Two years ago, in September 2019, the World Education Services (WES) Mariam Assefa Fund awarded its first grants to organizations working to build more inclusive economies for immigrants and refugees in the United States and Canada. We were excited to begin our journey as a philanthropic funder and energized by our new grantee partners, though we knew there was much for us to learn. Still, we could not have imagined how profoundly the world would change so soon after our journey began.
Just six months after we awarded our first grants, the COVID-19 pandemic began to transform the world around us. The economic recession — as well as major impacts on immigrant workers in the U.S. and Canada — meant that we needed to adapt our work to the rapidly changing world while ensuring that our grantee partners were supported in their efforts to uplift immigrant and refugee communities.
The reckoning for racial justice in the past year and a half simultaneously forced us to grapple with how we must abandon inequitable, business-as-usual practices in philanthropy and be more explicit and intentional about our values and how we apply them to our work. We had to be more responsive to the needs of our partners and shake off expectations about the way things have traditionally been done in philanthropy.
The WES Mariam Assefa Fund is committed to being transparent; so, in that spirit, here are three key lessons from our challenging and unusual first two years:
1. Our No. 1 job is to support our grantee partners’ success; we can’t do that without their input. Putting our partners’ perspectives — not our own agenda — at the center of our work has been crucial to nurturing relationships with our grantees. The Trust-Based Philanthropy Project’s guiding principles inspired this approach and encouraged us to be more responsive, to solicit and act on feedback, and to provide support “beyond the check.” We created space for our grantee partners to communicate what they needed from us, which included organizing peer-to-peer learning forums and strengthening their communications For example, at a grantee partner convening in early 2021, many partners expressed interest in developing worker cooperatives. To bring this idea to life, we partnered with the Democracy at Work Institute to design an interactive workshop series on the topic and offered storytelling and fundraising trainings, which helped partners reach priority audiences and new funders.
We also learned to let go of our own ideas about the way to do certain things and to defer to our partners’ preferences — and that sometimes stepping back is the best way to provide support. For example, when planning an equity, diversity, and inclusion capacity building initiative, we heard from partners that, given our role as funder and the potential for unhelpful power dynamics, it would be more valuable if our staff did not facilitate or participate in the program. So, we stepped back, allowing our grantees the space they needed.
2. Shifting to more inclusive approaches is sometimes uncomfortable, but it is essential to philanthropy’s progress toward shifting power to community and organization leaders. When we developed our equity, diversity, and inclusion statement and approach to gather demographic data from funding applicants, we asked for grantee partner input. Their feedback raised considerations we hadn’t thought of and even flagged potential biases in how we had framed our questions. Ultimately, developing our statement and data collection approach took a month longer than we had expected, but incorporating their feedback helped us create final versions that are much more thoughtful, actionable, and values-aligned than we could have developed alone. The more we center equity in our work and seek to shift power to our partners and communities, the more important it becomes to revisit and rethink our ways of working. In turn, we’ve learned to hold space for work to take longer in service of that commitment.
3. Providing flexibility to grantee partners from the beginning is one of the most valuable things a funder can do. The importance of providing multi-year, flexible funding is not new; the field has been calling for funders to do this for years. We quickly learned that our original grant structure with 18-month limits was simply not long enough to design, launch, execute, and capture lessons learned from a new initiative — which was the focus for many of our grantee partners. The intense pressures our grantee partners faced in 2020 pushed them to quickly revisit priorities, staffing, and capacity to meet the emerging needs of immigrant workers and communities. By the end of the year, all five of our inaugural grantee partners requested a no-cost extension or converted their grant to general operating support. This enabled our grantee partners to shift timelines and priorities, and better respond to the immediate needs of the communities they served – such as providing resources to workers affected by the pandemic’s impact.
Our experiences over the last two years reinforced for us the principle that funding structures and agreements are not static. Rather, they are living processes and documents that need to be revisited and refined to ensure that they reflect our values and ongoing feedback from grantee partners.
The WES Mariam Assefa Fund has grown by leaps and bounds since we awarded those first grants. We are still in the early days of building a trust-based philanthropy and we plan to use these three lessons — and others — to shape our funding and capacity-building strategies in our third year. As we continue our journey of supporting our partners, placing equity at the center of all we do, and shifting power and resources, we look forward to sharing what we learn next and learning from the journeys of others as they seek to reshape philanthropy to achieve a more inclusive future.