Funding Program helps UUs' social justice dreams come true

Funding Program helps UUs' social justice dreams come true

In 2012, fund dispersed more than $1M to advance innovative UU projects.
Donald E. Skinner
Members of the UU Legislative Ministry of New Jersey campaign for marriage equality.
Members of the UU Legislative Ministry of New Jersey campaign for marriage equality.


If you ever doubt that Unitarian Universalist congregations are changing the world, you should trade places with Hillary Goodridge and Susan Adams.

They are, respectively, the director and grants administrator of the Unitarian Universalist Funding Program, the place where UUs go for help with financing their big, bright, transformational ideas.

Last year the program gave out just over $1 million in grants, ranging from $300 for a voter registration volunteer training in Virginia to $20,000 to help organize interfaith support for homeless people in California.

Goodridge and Adams are the entire staff of the program, which operates out of offices in Jamaica Plain, Mass., a neighborhood of Boston.

"It is such a privilege to help steward this money," said Goodridge. "It is so inspiring to hear about the work that UUs and others are doing on shoestrings. We spend time talking with applicants, feeling their passion and their willingness to take risks. And every cycle a proposal comes to us that just makes me cry."

The work of actually approving the grants falls to volunteer boards for each of the four funds that comprise the UUFP. Grants are made twice a year, in the spring and the fall. "It's a lot of work for these boards," said Goodridge. "They meet for one to three days each cycle and give each application a lot of attention. Our meetings are very exciting. Conversations can get heated because people feel very strongly about the proposals, and there is not money to fund them all. Our panel members are far more engaged with our applicants than at most foundations, and they bring amazing experience, insight, and wisdom to the table. If all of philanthropy was as transparent and progressive as our panel members practice it, the world would be a far better place."

The four funds under the UUFP umbrella are the Fund for Unitarian Universalism, Fund for International Unitarian Universalism, Fund for Unitarian Universalist Social Responsibility, and Fund for a Just Society. The funds, and the operation of the program office itself, are supported by the Unitarian Universalist Veatch Program at Shelter Rock, which is a program of the UU Congregation at Shelter Rock in Manhasset, N.Y. At the same time, Adams and Goodridge are considered UUA staff.

The Veatch Program, which has its own grants program separate from the UUFP, came into existence after Caroline Veatch, a member of the Shelter Rock congregation, bequeathed oil and natural gas royalty rights to the congregation in the 1950s. The UU Funding Program is one of the largest recipients of Veatch Program funds.

Successful applications

Here's the inside information on how to make your application rise to the top, when applying for UUFP funds. "We look for a strong commitment to the project with a diverse group of people engaged in it," said Goodridge. "We look for a clear strategy, an action plan, and a demonstrated need for this project."

Adams added, "These proposals represent such exciting things happening in congregations and organizations. The campaigns that we help fund push back against injustice and inequity and it's wonderful to know that my work helps to facilitate the dreams and good work of so many."

Adams likes to tend the UUFP booth at General Assembly each year, where many people are still "astonished" that money might be available to support their dreams. She said she and Goodridge read as many as 150 proposals each grant cycle.

And what will get a proposal politely rejected? Goodridge explains: "If there is only one individual involved with it, or if it's something that a congregation should do on its own, like pay the minister or become a Welcoming Congregation. Or if it involves a building renovation." Also, holes in a grant application will sink it. She hesitates to say it, but applications from non-UUs often take less time to process than those from UUs. "It's a matter of taking the time to read the guidelines and instructions to complete the application," she says gently.

Another tip: demonstrate that you can raise funds from other sources. Be open to a challenge grant, for example. Goodridge notes that challenge grants are increasingly made when a UUFP grant is made. "They increase a group's courage in fundraising. We are not set up to be sustaining funders, and it's important that the projects find other sources."

The four funds all have different perspectives.

The Fund for Unitarian Universalism entertains projects that strengthen UU institutions and community life – innovative online practices, new types of worship, history projects, and multi-congregation learning experiences.

The Fund for UU Social Responsibility funds projects that increase UU involvement in social justice.

The Fund for International Unitarian Universalism supports UU international projects.

The Fund for a Just Society makes grants to non-UU groups using community organizing to create systemic change.

Nancy Reid-McKee, a longtime social justice advocate at the Granite Peak UU Congregation in Prescott, Ariz., had long had a dream of organizing UUs in Arizona around immigration and other issues. In 2009 she applied for and got a small grant from the Fund for UU Social Responsibility to begin that work. Since then the project has earned several more grants, now totaling more than $28,000. "It made all the difference," she said. "With that money we were able to bring in an organizer to work with us. We're developing a congregation-based model of community organizing that will connect most of the UU congregations in Arizona through UU Justice Arizona [UUJAZ], a state UU network.

"We're also developing close relationships with immigrant communities here in Prescott, and we're creating a local interfaith group including Mormons and Methodists. If we'd had something like this in place earlier we might have stopped the legislature from passing SB 1070 [an anti-immigrant measure that has been copied by other states]."

Reid-McKee added, "Without the UUFP money we could have done some of the local work, but there would be no interfaith connections and no state advocacy network."

In New Jersey, the funding panel has advanced justice efforts on several fronts.

The UU Legislative Ministry of New Jersey was awarded more than $30,000 in the past two years to build a social justice network among the 21 congregations there. Representatives of the ministry have spoken out about gun violence, advocated for marriage equality, opposed fracking, and engaged in a minimum-wage campaign.

The funding program is also providing a key part of the support for the new AWAKE Ministries at the UU Church of Annapolis, Md. "I call it contemporary Unitarian Universalism," says the Rev. John Crestwell Jr., associate minister. AWAKE includes a Tuesday night worship service designed to attract people of color, youth, young adults, and others, with lots of music, an emphasis on life coaching, and interaction from congregants. AWAKE also has a prison ministry and a mentoring program. "It's working," said Crestwell. "But we would not have been able to start this without UUFP funding. It got us off the ground."

Goodridge is quick to claim only a small role in making these projects happen. "They're the ones doing all the hard work. Our part is easier. We simply move money from the haves to the have-nots."

Are there segments of the UU universe the funding program doesn't hear from? "We don't hear as much from marginalized populations – LGBT, UUs of color, Latino/Latinas, young people," she said.

Goodridge notes that the funds will make grants for a second and sometimes third year of a project, with the amount generally diminishing each year. The UUFP has also provided key funding over the years for many landmark UU programs, including the UU Legislative Ministry of California, the Our Whole Lives sexuality education program, the Church of the Larger Fellowship, the Beacon House community ministry in Washington, D.C., marriage equality campaigns in various states, and many LGBT initiatives. "What a privilege it has been to fund these, to be a part of changing the world," Goodridge said.

Photograph (above): Members of the UU Legislative Ministry of New Jersey campaign for marriage equality. Their work has been assisted by the UU Funding Program, which has provided money for the state to build a social justice network among New Jersey's 21 congregations. (© UULMNJ).