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Funders Share Stories of Change, Part Three: Listening, Collaboration, & Systems Change

Date: February 7, 2022

Naomi Orensten

Senior Director of Programs and Strategy, Dorot Foundation

Chloe Heskett

Senior Writer, Editor & Content Strategist, CEP

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This is part three of a CEP blog series in which leaders from eight foundations shared — in their own words — the most important changes they have made at their foundation since 2020 that they plan to sustain going forward. These funders’ stories, which can be read in full here, explore numerous changes on several dimensions. In each post in this series, we will explore changes centered around a particular theme — be it increased focus on advancing equity, greater flexibility and responsiveness, or more listening and collaboration. It’s our hope that the stories collected here foster learning and inspire further action.

In CEP’s report, Foundations Respond to Crisis: Lasting Change?, a key theme that emerged was a greater emphasis on the part of foundation leaders to listening to grantees and communities, collaboration, and driving systems change. In the stories that eight funders shared for this series, we see these themes surface again.

The stories shared in this series reveal a deep interconnectedness between funders’ desire to listen to grantees and communities, their pursuit of greater collaboration, and an increased focus on systems change and advocacy work. They also describe these practices as important for pursuing racial equity and advancing durable change.

The Women’s Foundation of Minnesota, for example, made clear the connection in their work between listening and working for systems change. They shared that, “In early 2020, we launched a series of online engagements called the Road to Transformation to connect and hold space with communities to discuss the impacts of COVID-19 and related, underlying issues on women, girls, and families.”

In addition to sharing out their learnings from the listening series, the Foundation described how it has “informed our new strategic plan that strengthens our identity and practice of being an anti-racist community foundation boldly driving systems change for gender and racial justice.”

The Foundation also shared that they have doubled down on their pursuit of systems change, writing that:

As a systems-change philanthropy, we are deepening our investment in civic engagement and policy efforts… We know policy is central to transforming our inequitable systems, and so in addition to grantmaking and funding research, the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota is at the State Capitol every year driving a policy agenda that centers women and girls, including Black, Indigenous, and women of color, LGBTQ+ people, and women and girls with disabilities in the fight for safety, economic justice, health, and leadership for whole community well-being.

Mortenson Family Foundation also emphasized a correlation between listening and relationship building within the community they serve and a fundamental shift in how they carry out their work, including a greater focus on sharing power with community. They described that process:

We took time to build meaningful relationships, slowed down to talk and listen in carefully crafted conversations that created space for relationship building, and stayed open to various possibilities. This relational approach is deepening our thinking about how we do our work, in addition to what we do.

This shift in how they work extended beyond new grantmaking, and has made for a change in the Foundation’s operations that will be carried forward. As they put it, “this increasing commitment to sharing power and working in partnership with the community ensures that this change is lasting — that it will become a fundamental part of how the Foundation does business.”

Similarly, Segal Family Foundation noted a change in their basic structure, too, writing that “the pandemic allowed us to yet again re-examine our perspective on how we could better deliver on the belief that funding in Africa must be African-led.”

They shared that 2021 saw the organization shift to a ‘hubs model,’ and noted that “Placing hubs at the heart of our organogram puts front and center our greatest collaborative value proposition to our friends in philanthropy — trustworthy, real-time intel and networks that can only be gained through expert local teams.”

Health Forward Foundation wrote that they prioritized a shift toward “solutions and policies that address racism built into our systems and that build wealth to improve our region’s long-term health and wellness.” This work is characterized by collaboration and advocacy work, and they shared examples that include:

  • Establishing The Office of Race and Reconciliation: …to reduce the uneven deployment of city resources, disinvestment, systemic racism, and address other social influencers of health, thereby reduce the resulting disparities in health faced by residents of color.
  • Launching the Kansas City Health Equity Learning Action Network: …to assert a common agenda and collectively address the factors that lead to inequalities in health access, treatment, and optimal health outcomes.

As the Rose Community Foundation put it, “COVID required us to quickly immerse ourselves in learning a landscape replete with new terminology, new concerns, and new partners…” To achieve that learning, and align it with their new strategic plan that prioritized racial equity/justice, the community foundation described embarking on “a series of 50+ ‘listening and learning’ conversations with BIPOC-led and -serving grassroots organizations, which ultimately culminated in new learnings, new relationships, and new grantees.”

In addition to listening to and learning from grantees, the Foundation found greater space for collaboration with fellow funders. Rose Community Foundation noted that,

Colorado foundations collaborate often, but the pandemic amplified that partnership ethos even more. Numerous pooled funds targeting specific populations or issues emerged at multiple foundations, and we supported nearly every one. We also partnered with The Denver Foundation and Community First Foundation to launch a zero-interest Metro Denver Nonprofit Loan Fund prioritizing BIPOC-led/serving nonprofits, who — as a group — had not fared well in the federal pandemic emergency loan program or, historically, in the commercial banking markets. And we are now partnering with Governor Jared Polis to house a Colorado Afghan Evacuee Support Fund to raise and deploy philanthropic resources to the organizations assisting local Afghan evacuees.

Mary Black Foundation also prioritized listening, sharing that they “listened to the needs voiced by our partners, but we also paid attention to who we weren’t hearing from.” They wrote that, “In many cases, nonprofit leaders were too busy addressing the immediate needs of their organization and/or the people they serve to take the time to ask for help. These tended to be smaller organizations that provide direct services to historically disadvantaged communities.” They reached out to and provided unsolicited general operating support to these organizations.

The Foundation also described how partnerships and listening deepened during the course of the pandemic, even with long-time partners that they had existing deep relationships with:

ne of the most important things we did during the height of the pandemic was to check-in on the wellbeing of our partners. We wanted to hear not only what we as a funder could do to support their organizations, but also how their teams were doing as individual people living and working through a pandemic. Based on their responses, we began offering Caring Conversations, facilitated virtual self-care sessions open to all nonprofit and social service sector staff members.

The recurring themes of deeper listening to grantees and communities, increased collaboration between funders, grantees, and community partners, and greater focus on advocating for systems change described by these funders reiterates some of the many changes foundation leaders say they have made, described in the CEP report, Foundations Respond to Crisis: Lasting Change?. These stories echo the report conclusion: that foundation practice has changed at a level that we at CEP have not seen in the two decades we have been conducting research about philanthropy.

Yet the future, as always, remains unclear. As Segal Family Foundation Director of Partnerships Cher-Wen DeWitt put it, “The redistribution of power and authority to more appropriate holders is not a checkbox exercise — it requires our consistent re-examination and willingness to change.”

We are grateful to the eight foundations that contributed their stories of change for this series. We truly hope that these rich and candid examples inspire discussion and support foundations to consider what changes they can make to be more impactful, to uplift the communities and grantees with whom they work, and to create a better and more just world.

Chloe Heskett is editor & writer, Programming and External Relations at CEP. Naomi Orensten is director, Research at CEP.

Editor’s Note: CEP publishes a range of perspectives. The views expressed here are those of the authors, not necessarily those of CEP.

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