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Monday, August 26 News

New effort to address opportunity gaps in Fairfield County

NORWALK — A new fund aimed at tackling educational, workforce and other opportunity gaps among children, youth and families has been announced.

The Collective Impact Opportunity Fund is a collaboration between the BeFoundation, Dalio Philanthropies, Fairfield County’s Community Foundation, the Per & Astrid Heidenreich Family Foundation and the Ritter Family Foundation. Among them, the five organizations have contributed more than $1.6 million, which will begin to be allocated to public agencies and nonprofits in the coming weeks and months.

“I’m excited about private foundations, community foundations and nonprofits working together toward a common goal,” said Juanita T. James, president and CEO of the Fairfield County Community Foundation. “This is heavy work, this is heavy lifting. It’s hard work it takes a lot of patience and resilience, but it’s such an exciting proposition in terms of what the outcome can be and what it can mean.”

Though many of the founders work county- or statewide, they have opted to focus their initial funding campaign on the Greater Norwalk area because they felt it was a city where the greatest results could achieved.

“Right now, I think Norwalk has what I consider to be the best factors for success,” James said, noting the support of Mayor Harry Rilling and Superintendent of Schools Steven J. Adamowski, a growing business sector and a healthy ecosystem of nonprofit organizations, including Norwalk ACTS, which uses data and community partnerships to support children in the district.

Norwalk ACTS, which according to CEO Jennifer Barahona, is the “backbone of collective impact work in Norwalk,” will help to identify areas of need and facilitate connections between the fund and organizations providing services.

“We really see the fund as an exciting marriage of what Norwalk ACTS does to identify needs and resource gaps and convene people around the table to determine what’s going to move the needle and then having the funding resources to do that,” Barahona said.

The founders of the fund will link their financial resources, expertise and networks with those of nonprofits, businesses and government officials to achieve mutually agreed upon goals to close opportunity gaps. The fund will at first have a local focus and then, hopefully, expand statewide.

“It takes each sector working together, not one more important than the other. That’s the business sector, our philanthropic sector, our corporate sector, our nonprofit sector, our school systems, our state government,” said Richard Wenning, executive director of the BeFoundation, whose mission is to support improvements in underserved children and their communities. “We’ll only be the great state we can (be) if we align.”

Wenning added that the fund is looking for other major donors, as well as those who are interested in investing more passively in the fund. Community members, Wenning said, will have opportunities to weigh-in with ideas as the grant-making process progresses.

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According to James, the founders drew on Fairfield County’s Community Foundation past experience of pooled funding in dealing with affordable housing. With other local donors, the Community Foundation was able to build or renovate at least 1,500 units and put 5,000 more people in affordable housing.

“We at the Community Foundation have had opportunities to do some pooled funding in the past. It’s something that we’ve all been talking about for a while, and it’s something that we know many donors really support and would like to see more of that,” James said. “The good thing about philanthropy is that we’re not competitive as a sector. We’re much more open to complimenting each other’s resources because we’re all trying to achieve the same thing.”

justin.papp@scni.com; @justinjpapp1; 203-842-2586

Justin Papp|General Assignment Reporter

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