December 22, 2017

Williams anticipating more nonprofit funding requests amid budget constraints

Jay Williams is the president of the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving.

Each year HBJ highlights five business, government, nonprofit or higher-education leaders to watch in coming year because of their likelihood to be in the spotlight. Here's a look at our 2018 choices.

Jay Williams became president at the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving in mid-July at a difficult time for the region: the city of Hartford was contemplating bankruptcy, there was a roughly $3.5 billion state budget deficit, and nonprofits were feeling trickle-down funding pressure.

Conditions suggested more financial aid requests to the Foundation, but that hadn't materialized in any significant way when Williams in November discussed his first months in office and the year ahead. His reflections came shortly after a state budget was passed and Hartford bankruptcy averted by state assistance.

But Williams — who was in Washington, D.C., the past six years, first as executive director of the Office of Recovery for Automotive Manufacturing Communities and Workers for three years, including serving as deputy director of intergovernmental affairs at The White House, then three years as assistant secretary of commerce for economic development — expects an uptick in requests in 2018. How much remains to be seen.

The budget climate for nonprofits is tough, he said.

"It is, without question, of significant concern," Williams said, calling it a necessity for some nonprofits to collaborate.

"In an environment of declining resources at the federal, state and city level, our resources, while significant, are still limited," he said. If organizations' missions can be better accomplished through collaboration or mergers, "that really has to be on the table in ways that perhaps before weren't."

The Foundation also aims to operate smarter.

Williams is putting more emphasis on acquiring, analyzing and sharing data internally and with partners and stakeholders — using data to make better-informed decisions.

"I think I'm safe in saying that we're never going to let a problem go unaddressed simply because the data might say otherwise," he said.

But the Foundation won't open the funding floodgates if its heartstrings are tugged hard enough, he said, noting the need for balance to ensure Foundation resources are used most effectively for the community.

The Foundation last year awarded more than $33.3 million in grants to education, family and social services, arts and culture, community and economic development and health initiatives. It was on track this year to give roughly $33 million to $35 million, Williams said. Its endowment is about $1 billion.

Internally, Williams also is examining the process by which funding requests are evaluated, ensuring proper due diligence, while being nimble. That includes helping nonprofits with the application process and empowering Foundation staff to take more informed risk in helping grantees.

Without sacrificing structure, he's encouraging less internal hierarchy and rigidity, and more sharing of ideas throughout the organization.

Williams said he intends to visit all 29 communities the Foundation serves, learn what's happening and how the Foundation can be more helpful. The smaller communities' issues are as relevant to the Foundation as Hartford's, he said.

JoAnn H. Price, chair of the Foundation board, said Williams is off to a good start, reaching out to the communities to learn their opportunities and challenges.

"He's hearing all of it and he wants to hear it sort of uncensored," Price said. "He really listens — and you learn a lot when you're not talking all the time."

Williams also has done a good job internally with staff — building, aligning and realigning the team, she said.

Williams, who was mayor of Youngstown, Ohio, from 2006 to 2011, intends to watch closely the city of Hartford in 2018, hoping to see structural changes for future stability and he'll look for ways the Foundation might help facilitate that.

He also wants to see Hartford Public Schools Superintendent Leslie Torres-Rodriguez succeed in her quest to improve neighborhood schools.

The city of Hartford's wellbeing will impact the region's wellbeing, but regional wellbeing issues separate from Hartford's top the Foundation's agenda, too, he said.

"I want them at the end of 2018 to know and to have felt that this organization recognizes their value, is investing in ways that increases that value," Williams said.

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