Funder’s Forum: The Cooper Foundation

Since 1934 the Cooper Foundation has invested in education, human services, the arts, the humanities, and the environment. The foundation makes grants to nonprofit organizations located and working in Nebraska, primarily Lincoln and Lancaster County. Foundation Center asked Art Thompson, its president:

Q: How did the foundation come to determine the geographic scope of its work? And how do you approach evaluation and know when you're successful, particularly for your arts and humanities grantmaking, which can be hard to quantify?

“When the Cooper Foundation was founded in 1934, we made grants in a number of states where our founder, Joseph H. Cooper, owned movie theatre interests, lived, or had family. He died in 1946, and the foundation sold Cooper Theatres, Inc. in 1975. Our board then limited grants to Nebraska, since we no longer had business outside the state. In more recent years, as our endowment gyrated with the stock market, the board decided to emphasize Lincoln while still considering some proposals from greater Nebraska.

“Where a foundation is located can be an important factor for smaller foundations. Our endowment is of such a size (ranging this year from $23.5 million to almost $25 million) that we find a more narrow geographic scope makes possible a reasonable number of grants at levels that can make a difference. And by that I do not mean huge grants — our high for this year is $50,000 while typically that would be $25,000 — but I do mean amounts that are meaningful relative to the applicant organization and the proposal at hand. Giving locally also allows us to get to know applicants better and to develop deeper relationships. Because we work across many sectors we also get a good overview of how work gets done in our community.

“We have a long history of supporting arts and humanities and believe that initiatives in these areas are as essential to the community as our other three funding priorities (education, human services, and the environment). Our goal is to support strong, sustainable organizations, innovative ideas, and ventures of significant promise from well-established nonprofit organizations with strong fiscal management and highly engaged staff and board members. We look for compelling programs and strategies that our funding can help move forward. That goal does not preclude our funding younger organizations or some that do not meet the strong and sustainable criteria.

“In our evaluation process we concentrate on the management and finances of the organization as well as the purpose of the proposal. Regardless of the organization, most of our evaluation occurs on the front end, when we first talk with applicants about their ideas. We do this for two reasons:

  • We want funded proposals to succeed.
  • Our staff of three needs to direct its time where it will be most fruitful.

“The applicant's purpose is as important as their financial status and processes. The way an organization manages and tracks its finances says a lot about its capacity, leadership, and ability to succeed with the proposal. Responses to our evaluation questions often clarify how well the applicant has thought through the idea; they also lay the foundation for the final grant report. We take a holistic approach to evaluating success, including program quality, needs served, and organizational capacity. We also want to understand how an applicant will define success and the objective measures they will use.

“We know that not all the grants we approve will work the way the applicant hoped, regardless of our evaluation at the beginning stages. But we have found that, generally, this process works as well in the arts and humanities as it does for education, human services, and the environment. We believe this is true because of the correlation between strong management, fiscal discipline, board leadership, and successful outcomes.”

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