Big-Hearted Contrarian Funds Small Grants

May 07, 2014

Barbara Shapiro hates red tape and doesn’t always follow the rules. She “detests stupidity” and thinks people should skirt barriers that make no sense. So what prompted this rebel to create a heartwarming resource for countless good deeds?

The Big Idea

mitz•vah (mitz′ və) n. 1. a commandment of the Jewish law 2. a meritorious or charitable act 

The idea for Barbara Shapiro’s Mitzvah Fund for Good Deeds at BCF took shape after hearing the experiences of three friends over two weeks. “First,” she says, “a Teach for America friend wanted to clean her school before the semester ended. She didn’t know where to get the money for buckets, paint, sponges, and paint brushes. She told me she went to Home Depot, and they told her she had to write to the corporate office. You know what that means—it would end up being deep-sixed. So I gave her a check for a couple hundred dollars.”

Shortly after that, she spoke with a friend whose husband coached baseball in a city high school. He needed baseballs, bats, and gloves for the team, but both the school and the School Board had limited funds. So Shapiro gave him a check for baseball equipment.

The third vignette involved another coach who wanted to take a team from his school to a track meet out of town. “He couldn’t get the money together to rent a bus,” Shapiro says. “I thought, ‘It’s easier to raise $20,000 for a good project from a big foundation. Trying to get $1,000 from somebody is almost impossible.’”

Creating the Fund

Shapiro went straight to Tom Wilcox at BCF and said, “I believe that somebody along the line helped you and me. I’m in the position to be able to help somebody now, and I feel I have a responsibility to do that.”
The Mitzvah Fund has already been tapped for grants, and as the word spreads, more requests are sure to follow. Shapiro plans to add money to the fund each year, anticipating that it will be exhausted before she replenishes it the following year. “I didn’t put the money there as an investment,” she says. “I put it there to be used up.”

BCF Donor Services Officer Jesse Cowling reads the grant proposals and selects recipients. There are few restrictions, but grant seekers must be involved with a nonprofit organization in the Baltimore area—i.e., a school or charity. The organization’s budget must be less than $250,000 (with the exception of Baltimore area schools), and the project request may not exceed $10,000. 

Most of the grants have been for very modest amounts, but they make a significant difference—and recipients appreciate the streamlined application. “I told Jesse that I wanted a very, very simple grant request form,” Shapiro notes. “One page—just name, organization, amount, and why you need it.” The funds reach recipients, she says, “almost immediately.”

The Mitzvahs

Shapiro has a friend who teaches adult literacy at the Greater Homewood Community Corporation. “They suspected that two men in the program couldn’t read because they had hearing problems,” Shapiro says. “They got money from the Mitzvah Fund to have them tested at the Hearing and Speech Agency. That’s exactly the kind of thing I had in mind.”

Another grantee, an elementary teacher, wanted her students to be able to sit on inflated rubber balls, improving strength and posture, but school funding didn’t stretch far enough. Grants also went toward a school Bullying Prevention Program and for iPod Shuffles to use in a Language and Literacy Development project.

Shapiro is particularly interested in music in the schools, playgrounds and activities that will keep children active, and projects that improve neighborhoods. Mitzvah grants have supported beautification in the Whittier-Monroe community and a “Let There Be Light” program to increase safety lighting. Another grant provided musical instruments for a charter school, where drums helped a non-English speaking population with phonics. She hopes that veterans’ organizations will soon discover the fund.

“I called it the Mitzvah Fund because I’m Jewish, and I wanted to make a statement that this is what we do—good deeds,” Shapiro says. “When I leave this earth, I’d like to have left it a tiny drop better. There’s an old Hebrew saying that if you save one life, you save the world. If one person can benefit from this, that’s more than enough for me.”


To find out how to apply to the MItzvah Fund and other grant programs at BCF, visit our grants page.

Contact Information

2 East Read Street, 9th Floor | Baltimore, MD 21202 | Directions
P: (410) 332-4171 | Email Us

Connect with Us

Subscribe to e-news

Sign up for
our E-Newsletter