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Letting Lived Experience Lead the Way

Date: November 7, 2023

Eddy Zheng

President and Founder, New Breath Foundation

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During my 11 years working at grassroots nonprofits, funders contacted me for input but didn’t include me in their decision-making. As a formerly incarcerated, directly impacted person, it felt transactional. I walked away from the meetings, wishing I could one day have a seat at the table — and create my own table. Throughout my life, I had to earn trust and credibility due to the stigma associated with my past. Given this experience, it takes a while for someone to gain my trust, and that trust comes from collective learning and nurturing relationships.

Thus, when I started New Breath Foundation (NBF), I envisioned creating an organization centered on directly impacted communities and including them in the leadership and decision-making. I wanted to provide opportunities for directly impacted people to join the staff, board, and serve as advisors. I wanted to give directly impacted individuals a chance to serve their communities through participating in philanthropy. Through my experience, I realized that sometimes we don’t realize the difference we can make unless people give us opportunities we may not have thought about, and that’s what I wanted to do at NBF.

Too often, people with little on-the-ground experience of the situations they seek to change determine the funding areas and strategies within philanthropy. And the institutions hiring individuals with lived experience don’t often realize the power dynamic that can still occur internally. Individuals with lived experience working in philanthropy may often feel powerless, or that their experience isn’t acknowledged. Not many impacted individuals are in executive-level roles at these organizations, which naturally keeps them out of certain higher-level decision-making and strategic planning. How can philanthropy change these power dynamics? Establishing trust through internal and external relationships is the first step towards engagement and power sharing.

Building Relationships Both Internally and Externally

That’s why relationship building and centering the directly impacted are two of New Breath Foundation’s core principles. Among the staff, we center grace, self-care, and balance. Everyone works hard, but I remind them to take time to rest and that it is a marathon, not a sprint, towards our goals. Although we work remotely across the country, we create opportunities to get to know each other outside of the day-to-day work. Through creating a community of care internally, we’re a more effective team that can focus on our grantee partners and our mission.

We build trust externally by taking cues from our grantee partners. We schedule check-in calls with them rather than having them fill out lengthy written reports and surveys. They share their updates, and we take on the reporting.

Valuing Lived Experience

Another way NBF builds trust is by centering those with lived experience and valuing their leadership. Over 60 percent of directly impacted individuals comprise our Community Advisory Committee (CAC), who advise on our grantmaking process and participate alongside grantees and community partners in nominating and reviewing applicants. Our CAC members rotate, and they’re grantee recipients from previous years and trusted partners who we’ve seen working in the community for a long time. We’ve even adjusted parts of our grantmaking strategy based on feedback we’ve received from them. We also realize their time is valuable, so we offer them an annual stipend and pay for their lunch when we meet remotely. Finally, we’re intentional in considering and searching for those with lived experience when we recruit for NBF’s board of directors and staff, so there’s mutual understanding, trust, and reciprocity in the relationships between staff, board, and community advisors.

Building Trust by Going Beyond Grantmaking

Finally, we establish relationships outside of funding. We conduct site visits on the grantees’ terms, provide technical assistance and individual coaching opportunities, and serve as a thought partner to help them think through scenarios and strategies. In addition to supporting their work, we recognize that they must make time for self-care. This year, we provided a space for them to slow down, focus on their well-being, and build community with each other at our We Got Us Fund Grantee Convening.

Once they become an NBF We Got Us Fund grantee, they will always be a grantee. That means that even after they receive our funding, we continue to uplift their work, they’re still included in our grantee convenings, and we continue to introduce them to other resources when opportunities arise. In addition to their grant, we connect them to other funding opportunities and potential partners with whom we have established relationships.

According to Overlooked (Part One), a Center for Effective Philanthropy study, “the biggest predictor of strong foundation-grantee relationships is foundations’ understanding of grantees’ organizations and the contexts in which they operate.” The funders who take the time to understand their grantees’ communities, engage with them on the issues, and ask them for input build trust and deeper relationships. This approach empowers the grantees to do their best work, and to thrive themselves.

We’re still learning and refining at New Breath Foundation. Based on grantee feedback, I believe we’re on the right path. I look forward to New Breath Foundation continuing to strengthen our grantee partners and their communities, and to deepen our relationships with them. Success is creating conditions that allows them to empower themselves and stepping aside for grantee partners to do their work, while also making sure to check in and be available for ideating, advising, amplifying, and making connections.

Eddy Zheng (he/him) is president and founder of New Breath Foundation and has been bridging communities for decades, particularly Black, Asian American, formerly incarcerated, immigrant, and refugee groups.

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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