Funding the Movement: An Interview with Kathy Sharkey of PDF

By: Ruby Maddox

Kathleen Sharkey, Director of Communication and Outreach for the Peace Development Fund
Kathleen Sharkey, Director of Communication and Outreach for the Peace Development Fund

I recently interviewed Kathleen Sharkey, Director of Communication and Outreach for the Peace Development Fund (PDF). PDF is a public foundation that works exclusively with Community-based Organizations (CBOs). The foundation has been around since 1981 and makes small grants to community organizations with budgets of around $500,000 or less working on peace and social justice issues. Every year PDF open its doors to any organization that would like to apply and as Kathy explains, “We like to fund early and with small grants.”

What is your role at PDF?
As the Director of Communications and Outreach I do two things, which is all the communications for the org, but I also am in charge of a new initiative, which is our technical assistance training program. That is a program that just started this year. We have 5 orgs from across the U.S. who have applied and been accepted into what is a 3 year program to provide them training and coaching on fundraising, board development, and financial management.

How did you get started in this work?
Well I went to Mount Holyoke College, and after college I started working in the nonprofit sector. I did one small stint in the for-profit sector and immediately got out of it. I’ve been working for nonprofits ever since. I’ve worked in a variety of organizations, from schools and universities, to membership organizations, to museums, and PDF as well.

Why does PDF choose to work primarily with community-based organizations?
Very simply we think that change starts with the grassroots. It’s not something that’s imposed by a foundation. We don’t say, “We think you should all be doing this.” We make general support grants on issues where we think organizations have some traction, can get some traction, and start or make change.

What challenges do you feel community-based organizations face that are unique to their structure, leadership or missions, compared to national or large organizations?
Because CBOs tend to be small and underfunded one of the real challenges they have is sustaining leadership and sustaining volunteers. People tend to get burned out very fast because there are just too many things going on. From a foundation perspective, we really see that it’s important that we provide general operating support, not for specific programs. We’ve seen small organizations chase their tail around trying to create a program that a foundation is going to fund. Whereas we really believe that you, in the small org, you know the work that you need to do, you know your community, and you need some support to keep the lights on, and the fax machine going and the copier going and leaflet and do all that sort of thing. So we’re much more interested in providing small support, small grants where they can make an impact, rather than funding specific programs or established organizations. Although we do have special initiatives. We’ve had a criminal justice initiative, environmental justice initiative, we had a cross border initiative, all of those came out of work that we were seeing community organizations doing and needing to have some opportunity to network with each other on a national level. This is something as a national foundation we can do that a local community foundation can’t do. And we feel that we can really help them get to the next level with our training program.

What’s your organization’s Vision for community?pdf screen capture
Well we believe in fairness for everyone. Fair living wage, healthcare, sustainable environments, freedom from violence, the ability to get an education, it’s really a question of justice. Our tagline is Peace through Justice. We don’t think we can achieve peace if people aren’t feeling like they’re getting a fair share. And a lot of the violence that we see in our communities, we think is a result of an inequitable system. So give us $75,000 and we can make a really big difference with 15 organizations nationwide with $5000 grants. Give us half a million dollars and we might be able to change the world. We can trace back more impact from our grants than some larger foundations because we work with CBOs.

What advice would you give to community – based organizations?
Hang in there! (laughs) It’s a really tough road ahead and a lot of community-based organizations can get so down in the weeds and into the struggle that the struggle becomes all that they are doing, and they can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. I think this is one of the important benefits of being part of networks with organizations that are at a similar level. You can be inspired just by a simple or different way that one organization is doing something. And it’s so hard, I think, as a community-based organization to look out over that fence sometimes that you build around yourselves and see what else is happening on the other side of the fence. I think that’s another real benefit that PDF brings: with our grants and the desire to work in partnership with our grantees we can bring that national perspective. We can say “Gee, you should be looking at this other organization.” When I do our newsletter I’ll look at a whole bunch of organizations doing different things on a particular theme and try to bring that forward to our constituents as well. So as I would say hang in there, there’s no substitute for perseverance. And perseverance is what gets us through to the end.

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