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A Q&A with Holly Morehouse on the New Opportunity Gap Impact Areas

Watch the video above to hear about Holly's vision and read the Q&A below to learn more.

Closing the Opportunity Gap

As part of its five-year strategic plan for 2023-2027, the Vermont Community Foundation has identified five new impact areas that will inform grantmaking and our work to close the opportunity gap. We sat down with Holly Morehouse, our vice president of grants and community impact, to learn more about the new impact areas.
What are the five impact areas?

In no particular order:

Why did the Community Foundation feel it was important to define these impact areas?

Coming out of COVID-19, we are hearing from nonprofit partners that the level of need in our communities, especially among vulnerable and marginalized communities, is at a high we have never seen before. When you put that into the context of the past few years, during which just about everything in the world changed, it creates uncertainty both for how we understand problems and for how we address them. We don’t know if the challenges we’re seeing in our communities are only the tip of the iceberg. We don’t know how deep they go.

The world has changed. How we operate has changed. Our approach to collective giving, working in partnership with nonprofits, and flexibility in grantmaking have changed. Federal dollars that were available during COVID-19 are going away. We’re recognizing that there are new problems that require new strategies.

Focusing on closing the opportunity gap is still the goal. We’re holding to that. But what we wanted to investigate was what new leverage points will be needed coming out from under COVID-19 to truly address the conditions that hold Vermonters back. 

How do the new impact areas help you do that?

The new impact areas address five key aspects of human wellbeing and community vitality that are needed for people to thrive. At the same time, we’ve intentionally built room within this framework for new learning. It’s not only about what we think will help close the opportunity gap today, but also about working with communities to shine light on the problem, build deeper understanding, and invite solutions in a new and exciting way.

At first glance, the impact areas may seem deceptively simple. They’re actually quite dynamic and complex. The deeper strategies that we’ve defined within each area point to approaches that are compelling, that cross issue areas, and that will allow us to respond with focus and urgency.

I like things that are expansive. I don’t like walls and fences around things. I don’t want to send something out and say “think about this, but not that” or to assume that at this moment in time we know the full breadth of what it’s going to take to reach the bold goals we’ve set for ourselves. I don’t like to limit possibilities. However, I do like a plan and it’s important to see forward progress. So, it’s looking at each individual community through the lens of these impact areas. If any one of those is not in place, it can hold someone back or present challenges to a family or community that prevents them from thriving.

How will the impact areas inform grantmaking?

Developing the impact areas really inspired us to think about what to carry forward from COVID-19 grantmaking. For example, we now have a grant type called Core Partners, geared toward organizations in the state already working on an issue. These core partnerships are about trust-based relationships where we provide operational dollars that allow nonprofits to do their work, and we bring learning back to our fundholders and donors.

We also have a tool we’re calling Initiatives, where we pull together a group of grantees around a specific issue from different parts of the state. It gives us a deeper level of understanding from a variety of partners who are employing different solutions and have different perspectives and who may be working in different parts of the state. Importantly, not only do we learn from them, but they learn from each other.

One last example is the Next Step Project Grants. That’s where we see sparks of innovation. It’s not a core partner that is fully fledged and really holding that impact space with expertise, or a group of grantees working across an issue, but it’s someone who has a new idea. We want to capture that innovative thinking too.

What should nonprofits know about the new impact areas?

How we make grants and how we are in relationships with grantees has fundamentally changed and that’s true across the field of philanthropy. During COVID-19, we worked with partners based on trust, knowing they knew best what needed to be done. It was a shift in power. We're not sitting back asking them to fill out huge applications to prove their worth; it's more about providing operational dollars or key project funding to be in this learning relationship.

As the former executive director of a nonprofit, I know what it’s like to be in that role, how it feels to depend on grant funding for staffing, planning and strategy. I understand that how we make grants can impact, and sometimes limit, an organization’s ability to do their best work. So, I’m excited about this shift.

Will donors and fundholders notice anything different?

What we hope is that donors and fundholders will see that they are part of something bigger. Yes, they can make a gift that will have direct impact in that moment and time, but in the long term, we’re on a journey together.

So, it’s giving together, learning together, having impact together. Whatever issue a donor or fundholder feels strongly about, there is a place for that issue within this framework. I have no intention of closing the door on any important issue. What is the challenge? How can we use the impact areas to really dive into thinking about solutions?

How are the impact areas shaping your work as an organization?

We have created new program officer positions that give people the space and responsibility to dive deep into specific issues, to really understand how and where philanthropy can play a role.

We are also working to simplify the grantmaking process. We just launched a nonprofit connection form on the website. Any nonprofit anywhere in the state can log on and tell us they exist, tell us what they’re working on, tell us about a new project. They don’t have to pick up the phone and call us, the website is there 24/7. That’s exciting—that combination of being more open and being able to pull people into the bigger picture.

What gives you hope as you look ahead to the new year?

Going to a community meeting where 200-300 people show up to talk about what is happening in their community. What they express, overwhelmingly, is wanting to connect with each other and concern for their neighbor. Do they have access to food? Can the kids walk safely to school? Can they get medicine in an ice storm? True care about what it’s like to live in that place, at that moment, shows up every time. I really trust that.

When you pull people together in that way, the solutions and strategies that come out are so exciting. It sounds cliche, but they’re so much better than what any one person or team can come up with on their own. It’s really exciting when something shifts and you have new information and perspective. It’s creativity, energy, and synergy that only comes from human beings coming together to grapple with something important that is centered on care for each other.

Read more about the Opportunity Gap Impact Areas