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Catalogue Blog

Changing the Philanthropic Landscape

Ever wonder exactly how the Catalogue got its start, how we’re related to the Harman Family Foundation, and what President Barbara Harman’s goal is for the Catalogue in the next five years? Last month, Harman sat down with the Association of Small Foundations’ CEO Henry Berman to talk about the Catalogue for Philanthropy — and the podcast was published on ASF’s website last week. Here are a few highlights of the interview, entitled “Creating a Piece of the Philanthropic Landscape”.

Barbara Harman started the Catalogue for Philanthropy back in 2003, after taking on a larger role at her family’s foundation. After spending more than 20 years teaching, researching, and writing as an English professor at Wellesley College, Harman felt the need to channel those talents in a new way — with a larger audience and a larger social impact. The foundation’s priorities revolved around the arts, and although the “big players” in the Washington region were easy to find (e.g. the Kennedy Center), Harman felt something was missing — as she calls it, the “landscape below the landscape”. It was difficult for the foundation to discover the cultural groups and arts-outreach organizations with a youth focus, serving under-served areas, or running programs in schools.

“For ordinary individuals wanting to be philanthropic, it was not so easy to find great community based nonprofits to whom they could give and a donation of any size could have an impact,” says Harman. And that was the seed for the Catalogue.

When it first began, the Catalogue for Philanthropy was a much different animal than it is today. Originally, the Catalogue was just catalogue — a print publication that focused on donors and lived under the umbrella of the Harman Family Foundation, with a few independent supporters. Harman soon learned that the nonprofits featured, while honored to be a part of the beautiful print publication, identified other needs that the Catalogue could meet. The initiative soon evolved into an independent organization, offering an ever-expanding array of workshops and marketing/communications resources to its network of nonprofits. One of the key benefits for the nonprofit community? The sense of community itself.

“The first group was excited to find themselves in the Catalogue and excited to find themselves in the company of others doing similar work to their own,” explained Harman — a welcome change of pace for the group of small, widespread, and typically isolated nonprofits and their staff.

Looking back now on her work over the past ten years, Harman says she “had no idea what a big deal it would turn out to be…I didn’t see myself as taking on a big leadership role at the time — I had an idea, the skills to implement it, and fell into it a little bit.” As the Catalogue and its reach began to grow, both Harman and her family foundation decided to make a commitment to the Catalogue and its growth. “We both decided that we’re up for this and want to continue to support this. We created something that we believe in and something with its own power and rate of speed with lots of community support, but the foundation still believes in it…When you’ve created something that you believe in, how do you step away from that? That’s not something I could ever do.”

Harman calls herself an “accidental leader”; Berman suggests that serendipitous might be a better descriptor. Either way, the Washington region is surely better off for the work that the Catalogue has done to increase the profile of small nonprofits in the area and highlight the importance of individual giving. And as for the future? Harman wants to fulfill the wishes of many Catalogue supporters who frequently tell her that there should be Catalogues across the country: “Within the next 3-5 years, I would like to see a Catalogue for Philanthropy in 3, 4, or 5 regions across the country.” Here’s to making that goal a reality.

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