As the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation (EMCF) enters the final phase of its spend-down, Blue Meridian Partners, the funder collaborative started and incubated at EMCF, announced its plans to become an independent nonprofit, ensuring its survival as its parent foundation winds down.
The collaborative will carry on the foundation’s legacy of big, unrestricted funding to scale promising, evidence-based interventions. As EMCF reaches the end of its lifetime, Blue Meridian Partners will take on some of the foundation’s staff and help the funder fulfill its final commitments to its Youth Development Fund grantees. EMCF said it expects those commitments to be fulfilled in the next three to four years.
Launched in 2016, Blue Meridian Partners has a $1.7 billion capital base and plans to expand. It seeks to break the intergenerational cycle of poverty by targeting work that supports impoverished people from birth to age 30.
Already, the organization has approved $350 million in investments to fund the first phase of grantees’ plans to scale. If this phase goes well, the funder says it’s on a path to invest $1 billion in grantees. All that and it’s only year three.
Under Blue Meridian’s model, “general partners” commit at least $50 million over five years to the nonprofit. Those partners get to vote on investments the organization makes and weigh in other issues.
Blue Meridian’s array of backers is impressive—and unusual in that it includes a mix of legacy foundations and grantmakers piloted by living donors. General partners include the Ballmer Group, the David Tepper Charitable Foundation, the Drunkenmiller Foundation, the Duke Endowment, the George Kaiser Family Foundation, the Sergey Brin Family Foundation, the Samberg Family Foundation and, of course, ECMF.
Funders can also join as “limited partners,” who invest at least $15 million. These include the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the JPB Foundation and Aviv Foundation.
Most of the funders on the list work on behalf of children already, either through education, public health or anti-poverty work. At the same time, Blue Meridian has been a vehicle for expanded giving by some relative newcomers to big league philanthropy.
The Ballmer Group is a case in point. The funder, which carries out the giving of former Microsoft CEO of Steve Ballmer and his wife Connie, is still young, but its founders’ deep coffers make it a philanthropic player to watch. The Ballmers have an estimated net worth of more than $40 billion and have demonstrated a serious and thoughtful approach to their philanthropic endeavors. The Ballmer Group’s focus is encouraging economic mobility for children and their families, so Blue Meridan’s approach is closely in sync with the Ballmers’ broader mission. The couple has played a key role in the organization from its start.
The Drunkenmiller Foundation is another funder to watch here. Stanley Druckenmiller is a retired hedge fund billionaire. He and his wife Fiona have made education, medicine, research and poverty their core issues. They have a history of funding initiatives aimed at children, including as the top supporters of the Harlem Children’s Zone, which provides parenting workshops, a preschool program, child-oriented health programs and runs three charter schools in the neighborhood.
The George Kaiser Family Foundation is also known for its work on behalf of kids born into poverty. The funder works to create equal opportunities for kids. It favors early education and family engagement, health and family well-being, and civic engagement as the means to that end. The foundation is especially known for its trailblazing work on early childhood education in Oklahoma, George Kaiser’s home state.
Kaiser, who made his money through oil and later banking, is estimated to have a net worth of around $8 billion. Though most of his philanthropic endeavors have focused on his native Oklahoma, some have speculated that with a fortune that size he may adopt a broader, more national approach to his philanthropy in the future.
Perhaps most intriguing is the involvement of the Sergey Brin Family Foundation, piloted by the Google co-founder. While Brin is an active philanthropist, he’s kept a low profile with his giving and is best known for his big investments in fighting Parkinson’s disease. Given his vast personal wealth, which now stands at $50 billion, it’s significant that Brin has made such a big investment in domestic anti-poverty work through Blue Meridian.
EMCF has a reputation for both big, unrestricted gifts and for funding evidence-based strategies. Since the 1990s, the foundation had made helping economically disadvantaged children a core part of its mission. Blue Meridian Partners is poised to carry on that tradition.
The commitment to big, unrestricted grants is one of the more interesting features of the closing foundation and new collaborative. Unrestricted, or general operating support is becoming more popular among funders, but still accounts for a relatively small portion of total grantmaking.
Unrestricted funding helps stabilize and scale up nonprofits. The gifts acknowledge that nonprofit leaders and their staffs know best where money should go and where it is needed most. Funding can go to things like hiring more staff to increase capacity or building an online presence to reach more grantees. Still, most funders prefer to give to specific programs.
Blue Meridian Partners has already made big investments in nonprofits seeking to scale nationally. For its large-scale investments, the organization commits up to $200 million to a nonprofit over 10 to 12 years. The investments are approved every two to four years and paid out annually based on performance.
The funder broadly defines its mission as empowering youths—defined as people from birth to age 30—living in poverty. Though Blue Meridian Partners’ grantees all work toward that goal, they attack it from several different angles—one of the benefits of having so many funders with their own opinions and expertise involved in the work.
Two grantees deal with the foster care system and adoption. Youth Villages assists kids as the age out of the system, while Wendy’s Wonderful Kids works to find families to adopt kids in the system who are considered “hard to place,” which typically means kids age nine and up, children with special needs, or siblings.
Two other grantees tackle early childhood development. Nurse-Family Partnership sponsors at-home nurse visits. HealthySteps is working to integrate child development specialists into pediatric primary care teams.
Year Up deals with youth unemployment through a year-long training program. Another grantee, Center for Employment Opportunities, is working on long- and short-term employment for the formerly incarcerated. The last major investment grantee is Upstream USA, which focuses on reducing unplanned pregnancies through education and reversible birth control.
Blue Meridian Partners also funds a few other projects under a different investment structure. The nonprofit is sponsoring a wrap-around, continuum services in two regions—Tulsa County, Okla., and Guilford County, N.C.—to ensure kids from birth to around third grade have the tools they need to excel later in life.
Two of the collaboratives’ partners spearhead those initiatives, the George Kaiser Family Foundation in Oklahoma and the Duke Endowment in North Carolina. The hope is that if these regional initiatives are successful, they can provide a roadmap for this work in other parts of the country.
The partners’ last grantee, the Bail Project, is still in a planning phase. The organization runs a bail fund, which goes to pay bail for low-income people so they can return to their families, jobs and communities while they await trial. Long-term the Bail Project hopes to end unaffordable cash bail in the United States.
What you won’t find on the list of Blue Meridian’s investments are organizations that are broadly challenging how the U.S. economy works. Ultimately, the deck will remain stacked against low-income youth as long as they’re growing up in a nation where large swaths of jobs don’t pay a living wage or benefits, where nearly all the gains from growth go to the nation’s most affluent households, and where predatory lending practices remain commonplace.
Still, it’s important to remember that Blue Meridian Partners is still relatively new and remains a work in progress. A big benefit of collaboratives like this is that it brings funders with different views and expertise to the table. The result is investments that approach a problem from several different angles. When you have problem as entrenched and complex as intergenerational poverty, it makes sense to attack the issue on several fronts.