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.

+ posts
Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on email

Building Stronger Neighborhoods Regionwide

We have a nearly 30-year history of offering grants to resident-led groups and community projects in Baltimore City and Baltimore County. These grants give residents the resources they need to accomplish a small project, get more people involved, and encourage the next generation of neighborhood leaders. We also fund programs that support the development of leaders of all ages who are working to improve their neighborhoods and schools. Our support is intended to help identify, activate, inform and network leaders. And finally, we believe when schools and neighborhoods team up to improve their school and community, meaningful and lasting change can be made. We are interested in funding proposals in which the students and adults in schools collaborate intentionally with community residents, neighborhood associations, and other individuals, groups, and institutions in the area surrounding a school.

School Leadership

We believe that attracting and retaining effective and diverse school leaders is a key lever for change in Baltimore's educational landscape, and so we fund school leadership development efforts at the district and individual school level. We are interested in funding proposals that focus on principal coaching, mentoring, peer networking, wellness/self-care, as well as pipelines that identify and develop new leaders. We will also continue to support efforts that build a culture of appreciation and encouragement for school leaders.

How Can We Help?

Melissa McC. Warlow
Director, Baker Fund Grants Program
410-332-4172 x150

Apply for a Grant

Our on-line application system provides applicants with a portal to start a new grant application or to continue updating an application already in process. Please be sure to select the “Save and Finish Later” button when you are finished working on your application in order to save your current session’s work. At any time during the application process you can select the “Contact Us” button in the top right corner of the screen and you will be able to send an email to the Baltimore Community Foundation staff with specific questions. 

To be considered for funding, proposals must be submitted through the online application portal, however, we provide a PDF version of the application along with other useful forms here for your reference:   

When you are ready please select one of the following options:


I have not applied for BCF funding online in the past.
Select this option if you have never used our website to apply for a grant from BCF.


I previously applied for BCF funding online in the past.
Select this option if you have applied for any of BCF’s grants using our website. Your profile may still be in our system and you may login using your account.

Place-based Grantmaking in Selected School Communities

We have allocated funds for two geographical areas that bookend a crucial corridor on the Westside of Baltimore City: Howard Park /Forest Park area (served by Calvin Rodwell Elementary Middle School and Liberty Elementary), and Reservoir Hill/Penn North area (served by Dorothy I Height Elementary). In these three schools and their surrounding neighborhoods, we will support projects and activities designed to make the communities safe, clean, green and vibrant; and improve the quality of the schools. Some projects may be neighborhood-focused, some school-focused and others collaborative projects between the schools and their respective communities.

Early Learning & Judy Centers

High quality early childhood education has a lifelong effect on students. Through our Early Learning grant program, we are interested in system-wide early childhood education proposals that will help Baltimore City and County's youngest learners, and their families, get the start they need. Nonprofit organizations that offer programs and/or services to Judy Centers are encouraged to contact the centers directly to explore partnership opportunities.

How Can We Help?

John A. Gilpin


Director of Planned Gifts
410-332-4171 ext. 132

How Can We Help?

Kate Sam

Communications Officer
410-332-4171 ext. 181

How Can We Help?

Cathy Brill

Executive Director
Leonard and Helen R. Stulman Charitable Foundation