A view of Boston's historic Pilot House from the harbor

Matt Conti

A Year That Changed Us All

Final reflections on 2020 and announcing plans to increase grant dollars by 25% in 2021.

As I write this, the first COVID-19 vaccines are being administered across the country and around the world – a hopeful turn in a year full of challenges that few could have imagined.

2020 began with promise and hope as we ushered in a new decade, but was soon upended by a global pandemic, to which we have already lost 300,000 lives. Each of these individuals was a family member, friend, colleague, and neighbor whose place at our holiday tables will be empty this year. We collectively mourn these deaths.

Following a series of senseless murders, 2020 was also a year that brought heightened awareness and a renewed reckoning with centuries of structural racism and anti-Blackness in our country.

These seminal events served as the backdrop for our work at the Barr Foundation in 2020. We listened carefully to our partners and sought to adapt and support them effectively, even as they were recalibrating what work was most urgent for them to do. We also identified new partners and allies to respond to the pandemic and to engage in the movement for greater racial equity and justice.

If I were to name a single theme that characterized their efforts this year, it would be this: dedication. Our partners’ leadership and commitment to serve their communities has never been more evident. And, as this exceptionally challenging year winds to a close, if there is a single, final message from me and my colleagues at Barr, it is this: we extend our profound gratitude and deep respect to those we are honored to serve through our grantmaking and related efforts.

We extend our profound gratitude and deep respect to those we are honored to serve.

And while we are certainly ready to put 2020 in our rearview mirrors, there have also been some silver linings, which will inform and strengthen our work into 2021 and beyond. To offer just a few examples, this year enabled us at Barr to:

  • Affirm and accelerate our commitment to advancing racial equity, as I outlined here in August. This builds on the diversity, equity and inclusion work we have been engaged in for several years, and which I shared about at the beginning of 2020. We are excited to advance new work in 2021 to demonstrate our commitment even more fully.
  • Provide greater flexibility and support to our grantees in the context of the pandemic. In the days following our shift to remote work, we described a series of steps we had taken with our grantees to offer flexibility and to respond to an evolving context. These many practices remained in effect for the balance of the year and will be with us as we turn to 2021. We joined nearly 800 foundation colleagues across the country who pledged to center the needs of grantees during COVID-19. Many of these practices should become the norm and continue, even when the pandemic recedes.
  • Commit in excess of $10 million to provide emergency support in response to the COVID-19 pandemic as well as to invest in front-line organizations serving immigrant communities and the Black community. Earlier this month, we announced that many of the grants we had awarded earlier this year were extended for a second year, with no additional paperwork, to recognize the ongoing needs in our communities, and the work of our partners to meet those needs.

Continuing on the theme of the positive developments of 2020, we also welcomed six new colleagues to Barr, three of whom joined us just prior to our shift to remote work in mid-March: Adrian Jones, executive assistant and manager of board operations; Giles Li, senior program officer for the arts; and Pouya Shahbodaghi, enterprise applications manager in our IT department. Later in the spring, Lynn Harwell joined us as our first-ever vice president for administration, and just in the past few weeks, we have welcomed Rory Neuner, learning officer, and Dylan Everett, program associate in education. Barr is enriched by the broad experience and diversity represented by this group of colleagues, and we look forward to the opportunity to have others meet our terrific new staff members in the months ahead.

Finally, as we look to 2021, I want to share an action taken by the Barr trustees earlier this month. As we reported at the beginning of this year, Barr has been engaged over the past several years in planning for future growth. Since I arrived at Barr in 2014, we have more than doubled our staff and our grantmaking has increased by more than 75%.

In 2021, the trustees have authorized a grants budget of between $115-120 million. This represents a more than 25% increase from our grantmaking levels in each of 2019 and 2020. The vast majority of this increase will be directed specifically to our deepened commitment to racial equity across the foundation, and these additive resources will enable our program teams to support work that makes that commitment tangible. These new resources will also permit us to identify new partners as well as to refine and deepen work with existing partners – all toward the goal of advancing a shared commitment to racial equity.

The vast majority of this increase will be directed specifically to our deepened commitment to racial equity across the foundation.

In the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, philanthropy responded with many messages of support and urgency and a surge of new dollars. I wrote a blog post entitled “Actions > Words” – because I felt then - as I do now - that for any of this work to make a real difference in the quest for racial justice, it will require concerted action and consistent engagement. This is long-term work that mandates our sustained focus and investment of resources, and we remain committed to both. You’ll continue to hear from me on what actions we are taking to demonstrate our commitment.

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