association ($8,000) and $10,000 each to Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Ocean State, Baby Steps Early Education program and Island Moving Company for its Math Into Movement Program.

In between, there are a number of diverse projects, from the Newport Historical Society, the Newport County Community Mental Health Center, the MLK Center and the Newport Music Festival to the Rhode Island Food Bank, the Portsmouth and Tiverton school departments, the Robert Potter League for Animals and Save the Bay.

This year, the Newport Historical Society received $100,000 to fund a two-year “Lost and Found” project to catalogue the many objects in its collection. According to Executive Director Ruth Taylor, one crucial aspect of these grants is that they allow an organization to stretch its wings. “If [the vBCF] were to go away, there would be a huge impact on capital projects, on our ability to grow or try something new,” she said.

She pointed out that grant funding at the Historical Society“ makes up less than 10 percent of our operating budget.”

When considering applications, Lynn said they are “dealing with organizations that are very aspirational. They are making a difference in peoples’ lives, [and they are] trying to stretch. There’s a risk in it, but we can be their partner, a bridge to the next level.”

Lynn added that the van Beurens have “an ongoing dialogue with grantees, [who] are learning constantly, and we are learning from them. It’s is a great opportunity to educate us. We appreciate it when an organization takes the time to give us their point of view. It’s an aspect of philanthropy that combines exploration, discovery and learning.”

The application can be a tremendous communications tool, she said. “[Sometimes] an idea is not quite ripe. It’s not the right timing, not the right phase.”

For Lynn, an application is only the beginning. “We are engaged oftentimes in a conversation with the grantee that can become very dynamic,” she said.

Typically, according to Barrera, of Lucy’s Hearth, “funders want to hear what the program is and want programs to report their successes. The van Beuren Foundation asks questions that engage us in identifying trends that we are experiencing, strategic planning elements and challenges what we have experienced.”

Taylor pointed out that the vBCF is a family foundation with a professional staff. It’s a “hybrid,” she said, combining the passions of the family with a best-practice business model. She also said that it “is very good at putting its money where its mouth is.”

The foundation also presents its Finance as Destiny courses for trustees and executive fundraisers. Lynne says she has seen it spark remarkable collaboration between participants.

While monies raised to support a new home for Lucy’s Hearth came from a host of engaged supporters, Barrera sees the foundation as unique and exceptional for the quality of its involvement in the process. “The entire van Beuren family walked alongside us every step of the way,” she said. “They have been a partner in every sense of the word.”

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