Putting Communities in the Driver’s Seat

Brenda Solorzano

Almost 20 years ago, I accepted my first job in philanthropy. Right before I started, a mentor of mine asked, “Brenda, who do you think you will be accountable to when you start your new program officer job?”

“My new boss,” I said immediately.

“No,” he said, “Try again.”

“The board of the foundation?” I asked.

He nodded no.

“Well why don’t you tell me,” I said.

“The community, and the resources you are responsible for deploying to the community,” he answered.

His response has stuck with me as a guiding force as I have moved through the world of philanthropy.

In the years since this conversation, I have attended countless philanthropic conferences. Some are about how we can do better as a field, or how we can be better partners to nonprofits. Others address how we can have a greater impact and how can we use our power to effect systems change. The common theme across them all? The message that the philanthropy world needs to do something differently. But despite these calls, very little seems to have changed in terms of putting the community in the driver’s seat. As philanthropists, we have a responsibility to ensure we are being accountable to the communities that our institutions were created to serve.

While flying back to Montana after attending CEP’s Stronger Philanthropy conference last month, I spent some time reviewing the notes I had taken over the course of the previous three days. I was pleased to see that there were tangible takeaways that will continue to push the organization I lead, Headwaters Foundation, to be accountable to the communities we serve.

First, the conference reminded me how important it is to listen to and learn from those on the ground because, almost two decades after my mentor told me so, communities still know best. The conference also reminded me that grantees should be the voice, the heart, and the soul of our work — and that foundations have to remember to never stop asking ourselves what we can do to ensure we are continuously being accountable to our communities.

Social media, specifically Twitter, allows conference attendees to express in real time how the program affects us. We can tweet takeaways from an inspiring plenary or roundtable discussion, or share poignant quotes from speakers for those not in attendance to see. (Take a look at CEP’s day-by-day summary blog posts to see Twitter highlights from this year’s conference.) As I looked at the #cep2019 hashtag, I saw that I was not the only one at the CEP Conference hearing the call for better listening and shifting traditional power dynamics in philanthropy:

All of these struck me as timely and relevant, and I was so glad my colleagues were sharing their strong feelings of support for engaging one another in more effective ways.

Throughout my career in philanthropy, I have seen many trends, initiatives, and programs that have gone by the wayside because of a lack of leadership or institutional will, or because the original concept was flawed and the scope of work didn’t provide an opportunity to shift or pivot. These challenges certainly are real reasons why projects never get off the ground, but there is often a subtle underlying theme at play when projects aren’t successful. Time and again, I’ve seen projects fail because community is not informing or leading the direction of the work.

When I was a fledgling program officer, only a handful of people in my sphere of influence were talking about the impact of community voice in our sector’s work, or how foundations should ultimately be accountable to the communities we serve. I’m glad to see that this paradigm is shifting, and that the Center for Effective Philanthropy reminded us all in Minneapolis last month that our work starts and ends with community.

Brenda Solorzano is chief executive officer of Headwaters Foundation in Missoula, Montana. Follow the Foundation on Twitter at @headwatersmt.

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