News and analysis
September 29, 2014

Domestic-Violence Prevention Groups See Media Attention but Few Dollars

The NFL’s fumbling response to its continuing domestic-violence crisis has brought gobs of media attention to the issue. But will it bring in the philanthropic dollars?

Based on precedent, advocates aren’t counting on it.

Since passing the Violence Against Women Act 20 years ago this month, Congress has distributed more than $5-billion in grants to combat domestic violence and its root causes.

The philanthropic response, however, has been slower and shallower, focused largely on crisis intervention as opposed to the underlying attitudes that breed violent behavior.

With corporations hesitant to give, foundations focusing elsewhere, and donors preferring shelters and other services for people who have been abused, little money goes to statewide associations and other organizations working on prevention.

"We as a society have to start dealing with this and talking about it," says Carol Kurzig, president of the Avon Foundation for Women.

Corporate Support

To be sure, there are exceptions—Avon chief among them. Since 2004, the beauty giant’s foundation has given more than $31-million to the cause, much of it to education, outreach, and advocacy. In the U.S., Avon, Allstate, Verizon, and Mary Kay belong to a small cadre of corporations with dedicated charitable programs addressing domestic violence.

"It’s a pretty short list," says Cindy Southworth, vice president for development and innovation at the National Network to End Domestic Violence. "I could tick them off on one hand—two if I stretch it."

Avon’s involvement began after a study by the consulting group McKinsey highlighted the importance of domestic violence to the cosmetics company’s customers as well as philanthropic neglect of the issue.

"They told us we could make the biggest difference because there were so few funders in this area," Ms. Kurzig says.

Even with the insight, Avon hesitated—worried the company would seem, as Ms. Kurzig says, "anti-male" if it embraced the issue. Though the company eventually took McKinsey’s advice, those concerns about image help explain why domestic violence, despite its prevalence, has been a tough sell for corporate funders. Many don’t want to associate with a cause in which the perpetrator isn’t a faceless, malignant disease but a human being—and thus a consumer.

"It’s not always a feel-good issue that companies want to be identified with," says Michaele Cohen, executive director of the Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence. "It’s not the same as giving to poor people or to kids or something that’s really positive. It is a tough issue. And it’s really uncomfortable."

Foundation Support

Private foundations have a similarly thin track record when it comes to supporting domestic-violence organizations. Among the Foundation Center’s list of the 50 foundations with the largest assets, just one, the New York Community Trust, lists domestic violence as a field of interest.

One big grant maker, the NoVo Foundation, run by Warren Buffett’s son Peter and his wife, Jennifer, announced a 10-year, $80-million effort in 2010 that focuses on preventing violence against women. But such commitments are rare.

Earlier this year, the Foundation Center published a report on grant-maker funding to address domestic violence in California, which it billed as "the first-ever examination of philanthropy’s contribution to the field of domestic violence." The results, which covered 2002 to 2011, were a mixed bag.

Though annual giving to all domestic violence groups in the state rose from $8-million to $11.3-million during the decade, the percentage of the state's overall grant dollars going to those organizations remained flat at 0.4 percent. The study also revealed that one organization, the Blue Shield of California Foundation, spent more than four times as much as any other grant maker on domestic-violence programs from 2009 to 2011. (The Blue Shield of California Foundation financed the Foundation Center report.)

The study also found that a "vast majority" of grant dollars went to "direct services to abuse victims and their families." Domestic-violence prevention accounted for a third of funds spent.

"In terms of what was being supported, a lot of the funding was focused on crisis and shelter relief," says Brenda Henry-Sanchez, the report’s co-author. "It was interesting to see that not a larger share was going toward domestic-violence prevention activity."

Government Reliance

Advocates like Ms. Southworth say the biggest challenge in their field may be donor reluctance to tackle the systemic changes that will reduce incidences of domestic violence long term.

"We’re not going to end domestic violence by providing shelter," she says, arguing that philanthropists should target the "imbalance in gender roles" that gives rise to abusive behavior.

At the state level, domestic-violence prevention, education, and advocacy tend to be the domain of statewide coalitions, which are overwhelmingly dependent on government dollars. A Chronicle analysis of 48 statewide domestic-violence organizations found that government grants made up almost 95 percent of the total contributions reported by those groups on their most recent informational tax returns filed with the Internal Revenue Service.

Ms. Cohen’s Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence, for instance, reported $502,087 in government grants, compared to just $550 from fundraisers and $2,246 in "other contributions." The local shelters and service providers that make up the network’s membership received far more private support. House of Ruth Maryland, a Baltimore charity that runs a shelter and other services, reported almost $2-million in "other contributions" on its 2013 informational tax return. Another group in the area, TurnAround, got just under half a million dollars.

Those disparities reflect both a general donor inclination to provide direct support over more nebulous preventative help, says Ms. Cohen, as well as a hurdle particular to the domestic-violence field.

"One of the challenges of coalitions is that a lot of our local domestic-violence programs also raise money in our community," she says. "We have to be sure to not go after funders that also fund our local programs."

Ms. Cohen notes that many statewide coalitions have formal or informal noncompete clauses with local shelters when it comes to raising money. Looking at the numbers, it’s easy to see why. According to a shelter census conducted by the National Network to End Domestic Violence, nearly 10,000 requests for services went unmet on a given day last year because of capacity constraints. The result, however, is that many of the organizations responsible for carrying domestic-violence prevention are limited in how much money they can raise.

Many statewide coalitions, Ms. Cohen says, don’t even consider seeking private donors. Her organization is hoping to open that spigot in the coming years, but the transition has been difficult for a group unused to soliciting outside money.

"I think everyone is increasingly aware that we have to find ways to become sustainable," she says.

A Long-Term Strategy

On that front, some of the larger, better-funded statewide coalitions have taken the lead. The Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence wants to increase its private funding from 1 percent of revenue to 25 percent. Currently, the coalition draws about a tenth of its revenue from nongovernmental sources. The Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence recently started a separate foundation and set a goal to raise $25-million in private funding over the next 10 years.

Dee Baker, the Pennsylvania coalition’s first-ever development director, says her organization hoped to meet its fundraising goal by next summer. She now says that benchmark was "overly optimistic" but believes the coalition can continue to make inroads with donors.

"If we had an extra million dollars, we could really make a lot of change happen," says Ms. Baker. "But we probably need another five years to get there."

Editor's note: This story was updated to include that the Foundation Center study was only for domestic violence organizations in California. It was also updated on October first to correct the amount of money going to domestic violence groups in the state.