Private foundations were once the primary giving vehicle for many families and individuals, but new models like the donor advised fund have shown to be advantageous for some.
Early in 2021, the Community Foundation officially launched its Insight Hub to provide charitable Vermonters actionable insight to inform their giving. To help with this, Molly Walsh joined the organization as a Research and Insight Officer a few months later.
At the broadest level, Molly researches issues, talks with people, analyzes data, then writes this up to shine the light on Vermont’s challenges and empower donors and fundholders with the knowledge to effectively respond to said challenges—presenting new ideas, success stories, and offering up solutions that address longstanding issues in the process.
So, what does that look like in practice? We caught up with Molly to find out.
Why did the Vermont Community Foundation hire a Research and Insight Officer?
Community engagement is a critical component of the Foundation’s work and something that happens at every level of the organization. The Research and Insight Officer position—we say RIO for short and because it’s fun—formalizes that work in a more visible way by creating a full-time role dedicated to reporting on the biggest challenges facing Vermont communities. By researching and writing about economic inequity, the housing crisis, or climate change, we increase our capacity to inform our community—the donor community, those who want to start giving, and those who are just curious—about how philanthropy can make a difference.
My hope is that this work shows people there are avenues to solutions, even when the scale of the problem is daunting and discouraging. It’s normal to get winded when you’re going up a steep incline. With the Insight Hub, we want to show folks, “This works, and if it has more momentum via private funding, there could be even more progress.” Vermonters have a history of solving big challenges by keeping an open mind. We want this work to inspire a feeling of optimism and YES WE CAN!
Isn’t this something folks can learn about by reading their local paper?
Yes, but no one is talking about how to respond to issues through giving and how to make giving more effective in solving the issues we read about. We boil it down, make it easy to digest, and provide people with actions on how to give at this moment to make a difference.
Bring the Research and Insight position to life for me – share an example.
Sure! I actually just got off the phone with the Executive Director of a theater in southern Vermont. He walked me through some of the innovations that his organization did to bring the arts to the community during the pandemic, including outdoor concerts and a drive-in style theater. He said the experience taught him that theater isn’t just about the curtains and chairs, or the lights going down in a beautiful historic theater, it’s much more. The arts elevate everyone, and they belong to the whole community, not just those of means. COVID-19 helped drive that home for him, and he credits private and public support for helping the theater stay operational during the pandemic and dream up a whole lineup of safe, alternative programming.
Even before the pandemic, gifts to the theater helped to expand access to the arts. Many donations go to underwrite ticket sales, reducing prices 30-40 percent for everyone and providing social service organizations and low-income community members with free tickets.
Getting the chance to interview someone about how their organization adapts to challenge and how private funding plays a role in that is exactly the type of insight we want to bring to our donors so folks know the impact they can create with their giving.
What can we expect from the Insight Hub in the next 12 months?
I think a year from now we will have a substantial body of work that people can read to help them know Vermont better and Vermont’s current state of need better.
We also plan to expand our multi-media library—we’ve put together some recorded interviews and webinars and we have more to come in the months ahead.
A key component of this work, and something that we want to apply across all our work as an organization, is to provide a platform for the voice of lived experience—for any and all of the topics we cover, so we can gut check that the solutions we suggest are applicable on the ground.
Overall, I’m hoping that the profile of this work will grow and become more interactive. We want people and organizations to pitch ideas, bring up topics for research, or express interest in collaboration. A lot can develop from this, and it’s off to an exciting start.
How can the public engage with your position and the Insight Hub?
We want to hear from you! Anyone who has seen a change in need, something that is getting worse, we want to know about. If you have an innovative idea or a success story, please share.
So many of Vermont’s problems are a conundrum, if you do this, what will you do to that? Finding balance in solutions is not that easy, and we’re always interested in what ideas folks can share.
The suggestion box is open, come fill it!