Which Private Foundations Are Funding Entrepreneurship?

Funding an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem, Image via Pexels

A growing trend in entrepreneur ecosystem development has been quietly emerging over the last few years: an increase in the number of foundations that not only recognize the vital role entrepreneurs play in building communities but that also are willing to fund entrepreneur ecosystem development.

In fact, a report published by the International Economic Development Council (IEDC) in 2016 noted that 51% of the survey respondents received funding from community foundations. Nationally, we are seeing an uptick in the number of calls we are fielding from foundations who wish to engage in the entrepreneurial development space.

Although there are a handful of larger grant makers who have been well-known for years for their contributions to business development and entrepreneur ecosystem-building in communities (e.g., the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, Blackstone Charitable Foundation, Skoll Foundation), many small and local foundations fly under the radar, contributing dollars to this effort without major announcements.

That lack of awareness and promotion results in missed opportunities for ecosystem builders and community economic development organizations to tap into new funding sources.

Melissa Roberts Chapman, senior program officer, Entrepreneurship, at the Kauffman Foundation, said there are several types of foundations and encouraged entrepreneurial ecosystem builders to understand the differences:

  • Community foundations support programs through donor-advised funds.
  • Operating foundations run their own suite of programs.
  • Grant-making foundations make grants under a strategy to fund charitable activities.

Chapman’s advice to ESOs about approaching foundations is “the best time to build a relationship with a foundation is yesterday.”

She advised not to wait until you have a proposal in hand for your idea or for a problem in your community you want to solve.

“It’s always a good idea to build relationships upfront if you have the opportunity,” she said. “And I think a really good way to do that is to have conversations about issues that are of shared interest. People work in philanthropy because they have a shared connection to the mission, because they have a passion for the work. You’d be hard pressed to find someone who’s in the program officer role or actively managing grants that isn’t interested in having a conversation.”

To get started exploring the possibility of foundation grants for your entrepreneur ecosystem-building endeavors, check out a list that Caroline Pringle and Lili Torok of Endeavor Insights compiled in a 2015 report called “Foundations Leading through Entrepreneurship.” The report identifies more than 100 U.S. foundations that are funding entrepreneurship initiatives (e.g., entrepreneurship education and training, incubators, and innovation competitions) in their communities.

In addition to the foundations listed in the Endeavor Insights’ report, here is a list of several entrepreneurship development organizations (some are SourceLink clients; some are not) that have worked with foundations to acquire funding. It gives you an idea of the scope of entrepreneurship projects foundations support as well as the broader mission of each.

  1. Bloomberg Philanthropies is working with National League of Cities’ City Innovation Ecosystems to support programs that collect, track and share critical information on COVID-19 in more than 500 local municipalities across the United States. NLC’s City Innovation Ecosystems is funded in part by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.
  2. Community Foundation of Southeast Michigan funds, among other projects, the New Economy Initiative, a regional network supporting entrepreneurs and small businesses. NEI is charged with creating a culture of entrepreneurship in southeast Michigan.
  3. The George Kaiser Family Foundation committed $50 million to Tulsa Innovation Labs to promote local talent, startups and academic innovation. TIL was founded in early 2020 to help Tulsa, Oklahoma, become a technology hub. So far, it has launched two programs.

    The first is the Holberton School, which plans to graduate 500 software engineers each year through a two-year program it has created. In the second program—TU-Team8 Cyber Fellowship—TIL works with the 10 doctoral students through the University of Tulsa who are focusing on turning cyber-related academic research into startup companies.

  4. Golden LEAF Foundation, established in 1999, was created to receive half the tobacco settlement money to funnel back into North Carolina’s rural and economically distressed communities. Currently, the Golden LEAF Foundation is funding the entrepreneurship work of the Thomas Entrepreneurship Hub located at the University of North Carolina – Pembroke. Golden LEAF’s contributions will fully fund implementation of a SourceLink platform that will serve 10 distressed North Carolina counties, six entrepreneurs-in-residence and a program manager. 
  5. The James Irvine Foundation carries out its mission to expand opportunity for Californians by providing funding that supports work with microenterprise businesses and reveals insights into the economic impact of those businesses. Included is funding for The Resource Navigator for the Microenterprise Collaborative of Inland Southern California in Riverside and San Bernardino counties in California. It serves as the portal of the area’s small business resources, connecting small business owners to the help they need to launch and manage successful businesses.
  6. JPMorgan Chase Foundation is working with the New Orleans Business Alliance. In addition to several other COVID-19 relief measures NOLABO launched for businesses, it was able to aid an established consortium of local CDFIs to support small businesses owned by people of color, thanks to $500,000 in funding it received from the JPMorgan Chase Foundation. Other foundations that contributed funds to NOLABO relief programs included Kresge Foundation, Surdna Foundation and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.
  7.  The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation supports inclusive and equitable engagement in communities where the Knight brothers owned and operated newspapers. In June 2020, the foundation announced a $750,000 investment split evenly among three organizations—Black Girl Ventures, Culture Shift Labs and The Plug—to help expand opportunities for Black and Latino entrepreneurs in Miami, Florida.
  8. Lilly Endowment Inc. provided two rounds of grant funding for three community foundations in northwest Indiana to develop a regional ecosystem that supports entrepreneurship. Part of the funding is being used to implement SourceLink’s Resource Navigator platform. The trio consists of The Legacy Foundation (Lake County, Indiana); Crown Point Community Foundation (Crown Point, Indiana), and Unity Foundation (LaPorte County, Indiana).
  9. Puerto Rico Science, Technology and Research Trust is a global innovation hub whose mission is to invest, facilitate and build capacity to advance Puerto Rico’s economy through innovation-driven enterprises, science and technology and its industrial base. One of the initiatives it is currently funding is Colmena66, a SourceLink-fueled platform that connects entrepreneurs and business owners in Puerto Rico with ESOs and other resources that can provide specific help for launching, managing and growing businesses.
  10. Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation invests in the economic growth of 20 counties in south central and southeastern Minnesota. The foundation was launched during the 1980s’ farm crisis and has invested more than $114 million in the region since 1986. Their Economic Impact Grant Program provides funding for applicants who desire to create solutions for launching or increasing entrepreneurial processes that bolster economic opportunities.

    SMIF currently funds Rural Entrepreneurial Ventures, a program created to help small communities in southern Minnesota “to grow their own” and work toward creating a community climate in which entrepreneurs thrive. REV is also supported by Blandin Foundation, whose mission is to strengthen rural Minnesota communities.

    Another initiative SMIF supports is Grow North MN, a statewide network using The Resource Navigator to accelerate and connect more than 200 resource partners in Minnesota’s food and agricultural entrepreneur and innovation ecosystem.

If you would like help approaching your local foundation with an entrepreneurship development request I’m available and eager to talk. We’ve helped many communities tap into these funding resources and would love to chat about how we might support you.

>>Read more: How to Fund Entrepreneurship Ecosystem Building Initiatives