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Investment Savvy from Liberty Hill's Brain Trust

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Posted by Susan LaTempa

Talk about expert intelligence and investment savvy! The 17 hard-working members of Liberty Hill's "investment advisors" (known internally as our Community Funding Board) commit long hours and megawatts of mental energy over an intensive six-week period to review and make recommendations on which proposals Liberty Hill should invest in. They are college professors, staff organizers at nonprofits, donor-activists, government employees with community-organization backgrounds-- in short, a diverse think-tank bringing deep experience and expertise about social-justice organizing, Los Angeles, specific issues and specific perspectives.

They aren't paid, but they participate anyhow, because they support Liberty Hill's community-led grant making process which is nearly unique in the nation. And they participate because they know the stakes are high. Can they help invest Liberty Hill's $1.4 million in grant money in a way that will significantly advance L.A.'s social justice movements?

The process works like this: First, they gather for a weeknight working dinner and orientation, where they are given an overview of the assessment process and assigned to teams.

Says Isella Ramirez, Co-Executive Director of East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice and one of this year's board members,  "What I really appreciate about this process is the pool of folks involved. There are various of levels and areas of expertise. Whether you're looking at organizing or economic development or communications--all the different bones that create the skeleton of a successful organization--all those experts work together."

At orientation, the board members are introduced to The Binder, a three-inch, three-ring (three-pound?) reference tool for each of them that includes analyses and statistics, summaries, and copies of other proposals on the docket (there were a total of 79 this year of an initial 115 applicants), as well as a to-do list and outline of their responsibilities (eek!).

High on the to-do lists are site visits to the community groups being considered. The visits must be set up and accomplished within a very few weeks, so the evaluators must find time not only to travel somewhere in L.A. County/Southern California for a few-hours meeting, but also, before each visit, to review the proposal and prepare a list of questions to be discussed at the visit. They also complete an online assessment questionnaire for each group visited.

Ange-marie "I was really pleased with the openness of the process," comments first-time member Ange-Marie Hancock, Associate Professor of Political Science at USC. "Yes, it's rigorous. I think some organizations learned a lot from the process in terms of what was expected. It forced some of the newer groups-- because some are literally one or two  years old-- to ask themselves questions they hadn't yet addressed."

 After site visits and more homework, the members gather for the culminating all-day session. Teams break out for high-level analysis of the social justice landscape in L.A. They define where the most urgent needs and promising campaigns exist.  They then present their landscape analyses, proposal assessments and funding recommendations to the group at large, fielding tough questions, defending their analysis and priorities.

The result? In-depth, nuanced assessments of dozens of L.A.'s newest and more seasoned social-justice organizations. And a blueprint for change in the coming year.

 AnandSays Anand Pandya, Vice-Chair, Department of Psychiatry and Director of Adult Inpatient Psychiatry at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, "This cycle helped me appreciate the degree to which strategies used by social justice groups are shifting. It definitely gave me a sense of where things are heading, which is very rich, very interesting." Plus, as an experienced nonprofit board member, he notes "The review process is different at Liberty Hill in the categories by which it evaluates organizations."

The Community Funding Board's assessments are then subject to additional analysis by Liberty Hill staff including the cost of work for which funding is requested and an aggregate analysis of where Liberty Hill investment can have the most impact strategically.

In 2010, Liberty Hill was able to invest $1,448,500 into low-income communities and communities of color from Long Beach to Pacoima to Venice to advance LGBTQ, economic, and environmental justice.

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