Walk into the lobby of the Boston Foundation, and the first thing you see is a computer screen listing that day’s public meetings—perhaps a forum on immigration, housing, education, or some other aspect of life in Massachusetts.
On a spring Monday, 40 economists and others were here to share their views on trends in the local economy for a report the foundation is preparing.
The list of meetings hints at the transformation of the 96-year-old foundation in the decade that Paul S. Grogan has been at the helm.
Grant making is no longer the only thing the foundation is known for but just another tool for promoting change, just as is conducting research, gathering community leaders, and lobbying on issues like education and government efficiency.
Now many other leaders of community funds nationwide are following Boston’s efforts by redefining themselves as leaders on key public-policy issues, not just pots of money.
But many of those efforts shy away from controversy, unlike the Boston Foundation, which has plunged with gusto into the rough-and-tumble world of influencing local government and politics. In the past 18 months, it has led a coalition that helped Massachusetts win a $250-million education prize in the federal Race to the Top competition; issued two reports critical of the state’s Probation Department, helping prompt an investigation that led to its commissioner’s resignation; and enraged union leaders with a series of reports that tie generous health plans for teachers and municipal employees to the state’s underinvestment in education and other needs.
Not a Quiet Approach
When Mr. Grogan was named president of the foundation in 2001, the institution did everything it could to keep its name out of the paper. Now that stance has flipped 180 degrees.
“They have emerged from the quiet approach that many other wonderful foundations engage in to become one of the leading civic institutions in Boston,” says Charles Kravetz, the general manager of WBUR, the largest National Public Radio station in Boston. “It’s a vision and an approach to philanthropy that certainly didn’t exist before Paul took over.”
Mr. Grogan, formerly a vice president at Harvard University, says his “most radical” move was hiring Mary Jo Meisner, who had been a high-ranking editor at several newspapers, to oversee public affairs.
Together, the two have advocated for operating and financial changes in school districts and in government that they believe will allow Massachusetts and Boston to become, as Mr. Grogan puts it, a “tomorrow society” rather than a “yesterday society.”
“You can’t solve any of the problems we care about without effective government,” Mr. Grogan says.
Mr. Grogan says it takes a lot of different approaches to influence government and policy. The foundation tracks issues and data that are important to Boston’s future, commissions research reports on topics like education and municipal finance, and gathers local business and civic leaders to discuss findings from the reports and build support for a plan of action. It also lobbies state legislators once a plan has been hatched—Ms. Meisner, Mr. Grogan, and a third staff member are registered lobbyists with the state—and aggressively hounds The Boston Globe and other news-media outlets for coverage of its work.
Racing to the Top
The investment in public policy reflects the foundation’s view that government is where the action is—or at least where the money is.
The $250-million that the state will receive for winning the Race to the Top award is more than the foundation will probably spend in a decade on the grant making that it fully controls. (Like other community funds, much of the grant maker’s money comes from funds that donors have earmarked for specific causes.)
“We just don’t think that much is going to get done with our grant making,” Ms. Meisner says.
The changes are winning praise from national philanthropy experts.
“What the Boston Foundation has done is basically to take every one of the state-of-the art kinds of things to an entirely new level,” says Joel Fleishman, a professor at Duke University and an expert on foundations and giving. “I am amazed, frankly, by what I’ve seen there.”
Thomas E. Wilcox, president of the Baltimore Community Foundation, says “they’re a leader for the rest of us who are trying to do this work.”
Local followers of the foundation point to its work on education as the crowning achievement of the Grogan era.
Before Mr. Grogan arrived, the Boston Foundation didn’t support charter schools; he says he heard stories of charter-school leaders being thrown out of the foundation’s offices.
Immediately after joining the foundation, Mr. Grogan began to push for more independent charter schools and more charter-like schools within the Boston school district.
But he found that political leaders in the state capitol and elsewhere were slow to make changes, thanks largely to the powerful teachers’ unions in the state.
In 2009 Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick’s push to expand charter schools was on the back burner until the Boston Foundation assembled a Race to the Top Coalition to push the measure and join a federal competition with the same name. The group of business, civic, and academic leaders argued that the changes would not only improve schools but also position Massachusetts to win millions of federal dollars.
The Boston Foundation arranged for members of the coalition to testify at legislative hearings, and the foundation touted the benefits of charter schools in a series of education programs that it sponsored on a local cable-television station.
“We just hammered away at it,” says Ms. Meisner. “We outflanked the other side to the point where we got better legislation than even we felt was possible.”
The legislation passed in January 2010, and seven months later Massachusetts earned the highest score—and a $250-million prize—in the second round of the Race to the Top competition. A letter from Governor Patrick to Mr. Grogan, with the handwritten note, “This was our finest hour!” is framed and on display in the foundation’s lobby.
Attacks by Unions
The foundation’s work on municipal finance has been even more controversial.
Through a series of reports, the foundation has highlighted inefficiencies in public pensions and government health-insurance plans that it argues could be tweaked to free up millions of dollars for more productive uses.
The reports often urge the state legislature to enact changes that would allow municipalities to change rates or programs without collective bargaining or other input from unions.
One report, titled “A Bargain Not Kept,” points out that health-care costs in state school budgets increased by $1-billion from 2000 to 2007—consuming the entire $700-million, and then some, that the state had agreed to provide to schools to reduce inequities in education.
In April the Boston Foundation co-sponsored a report that described the health plans of employees of Massachusetts cities and towns as “gilded benefits from a bygone era” and called for sharp increases in the employees’ co-pays and deductibles. The Globe ran an article about the report on its front page.
“You can’t tolerate a situation in which health-care costs literally consume everything else,” Mr. Grogan says.
The unions aren’t sitting quietly as a new critic rises up. Robert Haynes, president of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO, accuses Mr. Grogan of being a shill for the business leaders who support the foundation.
“He’s been on a jihad trying to destroy public-sector unions with faulty research,” Mr. Haynes says. “Where is he on social and economic justice? He attacks workers rather than attacking the underlying issues in society.”
Mr. Grogan responds: “The unions are not able to dismiss—and in fact rarely mention—the actual findings from our report.”
Objections From the Mayor
The new, louder Boston Foundation is not entirely welcomed at City Hall, either.
Boston’s mayor, Thomas M. Menino, has objected to some of the foundation’s research reports. (Mr. Grogan cracks that the mayor found them “insufficiently patriotic.”)
The Boston Globe suggested years ago that Mr. Grogan’s elevated profile may be a prelude to his own campaign for mayor.
Mr. Grogan says he’s not planning to run for mayor. Mr. Menino didn’t return calls for comment.
Mr. Grogan says the earlier, understated approach of the foundation under his predecessor, Anna Faith Jones, was admirable “in a way” but that it may also have hindered the foundation’s effectiveness because it’s impossible to be influential when you’re anonymous.
He says the foundation’s board was seeking a louder voice on civic issues when it hired him and that the board realizes some criticism of the foundation is inevitable.
“Real change in society is never unaccompanied by conflict,” Mr. Grogan says. “That isn’t how the world works. You don’t all get around the table and hold hands and say, 'Now we’ll have civil rights for everybody.’”
But others say debate over how much the foundation should emphasize advocacy and research—as opposed to its traditional grant making—is a frequent topic at board meetings.
“There is still discussion that goes back and forth about what’s the proper role for a community foundation,” says Ray Hammond, a doctor and minister who was on the board when Mr. Grogan was hired and served as chairman before finishing his stint in 2009. “That’s a healthy tension.”
The debate continues outside the boardroom.
“I have to keep explaining to people that the foundation is not anti-public school or anti-union,” he says, but merely trying to put the interests of kids ahead of adults.
In summing up the new approach at the Boston Foundation, Mr. Hammond offers the one statement upon which both critics and fans can agree: “Nobody can say it’s been boring.”