From “Power” to “Partner:” How Funders Can Collaborate Within the Work and Learning Ecosystems
In the latest episode of JFF’s new webinar series, "Better Together," we examine the role foundations and funders play in creating a truly equitable economic recovery.
By Chera Reid
The Better Together Learning Series is rooted in a clear premise: equitable economic opportunity will require all hands on deck. We will need new and expanded ways to come together to develop common strategies and mutual goals.
If that sounds like something you’ve heard before, you’re not alone. As a program officer at The Kresge Foundation, I was often asked to speak about that idea from a position of knowledge and power, because I represented a wealthy organization. I was asked to say what postsecondary practitioners needed to do to increase collaboration within and across their networks; the assumption was that I knew the answer, because of the assumption that “more” meant “better.”
Grounding assumptions have evolved. While the questions—about what it takes to come together to develop and act on mutual goals—may sound similar, the responses are not.
The difference between what I did in 2013, and what we are doing with JFF today, is that philanthropy is shifting. The present work of the philanthropic practitioners who recently spoke during the Better Together Learning Series shows us how. Grounding assumptions have evolved. While the questions—about what it takes to come together to develop and act on mutual goals—may sound similar, the responses are not. Foundations increasingly are reckoning with their power, situating themselves as actors, joiners, flexible stewards, and learners in these ecosystems. They are moving toward greater power-sharing, an essential step if they are to enliven their values of equity and justice.
Our recent conversation with Melissa Luna of the Greenlight Fund Boston, Stephanie Davison of The Kresge Foundation, and Samaad Wes Keys, formerly of Ascendium Education Philanthropy, affirms the idea that moving toward equitable economic opportunity requires philanthropists’ critical reflection on their power and positionality and shifts in practice. They identified three shifts that funders can make to begin the process: from judging to joining, rigid to flexible, and diversity to equity. Here’s what these mean, in action:
From Judging to Joining
Philanthropy is reckoning with its historic and present-day role as an actor in social change. In the past, a foundation could act independently of the organization, wielding the power of the purse with the assumption of good intentions. Today, rather than assume that charity is enough, foundations must step into what justice requires.
At the Greenlight Fund Boston, this means centering their common cause—the well-being and economic mobility of Boston’s children and families—and bringing people across sectors into decision-making. Rather than act alone in judgment, the fund recognizes its role in an ecosystem of actors who all have a role to play. The fund invites key stakeholders to the decision-making table, including those who have been directly impacted by the disinvestment that the fund aims to address through its programs. Its advisory council members are compensated for their work, in recognition of the time and labor required. Through this equity-minded practice, the fund is building social capital across people and organizations. In this power-sharing ecosystem, everyone has something to give, and everyone receives something of value. As Luna noted, the success of the nonprofit organizations with whom they partner is what makes the Greenlight Fund successful.
From Rigid to Flexible
Davison of The Kresge Foundation shared a principle from a former manager: “Blessed are the flexible, because they bend but don’t break.” We can’t expect linear progress in the work of shifting institutions and systems that were not set up to advance economic and social mobility in communities that are predominantly low-income, or communities predominantly made up of people of color. “We need to adapt with you,” said Davison.
While asking for a detailed summary of grant activities, timelines, and expected outcomes has its place, our panelists recognize that complex systems change work requires adaptable, flexible plans. Plans are just a team’s best thinking at the time of application. As we learn and experience new things, we often need to revise and update our plans. There is no penalty for speaking up about unexpected challenges, Keys said, and college and nonprofit partners should reach out as plans change. Foundation staff set reporting norms and deadlines, and can adjust them needed.
Diversity, or representation among historically marginalized groups, is not enough; however, facing a recent uptick in the use of “equity” and “racial equity” among prospective and current partners, funders are looking for evidence that organizations walk the walk.
From Diversity to Equity
All three panelists spoke to the ways that their organizations are committed to advancing equity in both their grantmaking and internal practices. Diversity, or representation among historically marginalized groups, is not enough; however, facing a recent uptick in the use of “equity” and “racial equity” among prospective and current partners, funders are looking for evidence that organizations walk the walk.
They are learning and shifting internal practices as well; Luna, for example, described her organization’s effort to address the implicit bias that influences who has access to Greenlight Fund Boston. They are asking questions about what kinds of data they’ve valued, and what changes are possible. “Can we think about data in a different way?” Luna asked. “Can we think about how what scaling and growing might look like and how is that different?” As research from Echoing Green and Bridgespan has demonstrated, nonprofit organizations with non-white leadership have suffered from underinvestment. An equity lens is required to recognize fairly the contributions such organizations have and are making, often with fewer financial resources than nonprofits with white leaders.
Funders today must hold themselves accountable to naming the past, acknowledging the present, and trying out new practices. This means acknowledging the mindsets and behaviors that no longer serve us, coupled with a commitment to shifting practice as key actors in advancing a philanthropic sector that joins as a co-equal in institutions and systems. This internal work helps us understand how we got here, and how we move forward together so that all can prosper and thrive.