Funders Share Stories of Change, Part One: Greater Focus on Systemic Inequities & Racial Equity

Chloe Heskett & Naomi Orensten

This is part one of three in 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 the Center for Effective Philanthropy’s research report Foundations Respond to Crisis: Lasting Change?, released late last year, most foundation leaders reported that racial equity is a more explicit consideration in how they conduct their work, with many describing modifying their practices as a result. Addressing systemic inequities was a key component in the stories that eight funders shared for this series — and, for many, advancing racial equity was the foremost focus of the changes they describe making since early 2020.

Many of these leaders included examples of external changes, including increasingly prioritizing communities most affected by systemic inequities and changing grantmaking practices — who, what, and how they fund.

Rose Community Foundation, for example, noted that:

Propelled by the pandemic’s disparate impacts on communities of color — as well as the nationwide dialogue on racial justice following George Floyd’s murder — we embarked 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.

President and CEO Lindy Eichenbaum Lent also wrote that the Foundation “prioritized populations most disparately impacted by the pandemic and racial injustice in our community grantmaking while expanding our investments in the policy and advocacy arena.” With equity in mind, the foundation also partnered with other local foundations “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.”

The Women’s Foundation of Minnesota similarly shifted their work to more explicitly center racial equity, noting an “ethos that people most impacted by inequity hold the solutions to lead us to lasting change.” 

The Foundation stated that policy and systems change is and will continue to be an integral part of their work, particularly when it comes to tackling equity:

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…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.

The Mary Black Foundation noted that, given their focus on supporting their community and their commitment to the practices outlined in “A Call to Action: Philanthropy’s Commitment During COVID-19,” they “listened to the needs voiced by our partners, but we also paid attention to who we weren’t hearing from… These tended to be smaller organizations that provide direct services to historically disadvantaged communities. In those cases, we provided unsolicited, general operating support grants.”

Some stories of changes featured in this series focused on both external and internal changes related to equity.

Prior to 2020, Health Forward Foundation had announced a new direction focused on centering race equity and economically just systems. When the pandemic began, they “witnessed the pervasive inequities highlighted by COVID-19 among people of color,” and “knew that our response must be to accelerate this work to recast our leadership, advocacy, and resources to our new established purpose.”

They did so in numerous ways including:

Establishing the Office of Race and Reconciliation…to redress historical and current disinvestments in the city of Kansas City, Missouri (KCMO) as well as to reconcile race inequities in KCMO city policy and practice. […] Launching the Kansas City Health Equity Learning Action Network…to address the factors that lead to inequalities in health access, treatment, and optimal health outcomes. […] Prioritizing racial equity in asset management…[ensuring] $60M is now managed by black and brown majority owned, underrepresented fund managers. […And] prioritizing and promoting the collection, understanding, and use of race, ethnicity and language data in quality improvement (i.e., screening, prevention, and treatment).

Lumina Foundation, which began a strategic focus on racial equity before the start of the pandemic, wrote, “we began internal discussion sessions to dive deeper into how racial equity and justice issues affect not only our grantees — but also our own staff.”

They reflected, however, that the COVID-19 crisis forced them to take a step back from this work to focus on pressing needs and supporting grantees, as well as opening a Racial Equity and Justice Fund.

As Director of Operations and Grants Administration Susan Johnson, Ph.D., noted, “All of this was crucial and necessary. But what about our internal progress?” She continued:

Recently, we gathered together as a staff again. We engaged in a long-overdue discussion about whiteness — from privilege to microaggressions to outright disparity — and how it manifests in our internal culture, particularly for colleagues who are Black, Indigenous or people of color. During this meeting, we realized that while we instituted vital changes for our grantees and partners during the pandemic, we neglected to give the same attention to how we operate and engage with each other every day. […] And — that matters a lot because if we are to help Americans build better lives through the power of learning, we must first help ourselves.

The Walter and Elise Haas Fund, similarly, wrote about both internal and external changes they’ve implemented, noting that “the most important change we’ve made is to ensure our work reflects our intention, explicitly and vigorously, to address justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion.”

They described how and where changes manifest:

It can be seen in the (re)design of our grant applications, award letters, and transactions. It can be seen in the prioritizing of reflection and learning with our grantees, on their terms. It can be seen in the work we have done to dismantle our internal hierarchies and in supporting the professional development and continuous learning of all of our staff. And it can be seen in the creation of a new racial justice cohort as well as a new staff role focused on justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion across the Fund’s grantmaking and operations.

Segal Family Foundation entirely reorganized operations to shift power to on-the-ground partners through a ‘hubs’ model, noting 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.”

Segal Family Foundation Director of Partnerships Cher-Wen DeWitt noted that:

For any foundation, shifting grant practices in a more equitable direction is not durable without concretely altering processes and staffing involved. Put plainly by our executive director, Andy Bryant, ‘Instituting the hubs model is simply the formal recognition that SFF, indeed international development, works best when it places maximum agency in the hands of proximate leaders — from our staff to our grantees to the subject matter experts who support both.’

Mortenson Family Foundation also shifted operations fundamentally in order to advance equity goals, noting that the pandemic “was a catalyst for our board to make eight firm commitments of change to ensure we center racial equity in our work.”

Executive Director Donna Dalton and Community Relationships Officers Danyelle O’Hara and Ambar Hanson wrote: “These changes included increased funding to organizations led by and for community and leaders of color, more funding to changing systems, and increasing the percentage of our investments managed by and for BIPOC communities.”

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.

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