Innovative Nonprofits

Innovative Nonprofits

A unique directory helps breakthrough nonprofits be discovered.

As a former college English professor beginning a career in philanthropy as the Executive Director of my family’s charitable foundation, I was struck by how easy it was to identify the larger nonprofits in the areas of the foundation’s mission. Either I found them or, more often, they found me.  But locating trustworthy, smaller nonprofits that were really making a difference on the front lines of change seemed a much more difficult challenge. Who were they? Where were they?  And if I was having trouble finding them, were other potential donors having the same problem as well?

So fourteen years ago, when the Harman Family Foundation founded the Catalogue for Philanthropy: Greater Washington, the idea was a simple one: identify the best community-based nonprofits in the region with budgets below $3 million; create an attention-seizing guide to giving for high net-worth donors in a region characterized both by enormous wealth and tremendous need; and educate donors about nonprofits operating on the front lines – those doing important work but needing and deserving greater visibility and resources.

The charities we feature in the Catalogue meet the highest standards.  They aren’t likely to be reviewed by the usual rating organizations (they are too small), so we use an evaluation process involving a review team that now includes 120 local experts.  We affirm that applicants are meeting genuine community needs, that their programs and strategies for addressing those needs are excellent, and that they are making an impact on the communities they serve. We also take a good look at each applicant’s financial information to judge its cost-effectiveness and transparency. Applicants pay no fees to be part of the Catalogue network.

In the first year, an investment of $100,000 to create the Catalogue yielded a significant return: half a million dollars in funds raised for the first cohort of 64 charities – nonprofits of all kinds in the environment, arts, education, human services, and international areas (international NGOs must be headquartered in metropolitan Washington). In recent years the Catalogue has raised over $4 million annually (over $34 million to date), and has increasingly become the go-to resource for individual and family giving in the region, with just shy of 10,000 donors having contributed to over 500 charities.  Donors are able to tap the region’s network of community-based nonprofits, and nonprofits gain the visibility, credibility, and resources they need to grow.

The Harman Family Foundation spearheaded the project, but the ultimate goal was to create a freestanding, genuinely community-supported initiative.  And in 2006, we successfully spun off the Catalogue into an independent public charity.

One organization that the Catalogue helped our foundation to discover was Critical Exposure.  It intrigued us because it engages teens after school (a good reason to come to school and stay there), uses the arts to get them hooked (give a kid a camera and see what happens), and has an outsized impact in its use of photography as advocacy.  Through partnerships with DC high schools and after school programs, student photographers choose an important community issue, document it through powerful images, and then use their work in direct advocacy on behalf of issues like the school-to-prison pipeline, the lack of decent school libraries, or the need for community gardens in food-insecure neighborhoods.

What struck us from the start – and this is true in many low-income communities – was that students began with little sense that they had voices, that they even had the right to make a statement, or to occupy space in the world.  The camera lens gave them the power to frame things, to choose, to name, to own.  Standing before a city council or a school board to make the case – and then to win the case – meant that they were being empowered in many more ways than one. Believing in the power of the arts to generate in young people a statement – “I create, therefore I am” – is amplified when “I am” becomes “we can” as well.


Critical Exposure is one of the innovative non-profits featured in the Catalogue.

So many young people whom we meet lack the belief that their voices are worth hearing, that they have what I would call “standing” in the world.  And if they don’t believe that, then it’s hard to imagine from what base they will begin to learn.  So for us, arts programs and educational enrichment programs, and school programs that address the real needs of young people, are doing much more than simply keeping kids off the streets or teaching a particular creative skill.  They are taking steps on that long road to building confidence, to creating a belief in oneself that many of us take for granted but that kids who grow up in poverty do not.

I see this most profoundly when I visit schools that have developed tremendous programs to address the needs of youth who have not been provided access to the quality education that they need and who arrive years behind their more affluent peers in numeracy and literacy.  But as good as the educational programs are, they only succeed when the students’ social and emotional needs are also met.

Doing both is no mean feat, but not doing both means that even the best educational programs are unlikely to succeed:  students who can’t say “I am” will unwittingly impede, if not sabotage, their own learning.  One extraordinary school in Washington, DC that is addressing this issue head-on is Monument Academy, which we are featuring for the first time in the 2016-17 Catalogue. A public charter boarding school for homeless children and children in the foster care system, it is building social-emotional learning into its curriculum and its boarding program as an essential feature of its work.

This doesn’t mean that academic standards don’t matter: they do.  But it does mean that we need to understand and address the full range of needs if we are going to make any progress at all, especially for the most vulnerable among us. Kids at Monument are on a long and hard journey toward selfhood, and that means that they have a doubly challenging task, but one that caring adults, and caring philanthropists, can help to make possible.

These are just two examples of the many nonprofits we have discovered in creating the Catalogue for Philanthropy – and they speak to our foundation’s commitment to supporting organizations that meet young people where they are, and equip them to grow, learn, and take their places in our community as active and engaged citizens. I do not think we would have found them were it not for the Catalogue. Many others have already discovered Critical Exposure, and it is our hope that they will soon discover Monument Academy as well.

At the Harman Family Foundation, we have deepened our own knowledge about what is happening right here in our nation’s capital, a city that by rights should be a leader in addressing issues of income inequality and inequality of opportunity. We now know who is doing work of particular importance that addresses key problems from multiple perspectives and has great impact for that very reason. Discovering these organizations through our work on the Catalogue for Philanthropy – and sharing that work with others – has given us a new way of thinking about our community, and a new way of thinking about the kind of impact we could create by zeroing in on Washington, DC, our hometown, and helping to create a more equitable community here.  We also believe that we have developed in the Catalogue a superb and difference-making model that could transform local giving and – as a potential model for other cities to replicate – transform philanthropy across the nation.

Barbara Harman is Founder and President of the Catalogue for Philanthropy: Greater Washington and Executive Director of the Harman Family Foundation.


Catalogue for Philanthropy: Greater Washington


Harman Family Foundation