February 17, 2021

by Neel Hajra, Former AAACF CEO

I’m surely not alone in wanting to leave 2020 in the rearview mirror. Some reflection on what transpired will help us keep at the forefront the many lessons learned and how to move forward for continued impact on our community. As we have closed the books on 2020 and are undergoing our annual independent audit, I want to reflect on the foundation’s past year. The extraordinarily challenging year was also the convergence of many institutional milestones for AAACF and for me — the completion of a five-year strategic plan developed when I first became CEO, the tenth year of my tenure at AAACF, and the launch by our board and staff of new core values that guided us in 2020 and will propel us forward for years to come.

Core Value: Prioritizing Community

Our role as Washtenaw County’s community endowment gives us a rare ability to take the long view on community challenges and opportunities. Even so, 2020 forced us to set aside some of our long-term plans in deference to the crisis at hand. We responded by distributing nearly $8 million in grants and scholarships last year, by far the most ever by AAACF. While many of our grants have few or no strings attached (something we’re proud of), $2 million in grants were specifically earmarked for COVID response and relief and we know many millions more were used by nonprofits to help people weather the storm.

We also pushed ourselves to make even more assets available to the community. We rapidly designed and launched a new nonprofit loan program and issued a record $245,000 in no-interest loans to help local nonprofits manage their short-term cash crunches.

And finally, for the first time in our history we started investing locally with our permanent endowment — we now invest $1.7 million of our endowment locally to promote a more equitable local economy. As we grow, we’ll continue to increase the amount of investment capital we circulate locally. That means in addition to distributing grants and scholarships from the investment returns from endowment, some of the investments themselves will also produce local social impact.

Core Value: Pursuing Equity

Speaking of equity, after nearly three years of intentional development, AAACF publicly launched the EmpowerMENt Fund to uplift young black men in Washtenaw County while promoting their educational success. The initiative has already issued $30,000 in grants including support to Mentor2Youth for their Raising Royalty Program that creates a community of mentoring for young Black males. We are excited to continue growing the fund and this work in the coming years.

We also know that Ypsilanti, a city with a rich and proud heritage, faces a range of challenging inequities. This year in particular we directed even more of our grants and resources to Eastern Washtenaw County. We were also thrilled to receive our largest gift ever for Ypsilanti: $1.8 million for our sole affiliate, Ypsilanti Area Community Fund, and several endowments for Ypsilanti-based nonprofits (be sure to read the e-news story on this milestone). We will continue to dedicate significant resources to reducing inequities in the Ypsilanti area.

Core Value: Earning Trust

Stepping up in 2020 alongside us were our donors — countless individuals who chose to advance Washtenaw County through AAACF. They collectively expressed their trust in us by donating over $20 million to AAACF, the vast majority of which were for permanent funds. These 2020 gifts represent our most ever by living donors and the second-most ever overall. We will never take for granted the thousands of donors who have entrusted us with their hopes and dreams for a better Washtenaw County.

To that end, we now steward over $175 million in charitable assets — a sizable jump for our institution boosted by investment returns of approximately 13.3% last year. We’ll continue to work to earn the trust not just of our donors but of thousands of other community stakeholders across Washtenaw County who justifiably want to see AAACF produce as much impact as possible from our growing assets.

Core Value: Leveraging Knowledge

“Knowledge” comes in many forms and we blended traditional and new approaches in 2020 as we continue our transformation into a data-driven organization. During the pandemic we knew that we didn’t have all the answers on how to best serve those in crisis. So we looked to members within the communities we were trying to help for their wisdom experience, networks, and knowledge. We deployed hundreds of thousands of dollars of grants through neighborhood associations and community groups and leveraged their knowledge to maximize the benefit of these funds.

We also ramped up our efforts to use research and data, both qualitative and quantitative, to better inform ourselves and the entire community. In 2020 we released the AAACF Washtenaw County Capital Research Report, the first research of its kind to establish an independent and objective understanding of the local investing ecosystem. We plan to use our findings to get more involved in Washtenaw County’s local economy and we’re determined to play a role in making our economy more equitable for everyone.

In 2021 we’ll ride our research momentum by releasing another new report we commissioned on the older adult service and resource ecosystem in Washtenaw County. This report will be a critical next step for our community to develop better approaches to enable healthy & fulfilling aging for all in Washtenaw County.

Core Value: Enhancing Collaboration

I could understand a perception that we took a step backward on this value by exiting Coordinated Funding, a ten-year partnership that did a lot of good for many years. Our decision was not contrary to our values but rather in service of them. 2020 taught us that philanthropy needs to be more nimble, more creative, and more responsive to better serve the community. For a variety of reasons, Coordinated Funding as a partnership couldn’t move in this direction even though each partner was able to evolve in new ways. Put differently, the sum was no longer greater than its parts. Exiting the partnership creates more opportunities to work with the same and new partners in ways that are more dynamic and impactful as we continue our commitment to funding human services. We continue to engage in a multitude of partnerships with local, regional, and national groups for the benefit of Washtenaw County and will double down on new collaborative opportunities in the coming years.

In Conclusion

It took the foundation 52 years to reach $75 million in assets and just five years later we now steward over $175 million. Our rapid growth during this period was driven by our passionate commitment to deep impact, which in turn inspired $85 million in gifts from equally passionate donors. It was also the result of prudent investing and went hand-in-hand with record levels of grant and scholarship distributions. We’re aware that our recent growth stands in contrast with the struggles within our community especially during the pandemic. We take seriously our responsibility to ensure that our new scale results in less suffering and more thriving by residents throughout Washtenaw County.

I have said for years that our assets are an expression of our potential, but not of our impact. So how do we make sure we realize our full potential? Our new core values are a critical starting point, and stay tuned in 2021 for more concrete answers on how we plan to amplify our service across Washtenaw County even more. So let’s bid farewell to 2020 but never forget the calls to action that emerged from it. AAACF must continue to do better — and we will.