ESL’s community impact grants on the rise

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In 2018, ESL Federal Credit Union decided to grow its foundation and reinvest in the community. Since then, its community impact team has distributed more than $60 million in grants.

The team, which is charged with helping Rochester thrive and prosper, expects to top the $22 million mark in grants this year—surpassing last year, which topped $20 million. Grants this year addressed priorities within ESL’s community impact framework, which include supporting programs and efforts to expand professional and educational opportunities, investing in neighborhoods and strengthening local organizations. The team’s focus on equity was illustrated by investments to create an equitable community.

“Over time, we’ve built out our team, (and) we’ve explored for ourselves, what specifically does this strategic framework mean, and how should it look in practice, and with that … we also get to demonstrate increased clarity and focus in the grants that we that we make in the community,” says Ajamu Kitwana, vice president/director of community impact at ESL.

A notable endeavor this year: ESL’s racial equity grants program, which was launched as one of many efforts within ESL to examine its philanthropy under an equity lens. The community impact team focused on ways to drive racial equity through its grant making. Currently a pilot program, it calls in organizations that are led by Black or Latinx individuals serving their respective communities. 

“It’s really this program that’s trying to address what we see as an equity issue within the nonprofit sector where we find that a large number of organizations that are successful—and we’ve seen this in national studies—tend to be white-led organizations,” Kitwana notes. 

ESL’s racial equity grants program works to create opportunities for groups that might be small and have ideas but “may not have had, frankly, the trust of traditional philanthropy,” he says. These dollars are aimed at helping these organizations grow. ESL has committed more than $800,000 so far to the program, which is open until the end of the year.

Ajamu Kitwana

“We’re really excited,” Kitwana says. “We’ve achieved our goal there and that is we found and learned about organizations that we had not funded before that were doing really important work in the community. 

“We took the risk, if you will, to open up the opportunity to faith-based organizations, as long as they (are) doing work that serves the broader community as opposed to just for their own congregation, and it really has been an eye-opening experience for us to learn about new organizations. We hope it helps to really see and grow leadership in terms of organizations led by people of color within Greater Rochester in a way that will hopefully impact the not-for-profit and service sector in our community.”

At first, interest in the program was slow. It is not unusual for smaller organizations to question whether a large foundation would be interested in its work. 

“Maybe a month or two into having the program out, we started to really see the volume ramp up and I said … there was some influencer in the community for whom we …got that trust, got that sense that, ‘Hey, ESL is really serious about helping here,’” says Kitwana, who credits team members Berta Rivera, community impact relationship manager, and Kari Simpkins, community impact coordinator, for having open dialogue with potential applicants.

That equity and inclusivity lens has extended to other grants as well. ESL recently gave a $1.5 million grant for the training, education and job placement of low-income individuals in nursing. The workforce development program at Rochester General Hospital will assist roughly 645 students working to become certified licensed practical nurses, registered nurses and certified nursing assistants over a three-year period. With an eye toward challenges faced by such students, the grant also covers wrap-around services such as career counseling, child care and housing assistance.

At SUNY Brockport, the Fannie Barrier Williams Scholars program will offer four-year scholarships to high-potential students from low-income families in Monroe, Orleans, Genesee, Livingston, Ontario and Wayne counties. Roughly 30 students will receive these awards each year. ESL gifted $1.07 million to the Brockport Foundation.

“Those (grants) represent a couple of our core community impact framework commitments,” Kitwana says. “Part of our vision is to ensure that quality education is accessible throughout our community, that the ability to essentially access quality jobs is accessible throughout the community. So, those really connect to those core framework priorities.”

The year also deepened ESL’s focus on quality, affordable housing in Monroe and surrounding counties. For example, its work with the Urban League of Rochester’s Lease to Purchase program, modeled after CHN Housing Partners’ successful efforts in Cleveland, Ohio, will help transition renters to homeownership after a rental compliance period of 15 years. The project—L2P Westside—features 41 single-family homes for rent. 

“It’s a program that works with really low-income tenants over a long term to really transition to homeownership,” Kitwana says. “This is the first example of this model being implemented in New York State, and certainly the first in Rochester.”

ESL was drawn to the fact that the idea had seen positive results elsewhere, while acknowledging that it would be a learning experience for all parties involved, he says. In Cleveland, CHN Housing Partners has developed 7,000 affordable homes, creating 2,700 homeowners since it began its work in the 1980s. So far, the Urban League, which received state funds for the $13 million project, has completed construction on a handful of homes. ESL expects to get its first annual report on the project next year. 

“(It) is a long-term investment ultimately to really ramp (up) … folks who are authentically in a low-income bracket and to create (and) make homeownership an option, which is not easy at the end of the day,” Kitwana says.

On the workforce development end, ESL partnered with the Rochester Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative to help workforce development organizations lean in and adhere to best practices and measure impact. ESL plans to give grants to a cohort of organizations that are willing to take that step. Kitwana views it as an opportunity to learn what works, especially over the long term.

“So, rather than just getting a grant signing a pledge at one time, trying to support long-term commitments related to that workforce development pledge that RMAPI and their workforce working group developed really a couple of years ago,” he says.

RMAPI’s Workforce Preparation Organization Pledge urges organizations to commit to abiding by best practices in preparing individuals in poverty for employment.

While getting organizations to come together for grants at the same table might not be commonplace, it is a one way to see whether workforce development programs work. The future could include support around a shared measurement tool given that organizations vary in capacity and yardsticks. 

“I think everyone, at the end of the day, recognizes there’s a big difference between someone who gets a job one time and maybe two months later they are out of the job versus really connecting people to a long-term success trajectory,” Kitwana says. “Everyone we’ve had the conversation with has been open to it.”

He expects ESL to make some grants—a total dollar amount has not been assigned yet—this year and into 2022.

For the community impact team, 2021 has been a fulfilling year, and as long as ESL continues its success, Rochester can expect the financial institution to stick to its commitment of helping the community thrive and prosper. Another increase in the number and value of grants is likely, Kitwana says. As he looks toward the future, Kitwana is hopeful for the area and its understanding of collective impact. 

“It is clear to me (that) in our community, more and more critical stakeholders are recognizing that collaboration is critical,” he says. “No one foundation, no one nonprofit, no one organization will be able to do this alone.”

Smriti Jacob is Rochester Beacon managing editor.

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