Transparency Talk

Category: "Diversity" (23 posts)

An Interview with Lateefah Simon, President, Akonadi Foundation…On the Power of Openness, Listening, and Connecting to Improve Equity, Diversity, & Inclusion
June 21, 2018

Leteefah SimonLateefah Simon is a nationally recognized advocate for civil rights and racial justice, and brings more than 20 years of executive experience in advancing opportunities for communities of color and low-income communities in the Bay Area. Prior to joining Akonadi, which seeks to eliminate structural racism that leads to inequity in the United States, Simon served as program director for the San Francisco-based Rosenberg Foundation, a statewide grantmaker focusing on systemic barriers to full access to equity and opportunity for Californians. She managed the Foundation’s portfolio of grants supporting groundbreaking advocacy in criminal justice reform, immigrant rights, low-wage workers’ rights, and civic engagement.

Before joining Rosenberg, Simon was executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, where she revamped the 40-year-old organization’s structure and launched successful community-based initiatives, including the Second Chance Legal Services Clinic. Her passion for supporting low-income young women and girls, and her advocacy for juvenile and criminal justice reform began at San Francisco’s Center for Young Women’s Development (CYWD), now called the Young Women’s Freedom Center. Simon became executive director of that grassroots organization, run for and by young women who come through and are affected by these systems, at age 19; she remained in that role for 11 years.

In January, our PhilanTopic colleagues interviewed Simons to discuss her work on racial equity in this 5Qs post. Recently, Glasspockets caught up with Simons for a follow-up interview about her career arc from grassroots activist to foundation leader, her observations about how openness can help to mitigate the grantee/grantmaker power imbalance, and how her current grantmaking practices are informed by important lessons she learned about philanthropy, equity, diversity, and inclusion from the other side of the grantmaking table. 

GlassPockets: As the field of philanthropy is turning its attention to racial equity, I think there is a lot we might be able to learn from your story of how you started out in philanthropy when you led a small, grassroots organization, knowing no one in the field, and now have navigated your career to becoming a philanthropy insider. Can you start by describing your career path, the challenges you faced as a young woman of color, and how you broke into philanthropy? What were some of the key breakthroughs for you that made it possible?

Lateefah Simon: I started my career in the in the 1990’s - in the midst of the AIDS crisis, the war on drugs and the out migration and displacement of black people. Sill in high school, I began working as an organizer at the Young Women’s Freedom Center in San Francisco. The girl-led organization was founded to build advocacy and power with systems involving young women through political education, organizing, and building economic stability.

“I remember thinking, 'If I’m ever a funder, I am going to listen.'”

Three years after joining the organization, I became its executive director. I was a single mother, living in low-income housing – but, despite these struggles, I was an excellent organizer. As a young executive director of color, I faced daily challenges in engaging with folks in philanthropy because I was not part of their usual networks.  One encounter during these early days still haunts me. It was 1998, and we’d just launched a political education program in juvenile hall and in SRO hotels. We were building a membership base to mount a campaign to oust the homophobic ombudsman at the detention center. A program officer from a well-known advocacy funder came to visit and learn more about our work.  We’d assembled about 15 staff and organization members - all homeless and system-involved girls. Rather than trying to understand our programmatic approach, she immediately dismissed the work as not aligned with the foundation’s definition of organizing, in effect telling us “we were not organizing.” It was at that moment that I realized that the power dynamics of race and class manifested in the funder and organizer relationship, even among well intentioned funders, were dangerous. She came into a space run by, and for, women of color and told us what she thought was best for our community. She set up the dynamic: We couldn’t engage in honest conversations, we couldn’t push back, and if we wanted resources from her group, we’d have to fall in line. I felt so clear at that moment about the purpose of our work with these young women, and I remember thinking, “If I’m ever a funder, I am going to listen.”

Another challenging instance I remember is that I had to fill out a diversity report about our organization for a foundation that had no people of color on its leadership team and might have benefited more from the exercise than we did. We had to report statistics such as how many people of color and how many women we had on staff and were serving through our programs. We had to comply with the data points to get the funding that we needed. I remember thinking about the contradiction inherent to a process like this one in which the funders themselves didn’t have to disclose their own diversity data. That’s why the fact that GlassPockets encourages foundations to publicly share their own diversity data as part of their commitment to transparency is so important. I think foundations have more to learn than community-based groups from such an exercise.

In contrast, one of the first funders to believe in me was Quinn Delaney, founder of the Akonadi Foundation. She and an advisor came to a site visit and took the time to listen to me for two hours, using it as an opportunity to learn rather than demonstrate what she already knew. She listened, asked questions, believed in us, and supported us. Another transformational experience was when I was newly hired at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area. I was pitching funders about our work, and I was lucky enough to land a meeting with Dr. Ross, CEO of The California Endowment. He was one of the most gracious people I’ve ever met. I told him what we were doing and he declined our programmatic grant request. But he also said, “I believe in you, so I’m going to give you some money. It’s important that we invest in young people of color.” He invested in me as a leader, and in so doing, demonstrated to me the importance of foundations having flexibility even when programs don’t align.

Maya Harris, when she was at the Ford Foundation, is another positive example of a funder who worked to make philanthropy more inclusive by making time to provide one-on-one assistance. Instead of saying “no” to my grant application, she actually personally called to walk me through the grant application step-by-step, and told me what I needed to correct about the proposal to make it stronger.

Those individuals continue to be mentors in my life to this day, and they’ve worked like that with scores of young people. Building strong relationships between grantees and grantseekers is invaluable. These types of investments of time and resources and mentorship are vital to building mutual trust for real social change to occur.

GP: How do those breaks you received inform how you now structure your own grantmaking policies and procedures to ensure those not connected and well-resourced have a chance?

LS: In philanthropy, we should look at prospective grantees as our educators. I’ve been in philanthropy for seven years, and I’m very clear about what I don’t know. It is a privilege to be in this sector, and important to approach the work as a student, not an expert, and ask the questions without having the answers. We are students of the movements that we seek to support. Now, being in the sector, I’d like to be the kind of professional funder who continues to “do the least harm and do the most good.”

“We are students of the movements that we seek to support.”

I always tell my staff that you should be working the hardest that you’ve ever worked. And they are. Our Akonadi team continues to work hard at creating intentionality in our grantmaking by taking the time to answer the phone and respond to grantees, to walk people through the application process, and to answer questions. We do public information sessions in communities that may not have heard of Akonadi and wouldn’t know how to apply for a grant. We attend grantee community events and plan learning convenings to engage our community of grantees to find out how we can sharpen our process. It’s a privilege to support groups that are doing the most difficult work on the front lines, fighting racism and oppression, particularly in the current political environment in which so many of the communities we serve are under attack. The bottom line is that we try to hold a high standard of excellence while also making the process accessible and making ourselves as available as possible.

GP: As more industry conferences and foundation portfolios are focusing on racial equity, what advice would you give them on practices that can help the field improve its record and better serve and reflect its communities?

LS: Through our Beloved Community Fund, we supported an annual event at Oakland’s Lake Merritt called 510Day, which is organized by youth in the community to bring to light issues like gentrification, over-policing and mass incarceration. 510 Day happened on the heels of #BBQBecky, the story that went viral about the white woman who called the cops on black folks having a barbecue at Lake Merritt in Oakland. The event gained national attention because of the community response to the incident, and put a spotlight on the economic pressures that communities of color are facing in the city. I spoke to a young man at the event, and he said, “If you’re a police officer or a firefighter, you get a four-gun salute when you die. We, the community, are out here organizing and doing the work on the streets. We are the first responders in our neighborhoods to crime and violence.”

“We have to find ways to connect with those groups who are not on 'the radar,' but are doing the heavy work of healing and organizing communities that are hit hardest by racism and oppression.”

I sat with that as a funder. There is a heavy weight on us in philanthropy. We have to stay aware of what’s happening in our communities, and what’s happening at the margins of those communities that we serve. We have to find ways to connect with those groups who are not on “the radar,” but are doing the heavy work of healing and organizing communities that are hit hardest by racism and oppression. That means getting out of our offices and into the streets. Not just carrying protest signs and bullhorns, but to set up and clean up after rallies, and to show up for the movement and get involved, to meet and learn from the people who are most affected. Additionally, when thinking about equity, it’s important that foundations realize that we shouldn’t talk about equity without being explicit about advancing racial equity. That means addressing and fighting racism on every level from the ground up.  At the same time, we have to continually think about how to do the most good and the least harm.

In a perfect world, philanthropy would be focused on working ourselves out of business. What would it be like if real money was re-invested in struggling communities so folks would not get pushed out and our communities lived up to the promise of possibility? Philanthropy is filling gaps around the world that are extremely important. We can’t wait for government to catch up, or fill gaps left by cuts in government support. But we have to think very carefully about power and who gets to distribute resources, or we are part of the problem.

GP: Since you have worked on both sides of the philanthropic table, what advice would you give to grantseekers and grantmakers about strengthening their relationship, particularly in ways that can mitigate the power dynamic and pave the way for racial equity, diversity, and inclusion?

LS: It’s hard being a funder and being asked this question. Every foundation is different, and every leader is different. My advice to grantseekers would be: Don’t compromise your vision and values for resources. Stay true to your vision, and follow that. I know this is a struggle because I’ve been there and know that often you don’t have that luxury because you have to make payroll and launch a campaign. But as much as possible, stay true to the work and the people.

And, in a perfect world, grantseekers could speak to their funding partners with complete honesty and integrity and wouldn’t have to fold or bend their ideas. I wish I could go to a site visit and have an honest conversation about what’s not working. We know how amazing people are, and the incredible work they are doing, wouldn’t it be powerful to engage in a conversation about what would make things better? That should go for funders too. Find ways to hold funders more accountable. This is so tricky because of the power dynamics, but there are tools, like GrantAdvisor, where grantseekers can review foundations and provide information about the process and what the experience applying for funding is truly like.

Also, neither side should consider a decline letter as the end of the story. Instead, grantseekers should use declines as an opportunity to engage funders and learn about ways to strengthen your application. These kinds of conversations allow the program officer to explain why they chose to decline the request, whether it is worth your time to re-apply at a later date, and how you can write a stronger proposal. And funders should be willing to engage in such conversations and use them as a tool for learning as well, because these post-proposal dialogues can also be a time to get feedback from grantees on your process as well, so both of you can learn from the experience.

Akonadi FoundationGP: Since Akonadi has been doing racial equity work for nearly 20 years, and you are now two years into your administration there, what new directions are ahead for it under your leadership? Are there changes you have already made because of your experience being a grantee, nonprofit executive director, or philanthropy outsider?

LS: I came into a foundation where the principles of racial equity were built into the brick and mortar of this institution. I don’t know if everyone comes into a foundation like that. We deeply value building relationships with our grantees, and think of ourselves as partners in the work. As funders, we try to be thoughtful about the demands that we place on our grantees, and are available for them to provide feedback, answer questions, or just be here as thought partners. Our staff actively engages with our grant partners, out in the field at events, or through convenings. I was lucky I landed in a foundation that mirrors my values and pushes me to think about the sector and our work even more.

Since I have come to Akonadi, I am actively thinking through what power building looks like in the context of the work that is happening here in Oakland. We’ve seen in philanthropy that a lot of funders are cautious and stay away from electoral work. This year, we are leaning in around integrated voter engagement, and are confident in the leadership of our grant partners to find ways to build power and make sure Oakland is engaging fully in the work to bring voters to the table to build political power. Additionally, we are thinking about the best ways that Akonadi can support cohorts of organizations to work and learn together. We are learning important lessons around how to engage our grant partners in collective learning, and we are actively trying to understand the best use of our positioning as a funder and what our role is in bringing folks together in a way that is not burdensome, and leads to shared momentum.

Hiding Your Diversity Data Helps Keep #PhilanthropySoWhite
March 28, 2018

Orson Aguilar is president of The Greenlining Institute.

Orson photoAt this point, it’s no secret: Philanthropy needs to diversify. Diversity, or the lack thereof, has become something of a hot-button issue in recent years. We’ve seen dozens of articles urging foundations to make changes, including a 2016 op-ed co-written by Dr. Robert Ross, Luz Vega-Marquis, and Stephen Heintz entitled, Philanthropic Leadership Shouldn’t Look Like the Country Club Set.

And a handful of foundations have demonstrated what is possible when they make diversity, equity, and inclusion organizational priorities. The California Endowment (TCE), one of the pioneers in these efforts, adopted a 15-part Diversity Plan in 2008, and since that year, TCE has published four “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Audits” to track its own progress. The audit is simple and profound, stating: “By openly reflecting on our progress and challenges related to diversity, equity and inclusion, we hope that the audit fosters a broader culture of continuous improvement where we challenge ourselves to always do better and to advance -- for the field, for our staff, and for the communities we ultimately serve.”

And yet, despite this heightened awareness and the concerted efforts of a handful of organizations, diversity and equity in philanthropy as a whole haven’t changed much. The data published by the D5 Coalition suggest that we have seen virtually no increase in the number of people of color who hold staff and leadership positions at foundations, and little increase in the representation of women.

“Making philanthropy more diverse and inclusive should be a top priority for everyone.”

More frustrating is the fact that very few foundations have decided to voluntarily disclose their demographic data since the attempted passage of California’s A.B. 624, proposed legislation that would have required large foundations in the state to collect and disclose demographic data for themselves and for their grantees. 

According to a search on Glasspockets.org, only 10 of the more than 90 foundations publicly committing to working more openly have disclosed both their diversity data and their diversity values policies. The list of 10 foundations includes foundations such as The David and Lucile Packard Foundation, The Rockefeller Foundation, Annenberg Foundation, and Silicon Valley Community Foundation. They should be applauded. Interestingly, more than 40 foundations have stated that they have diversity/values policies, yet most of them fail to disclose their own diversity data.

Making philanthropy more diverse and inclusive should be a top priority for everyone, regardless of whether or not your foundation focuses on supporting communities of color. This isn’t just a numbers game. As Ruth McCambridge reminds us in her recent article for Nonprofit Quarterly, “Lack of racial, ethnic, and gender diversity in philanthropy enlarges the understanding gap between philanthropy and the communities meant to be final beneficiaries.” By not including more people who understand the experiences of communities of color in leadership positions, foundations put extra distance between themselves and these communities and can’t know how best to serve them.

Diana Campoamor and Vikki N. Spruill, veterans in the struggle to diversify philanthropy, jointly wrote in 2016, “Few would argue that there has been too little discussion about making the sector look more like the people it serves. The real challenge has been to set in motion the measures that assure greater diversity throughout the sector.”

“The only way philanthropy will remain relevant is if it evolves along with the communities around it.”

Just as it took #OscarsSoWhite to jolt the Motion Picture Academy into action, will it take #PhilanthropySoWhite taking off on social media to transform this sector? A group of people has championed this issue from within the world of philanthropy for years, and yet progress remains slow. It’s no longer a question of awareness; it’s a question of priorities. Of course, every foundation has its own vision and purpose, but the only way philanthropy will remain relevant is if it evolves along with the communities around it. That means being intentional about hiring more people from diverse backgrounds who can bring much-needed perspectives to the table; tracking the demographics of people who benefit from grant dollars; tracking the demographics of foundation board and staff, and being transparent about all of those numbers.

Why is transparency so important? Because we’ve seen it drive massive change in other fields. Since the California Public Utilities Commission began requiring the companies it regulates to report how much contracting they do with businesses owned by women, people of color and service disabled veterans, these companies’ contracts with diverse businesses went from $2.6 million in 1986 to $8.8 billion in 2016. In philanthropy, transparency can drive the field to build more coalitions of foundations that can hold each other accountable to high standards of transparency and inclusiveness. It can help them learn from the inclusive practices already adopted by some foundations.

Ultimately, it’s going to take a bigger push than anything we’ve seen before to transform the sector. Otherwise, philanthropy will become more and more out of touch with the people it seeks to serve, and it will become increasingly unable to address the needs of a rapidly changing America.

What is perplexing is that large foundations value data and frequently fund social justice efforts to obtain more gender, racial, LGBTQ and ethnic data as positive outcomes of their grants. The fiscal impact on foundations to collect this data about their own operations and grantees would be negligible. Foundations like TCE have demonstrated “the sky didn’t fall” when the data was published, as critics suggested would happen 10 years ago.  Just the opposite: The foundation learned from its data to make better decisions on how to operate.

In an era of greater transparency, and increasing recognition that we are a diverse and multicultural nation, we urge more foundations to take the leap and conduct and share their own diversity and inclusion audits.

--Orson Aguilar 

It’s Not You, It’s Me: Breaking Up With Your Organization’s Inequitable Funding Practices
March 21, 2018

Erika Grace “E.G.” Nelson is a Community Health and Health Equity Program Manager at the Center for Prevention at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota. E.G. recently led the Center through an equity scan of its Request for Proposal (RFP) policies and procedures.

Erika Nelson photo“It’s not you; it’s me” is possibly the most cliché break-up excuse, but for many funders, it really is their own policies and procedures that undermine their ability to find community soulmates. Perhaps you have had conversations with community members who have said that they found out about your funding opportunity too late, were too busy to apply, or, worse yet, were rejected even though their project sounds like a great fit based on the conversation you are currently having with them. The reality is that funders typically enact policies that are convenient for themselves, as opposed to what makes sense for grantseekers, and diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) fall by the wayside of expediency. As a result, organizations with the most social and fiscal capital have the best shot at receiving awards.

Have you ever taken the time to think about how your funding portfolio might look differently if your RFP process was designed to be more equitable and inclusive? We recently completed an equity scan, and here is a bit about how this reflection has led to changes in our RFP process.

“Funders typically enact policies that are convenient for themselves, as opposed to what makes sense for grantseekers.”

At the Center for Prevention, our goal is to improve the health of all Minnesotans by tackling the leading causes of preventable disease and death – commercial tobacco use, physical inactivity, and unhealthy eating. While Minnesota has one of the best overall health rankings in the nation, we see huge gaps in health outcomes when considering factors such as race, income, and area of residence.

We also know that communities are aware of what they need to be healthy, but organizations established by and for marginalized communities tend to face greater barriers than well-resourced, mainstream organizations in getting what they need. We wanted to remove as many barriers from our application process as possible so that we could find and support more community-based and culturally-tailored approaches to addressing health needs. To begin identifying these barriers, our team reflected on challenges identified by communities we work with and walked through our application process from beginning to end using an equity lens. As a result, we have implemented several systemic changes to move towards our vision of a truly equitable process.

Bringing the Funding Opportunities to the Community

BCBS_Center_Prevention_vert_blueWe began our journey by thinking about funding opportunities. Before an organization can even apply for funding, it needs to know that an opportunity exists. Through community conversations, we learned that many organizations were unfamiliar with our resources and work. We recommended that project teams develop a tailored outreach plan for each funding opportunity, with specific outreach to organizations or sectors we considered to be key stakeholders or who had been markedly absent in previous rounds. Moving forward, we also have a goal of literally meeting folks where they are at – town halls, cultural events, on social media – to share our work and funding opportunities.

As a result, here are some ways we shifted how we engage with community organizations through our RFP process:

  • Time. Once applicants find out about an opportunity, they need to apply, which takes some time. We learned that some potential applicants prioritized other opportunities because they didn’t have the staff capacity to apply for multiple opportunities concurrently. The easiest solution to this problem was to give applicants more time, so we extended our open application period. In our case, we went from no set minimum to at least six weeks.
  • Assistance. We also wanted to make sure that applicants could make informed decisions about how to prioritize staff time, so we opened up new channels for discussing funding opportunities. We made sure that every application had a designated point person for answering questions from the public, and even piloted some creative ways to interact with the community in advance of the submitted application, such as an “office hours” hotline where anyone could call in and ask questions. The number of inquiries was manageable and allowed applicants to receive guidance on whether their projects were a good match before they invested time in applying. Follow-up survey data showed that this strategy paid off because applicants reported that they understood our funding objectives and that the time they invested in applying was appropriate for the potential award.
  • Accessibility. We are also working towards using more accessible language to articulate the merits of a viable proposal. We now run a readability test on all RFP language before publication, with the goal of using language that is no higher than an eighth grade reading level. Such tests have helped us remove jargon, and improve comprehension by professionals outside of public health as well as by non-native English speakers.

Leveling the Playing Field of Community Relationships

Our team also considered the role relationships play in evaluating proposals. We approached equity from two angles. We set limits on which and when “outside information”— knowledge we have about a project that didn’t come from the application—can be shared during proposal review. We also started reaching out to new applicants to discuss their work more deeply. Our familiarity with mainstream organizations and those we have previously funded can influence how we evaluate an application, and in some cases lead to an unfair advantage for groups that already have many advantages.  So these limits on “outside information” were put in place to level the playing field, as well as to begin to strengthen relationships with organizations that were new to us. These conversations helped us to fill in gaps in our understanding that we may unconsciously fill in for organizations we are already familiar with.

“We now run a readability test on all RFP language before publication…to remove jargon, and improve comprehension.”

Transparent Evaluation Processes

We felt transparency in our decision-making process could only improve the quality of proposals. One way we have done this is by making scoring rubrics available to applicants. We also began providing tailored feedback to each declined applicant on how the proposal could have been stronger in hopes that it will improve future submissions. Though we have yet to determine what impact this will have in the future, we can say that applicants have been appreciative and found this feedback to be useful.

Hope and More Work to Be Done

While we don’t yet have much data to analyze post-implementation, we have noticed a few positive outcomes. We have seen a great increase in applications from greater Minnesota in particular, demonstrating that our targeted outreach is increasingly effective. Our funding awards to projects by and for people of color have also doubled in one of two opportunities we have analyzed since implementation. Despite this progress, we continue to wrestle with how to develop scoring tools that better reflect our values. 

The above are just some examples of how we have begun to identify and address equity barriers in our process that may be helpful for others. If your foundation is considering something similar, here are some things we learned from our experience that may be helpful for you.

  • Leadership & Promising Practices. As with any new process implementation, support from leadership is critical. If you are met with resistance, keep in mind that funders typically want to emulate best and promising practices in philanthropy, and sharing what other funders are doing around diversity, equity, and inclusion can be highly motivating.
  • Checks & Balances. It is also important to keep in mind that old habits die hard. It is not necessarily because team members are resistant to change, but simply need to get into the routine of doing things differently. For that reason, be sure that you build in checks and balances along the way to ensure that all who touch your RFP process have the opportunity to identify pain points along the way while also upholding equity commitments.
  • No One Size Fits All. Keep in mind that there is not one model that will work for everyone, and much in the same way, not all the communities you serve will be pleased with the changes you make. So, keep asking for and responding to feedback from community and know that correcting mistakes is part of improvement and part of ensuring our processes continue to be ones that facilitate, rather than undermine, diversity, equity, and inclusion.

--Erika Grace “E.G.” Nelson

Robert K. Ross, MD, President and CEO, The California Endowment: Parkland Students Inspire Foundation to Screen Out Investments in Firearms Manufacturing
March 14, 2018

Dr. Robert Ross photoOne month after the school shooting in Parkland, Florida that killed 17 people, students across the country are continuing to press for stricter gun control legislation with protests and school walk-outs. According to the Gun Violence Archive, more than 2,837 gun related deaths have occurred so far this year, and both the American Medical Association and the American Public Health Association have recommended addressing gun violence as a public health issue.

The week following the shooting, The California Endowment (TCE), California’s largest healthcare foundation, announced it would begin screening out firearms manufacturing from its investment holdings. TCE’s mission is to expand access to affordable, quality health care for underserved individuals and communities and to promote fundamental improvements in the health status of all Californians. TCE’s mission statement also outlines that the foundation doesn’t focus on prescriptions, but rather “we focus on fixing broken systems and outdated policies, ensuring the balance of power is with the people. We don’t focus on the individual, we focus on the larger community as an ecosystem of health. We work with citizens and elected leaders to find lasting solutions to impact the most people we possibly can.”

Recently, Glasspockets spoke with TCE president and chief executive officer Dr. Robert Ross, about the foundation’s decision to ban firearms investments, and how this aligns with both TCE’s stated health mission, and its core values around diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Glasspockets: The California Endowment recently announced that it will be scrubbing its investments of any holdings in firearms manufacturing, and this is actually not a new practice, but the third “negative screen” you are adding, since you already had screening in place for tobacco and for-profit prisons. Data shows that this practice is actually fairly uncommon in foundation philanthropy, so it’s clear it’s a challenge for the field. When did you begin the practice, and what led to you going down this path initially when you first implemented negative screening?

Dr. Ross: Since we are a health foundation, the founding board actually started with the tobacco screen in the late 90’s.  We added for-profit prisons more recently, after hearing from community leaders that they considered hyper-incarceration as an unhealthy practice affecting communities of color. This is consistent with our core values statement, which also helps guide our board. The very first item in our values states: “We believe that diversity, equity and inclusion are essential to our effectiveness and the long-term health of all Californians and commit to the integration of diversity, equity and inclusion in all our policies, practices, processes, relationships, internal working culture and systems.” By filtering out tobacco, for-profit prisons, and now gun manufacturing we are being consistent with these values.

“We really have to ask ourselves the question of whether the management of our investments portfolio reflects the values we hold dear.”

Glasspockets: There have sadly been many shootings prior to Parkland. What was it about this one that motivated your foundation to act?  

Dr. Ross: We were motivated by the youth and high school student activism – I think we were “shamed” to act by their leadership. The California Endowment “values the energy, agility and fearlessness of youth leadership and youth organizing in its many forms including local, statewide and online community-building.”

Glasspockets: And are you aware of other foundations being similarly motivated to act, either now or that already had such prohibitions in place? 

Dr. Ross: We have followed the leadership efforts of The California Wellness Foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropies and Joyce Foundation, all of which, to the best of my knowledge, already have a screen on firearms in place. I’m not certain how many other funders currently have a firearms manufacturing screen.

Glasspockets: The California Endowment was an early adopter of our Glasspockets approach to a more transparent philanthropy. So clearly transparency, openness, and accountability are priorities. Is your commitment to these values part of what motivated the decision and the public stand you are now taking? 

Dr. Ross: Yes, and it was the reason I published the OpEd in the Chronicle of Philanthropy.  Even though these boardroom conversations can get a little “messy,” it strengthens philanthropic practice if we can demonstrate vulnerability and transparency on tough issues. Without actions, our values just become words on a page.

Glasspockets: Glasspockets is currently advising foundations to become more familiar with what holdings they do have, since these are publicly listed on the 990-PF that foundations annually file with the IRS. And that data is now being released as machine-readable, open data—making it more open and accessible than ever before. Is this something TCE is tracking or do you have any internal practices about monitoring what’s in your 990-PF that may be helpful for others? 

“Without actions, our values just become words on a page.”

Dr. Ross: We have begun utilizing ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) practice approaches, as have many others, as a “values and principles” overlay to our investments portfolio. [ESG screening is an array of ethical exclusion metrics designed to govern certain investment decisions. Excluded companies can include those in the tobacco, firearms, and for-profit prison industries. The alerts look for mentions of portfolio companies (those not currently excluded) and rate them as positive, negative or neutral in terms of these screens.]

Glasspockets: The things you are screening out make a lot of sense for a healthcare foundation. Why do you think so few do it? And what advice would you have for them as far as overcoming those challenges?

Dr. Ross: The answer to this is values-values-values.  Most foundations have both a statement of mission and a statement of values, and we really have to ask ourselves the question of whether the management of our investments portfolio reflects the values we hold dear.  You can’t make a blanket values exception for the investments portfolio.  

Glasspockets: In terms of the screening that had already been in place, what has been the impact on endowment growth?

Dr. Ross: I’m not sure, but I do know that a concern some raise when discussing this is the belief that growth may be negatively impacted by the lack of tobacco and private prisons holdings.  But if you’re acting on your values, then I’m not sure the question is material.  Slavery is profitable, but we’d never invest in that….

Glasspockets: And how about the qualitative impact—things that bottom lines don’t measure? 

Dr. Ross: It’s good for boardroom cohesion, and messaging to staff and community that we intend to live up to our values, even if it is discomforting.  It’s hard to put a price tag on reputation and accountability.

--Janet Camarena

Open for Transformational Change: How Foundation Transparency Sets the Stage for Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Justice
February 14, 2018

Whitney Tome is the executive director of Green 2.0, a campaign dedicated to increasing the racial diversity of mainstream environmental NGOs, foundations and federal government agencies through data transparency, accountability, and increased resources.

Whitney Tome photoPhilanthropy invests billions of dollars into charitable causes each year. According to Foundation Center, foundations gave an estimated $59.28 billion in 2016. That’s a tremendous amount of capital. For better or worse, the field of philanthropy is a leader in determining what’s important and how social change happens. Whoever holds the purse also holds the power. And with power comes responsibility for foundations to set the gold standard, especially for diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice (DEIJ).

In my role as executive director of Green 2.0, I spend a lot of time helping foundations better understand how improved foundation transparency around DEIJ can position philanthropy to lead by example instead of just playing catch up, or worse, just going through the motions. Though we focus on the environmental field, what we have learned in the process can serve as a helpful example for all of philanthropy because every sector has been influenced by the power and privilege that exist in our society.

“Being transparent about the demographics of foundation staff and boards…can spur a review of recruitment and hiring process to reduce implicit biases.”

So what have we learned?  The environmental movement, in particular, has failed to adequately represent people of color. In 2014, Green 2.0 commissioned “The State of Diversity in Environmental Organizations” report authored by Dr. Dorceta Taylor, which found that while people of color are 36% of the U.S. population, they only comprise 12% of foundation staff in the world of environmental funding. And ample studies have shown that communities of color are disproportionately affected by environmental hazards. Green 2.0 envisions a different, more diverse movement that wins environmental battles for those most impacted. To catalyze transformational change, Green 2.0 works to increase the racial and ethnic diversity in the mainstream environmental movement. We call for data transparency, accountability, and increased resources to ensure NGOs and foundations are diverse.

As the sustained drumbeat to improve workplaces and increase opportunities for talented people of color, Green 2.0 engages with environmental NGOs and foundations by calling on them to share their demographic data year after year. This is not just transparency for transparency’s sake. We find there are direct benefits to this kind of transparency that spurs change for the better as outlined below. But there is still lots of room for improvement.

Since 2014, only 12 of the Top 40 environmental foundations have answered the call. Given the benefits of transparency to the DEIJ movement, it is important that both GuideStar and Glasspockets encourage disclosures pertaining to diversity data in their respective profiles. In the case of Glasspockets, the transparency self-assessment covers disclosures about both diversity values statements and demographic data, and what we have learned here is it remains a challenge for the field as a whole with fewer than half of participating foundations reporting any kind of values statement, and fewer than 10 percent disclosing any demographic data at all.  And out of a universe of more than 86,000 foundations, only 500 foundations have willingly submitted their demographic data to GuideStar via their profile page demonstrating that this is a challenge for all foundations. 

Commitment means:

  • Being transparent about the demographics of foundation staff and boards. Greater transparency can spur a review of recruitment and hiring process to reduce implicit biases but also allow foundations to identify the full range of organizations they should be supporting.
  • Encouraging grantees to submit their diversity data and communicate how they are working on diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice both internally and externally. As funders, foundations are uniquely suited to holding grantees accountable for advancing a more diverse environmental movement.
  • Recognizing your role as leaders in the field that influence the whole. When foundations make a move and engage deeply on issues, others follow suit. Foundations have an opportunity and responsibility to show the field the value of diversity through its action and set the standard on recruiting, attracting, and retaining talented people of color.

In order to see transformational change, foundations need to make a real commitment to diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice, internally. That’s more than providing lip service to the value of diversity. It is rather embedding equity and justice in the practices, policies and procedures of the organization and for foundations also into their grantmaking. Ask your foundation simple questions that may result in complex but informative answers as a start:

  • Are you tracking the data of your staff and board?
  • Do you have an organizational vision and/or mission around diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice?
  • Is there authentic leadership on DEIJ issues and are they holding the organization and themselves accountable for change?
  • Are your internal policies for attracting, recruiting, hiring, promoting and retaining staff transparent, equitable and consistently implemented?
  • Are you assessing your organizational culture and making constant adjustments to achieve your vision?
  • Are you tracking the demographic makeup of your grantees? Are you sharing those statistics with program officers? Are you using this to inform future grantmaking?

Several foundations have made or are starting to ask these questions, but many are not public about them.  From sharing the demographic data of their grantees to intentional recruiting and hiring staff of color, these foundations are changing their focus and what they fund. One foundation has been collecting the demographic data of their staff and grantees for several years; and sharing that data with grantees and program officers. This data gives program officers insight into where the dollars are going, how to shift their portfolio over time, and for their grantees they can now compare themselves to other organizations in the field. As a foundation, they have engaged in more DEIJ conversations internally and externally from how they support racial equity through funding to how they support the internal DEIJ work of grantees. This has spurred important conversation and reflection about funding, commitment, and action that this foundation is digging into and learning from every year. More need to start this conversation and be public about the answers that they are coming to.

Green 2.0 will continue to advance enduring change in the environmental movement broadly but we call on foundations to dedicate the time and resources needed to change the face of philanthropy to one that is more diverse, equitable, inclusive, and just.

--Whitney Tome

Glasspockets Find: GuideStar’s Good Practices for Foundations Leads with Transparency and Openness
November 15, 2017

Earlier this year, GuideStar released an informative report, "A Guide to Good Practices in Foundation Operations” that offers tips to eliminate foundation inefficiencies and increase open and responsive grantmaking. The report title emphasizes that a one-size-fits-all “best practices” approach is not appropriate given the unique nature of foundations; it also cautions that this can foster a “one-size-fits-one” culture that creates great inefficiencies for grantseeking organizations, and for the sector as a whole.

At Glasspockets, we are happy to see that transparency topped GuideStar’s list of practices philanthropy should adopt to overcome these challenges.

Download the Report.

In addition to transparency, GuideStar’s good foundation practices cover a range of topics including communications, power dynamics, constituency relations, diversity, and due diligence. Specifically, the report recommends the following tips to eliminate inefficiencies and maximize social sector impact:

  1. Be Transparent to the Public
  2. Be Rigorous—But Remain Respectful of Your Applicants
  3. Be Responsive to Your Constituents
  4. Be Proactive about Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

“We believe that foundations of all shapes and sizes can apply these practices. We also believe that civic society will be much more efficient, stronger, and more effective if all foundations adopt them,” the report states.

Foundation-good-practices-report coverBe Transparent to the Public

Transparency not only benefits grantseekers and the public, but it also benefits grantmakers. GuideStar shared that grantmakers who are open and transparent are more likely to pursue excellence, and be more responsive to their constituents and public criticism. Another benefit: “The act of transparency can force an organization to be clear about its goals and strategy.” 

GuideStar also highlights how foundations can learn from their peers and develop benchmarks through the Glasspockets’ Transparency Trends tool, which helps foundations compare its transparency practices with others and create a customized report with recommendations.

Be Rigorous—But Remain Respectful of Your Applicants

GuideStar suggests foundations can determine the “health of a grantseeker” by: verifying its eligibility to accept grants; confirming that the nonprofit’s proposal aligns with the grantmaker’s mission; and checking on the grant applicant’s role in the community and the field. However, GuideStar cautions foundations about making unreasonable and overly stringent demands such as requesting redundant information or unnecessary documentation that could potentially impede nonprofits from fulfilling their missions. For example, a foundation could gain information on a grantseeker’s legal status, its impact, and its financial health due to the availability of outside products or check the foundation's current records before requesting that information from the nonprofit.

Be Responsive to Your Constituents

Funders should not overlook the use of staff expertise to inform new directions. For example, staff feedback mechanisms should be in place so that their experience and observations can inform foundation’ strategies and missions. GuideStar encourages funders to use an in-house or third-party survey to gather “staff perceptions of their relationships with managers, whether staffers believe they are empowered to do their jobs, and their perceptions of organizational culture.” GuideStar also states that beneficiary feedback mechanisms represent an under-used but effective means of informing foundation strategy.

Be Proactive about Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

Funders’ efforts to address diversity, equity and inclusion should be internalized and synthesized as a “keystone value for an organization” and not due to “ad hoc efforts or in response to public campaigns.” GuideStar emphasizes that diversity is essential to maximizing a foundation’s impact on social good because it “encourages innovation, energizes organizations, and widens perspectives.” Diversity should be reflected in the staff from the Board of Directors to line staff.

Moving Forward

In light of change and uncertainty in society, GuideStar notes that foundations continue to play an important role in influencing and empowering change in the social sector. With GuideStar’s insightful and practical suggestions to address inefficiencies and implement good practices, foundations have opportunities to create internal changes that can have long-lasting impact inside and outside of foundation walls. What good practices is your foundation currently implementing, and which good practices will you aim for?

--Melissa Moy

No Moat Philanthropy Part 3: Building Your Network
October 4, 2017

Jen Ford Reedy is President of the Bush Foundation. On the occasion of her fifth anniversary leading the foundation, she reflects on efforts undertaken to make the Bush Foundation more permeable. Because the strategies and tactics she shares can be inspiring and helpful for any grantmaker exploring ways to open up their grantmaking, we are devoting our blog space all week to the series. This is the third post in the five-part series.

Reedyjenniferford-croppedIn yesterday’s post I shared how we have tried to bring different perspectives into the Foundation.  Today’s post is mostly about getting out of the Foundation, to meet new people.  This is the third principle of No Moat Philanthropy.

Principle #3: Continuously and intentionally connect with new people

Five years ago we had close working relationships with people in each of our initiative areas. While we valued those relationships, we kept a pretty tight circle. We knew people wanted money from us, and we also knew their chances of receiving it were slim. This can be awkward and who wants that? While avoiding awkwardness can make life more pleasant, we now believe embracing that awkwardness actually makes us smarter. While we can only fund a limited number of people and organizations, interacting with lots and lots of people and organizations helps us better understand our region and make better, more informed strategic choices and funding decisions.

We believe in the power of networks. We believe that a community’s strength and diversity of connections help define its capacity for resilience and innovation. We work to ensure we are continuously connecting with new and different people. Each year, we set outreach priorities for geographic areas, cultural communities and/or sectors based on our analysis of where our network is weakest. Then we strive to make new connections in a way that creates connections between others, too. Specifically we:

“We believe that a community’s strength and diversity of connections help define its capacity for resilience and innovation.”

Hold office hours to meet with people all around the region. We hold “office hours” in communities around the region for anyone interested in with our Foundation staff. These are sometimes coupled with a listening session, co-hosted with a local partner, that allow us to understand what issues are most important to the community.

Sponsor and attend other people’s events. We introduced an open process to request Bush Foundation sponsorship of events. We had been sponsoring some events, but we never considered it a program strategy. One of the primary criteria for event sponsorship is whether it will help us connect with people who might benefit from learning about our work. This might include having a Bush Foundation booth manned by staff members who are there to meet and field questions from attendees.

Host events designed for connection. We were already hosting a number of events to build relationships with and among our Fellows and grantees. In the past five years, however, we have taken our events strategy to a higher level by focusing on connecting people across our programs with people beyond our existing grantee and Fellowship networks. The best example of this is bushCONNECT, our flagship event which brings together 1,100 leaders from the region. To ensure we are attracting individuals beyond our community network, we engage “recruitment partners” from around the region who receive grant support to recruit a cohort from within their network to bring to the event, thereby ensuring bushCONNECT attendees more fully represent the geography — and diversity — of our region.

Take cohorts of people to national events. We also offer scholarships for cohorts of people from our region to attend national conferences together. During the event, we create opportunities to build connections with and among the attendees from the region. This allows us to meet and support more people in the region, build attendees’ individual networks, and ensure leaders in our region are both contributing to and benefitting from national conversations.

We are not throwing parties for fun.  We see relationship building as core to our strategy.  We see every interaction as an opportunity to influence and be influenced.  More on that tomorrow.

--Jen Ford Reedy

I Thought I Knew You: Grants Data & the 990PF
August 23, 2017

(Martha S. Richards is the Executive Director of the James F. and Marion L. Miller Foundation in Portland, Oregon.)

This post is part of a Transparency Talk series, presented in partnership with the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, examining the importance of the 990-PF, the informational tax form that foundations must annually file. The series will explore the implications of the open 990; how journalists and researchers use the 990-PF to understand philanthropy; and its role, limitations, and potential as a communications tool.

Join us at a session about the Open 990PF in partnership with Grantmakers of Oregon and Southwest Washington. Learn more or register here.

Martha Richards photoI have a confession to make. Up until a few years ago when this story begins, I used to take the 990PF for granted. I thought of it as something that ensured we were following federal regulations and that if we filed it on time and followed the reporting practices we had always used, that this would be sufficient for all concerned. I was also pretty certain no one but a few insiders within the government and perhaps a handful of philanthropy groups would ever bother to read it.

Well, you might have heard the expression: "You don't know what you don't know," and that's a good segue to what I have to share.

In Spring 2010, the Coalition of Communities of Color (CCC) released a study -- Communities of Color in Multnomah County: an Unsettling Profile -- which defined the disparities facing communities of color in Oregon's largest urban area, Portland. Inspired by this analysis, that December, Foundation Center (FC) and Grantmakers of Oregon and SW Washington (GOSW) co-presented Grantmaking to Communities of Color in Oregon -- a groundbreaking report that acknowledged that philanthropy was part of the problem. The report estimated only 9.6% of grants awarded in 2008 by Oregon private and community funders actually reached communities of color.

While the data told a moving story, the source of the data also became a parallel conversation because the philanthropic community here in Oregon learned about the limitations of using tax returns to tell such important stories. The grant descriptions in our 990s rarely disclose details about the intended beneficiaries of the grants—even if we know them.

The result: We embarked on a long journey to address both issues. While GOSW and CCC hosted a forum to raise awareness of the reports and their attendant policy recommendations, foundations committed to look more closely at their giving practices as well as their data collection efforts, especially emphasizing collecting better beneficiary data, and reporting relationship with Foundation Center.

This prompted us at the James F. and Marion L. Miller Foundation to examine our own giving and how we could describe its reach. We fund in the areas of arts and K-12 education. We have a small staff. Our application process did not require a detailed analysis of demographic data from arts applicants or schools, nor an understanding of the diverse nature of nonprofit leadership among our grantees. We realized that we did not know if the grants we made were reaching the populations we hoped to serve.

As part of this effort, I chaired a GOSW-led Data Work Group to explore how to obtain more meaningful data sets without adding to the length and complexity of our application processes. We invited nonprofit partners to the table. We studied Foundation's Center's processes and invited their staff to meet with and advise us. We tried, tested, and began to encourage nonprofits to help us learn more about how and who we were reaching with our philanthropic dollars. Eventually, we encouraged many of our Oregon foundations to become eReporters to Foundation Center, providing more detailed descriptions of what the grant was for, and who was reached with the funding. Our reports to the Foundation Center and to the IRS have improved, and we make an effort to report detailed demographic information.

Before and After Chart

However, we discovered that it can be difficult for some types of organizations to capture specific demographic data. In the arts, for instance, outside of audience surveys, one generally does not complete a demographic survey to buy a ticket. At the Miller Foundation, we chose to partner with DataArts to collect financial and audience data on our arts grantees. Arts organizations annually complete the profile and it can be used for several arts funders in the state. Their demographic profile is still being developed, but it will encourage better data information and capture in the future. Unfortunately, this platform does not exist for other nonprofits.

Get on the Map

Get on the Map encourages foundations to share current and complete details about their grantmaking with Foundation Center. The interactive map, databases and reports allow foundations to have a better understanding of grantee funding and demographics.

We didn't know it then, but as a result of our committee's efforts, a new data improvement movement was born, called Get on the Map (GOTM). GOTM encourages foundations to share current and complete details about their grantmaking with Foundation Center, so the Maps, databases, and reports it issues are as accurate as possible. The grants we share also populate an interactive map that members of GOSW have access to, which means that we have a better idea of the ecosystem in which we work. It has since scaled nationally with other regions also committing to improve the data they collect and share about their grantmaking so we can all be less in the dark about what efforts are underway and who is working on them.

As a result, today our foundation has a better understanding of who our grantees are serving and reaching today, than we did seven years ago, and I think we are also doing a better job of sharing that story with the IRS, Foundation Center, and the many sets of eyes I now know view those platforms.

We are still learning what we do not know. But at least, now we know what we do not know.

-- Martha Richards


Coming to Grantmakers of Oregon and Southwest Washington: To learn more about what story your 990PF tells about your foundation, register to attend Once Upon a 990PF. Visit the GOSW website for more information and to register.

Open Yourself Up to New Solutions
April 5, 2017

SAVE THE DATE: April 13, 1:30-3:00 p.m. EST.  Like this blog series?  Attend our Inside Innovation Funding event in person in San Francisco, or virtually via livestream in San Francisco.

(Christie George is the director of New Media Ventures, a mission-driven venture firm and donor collaborative supporting progressive startups.  New Media Ventures supports companies and organizations that – through the use of new media and technology – build advocacy movements, tell new stories and drive civic engagement.)

This post is part of the Funding Innovation series, produced by Foundation Center's Glasspockets and GrantCraft, and underwritten by the Vodafone Foundation.  The series explores funding practices and trends at the intersection of problem-solving, technology, and design. Please contribute your comments on each post and share the series using #fundinginnovation. View more posts in the series.

Christie-George1-163x164

If you’ve been following the headlines since the 2016 election, you’ve probably thought about the growing polarization in our country. You may share my worry about filter bubbles and political echo chambers, or you might have recommitted to sparking conversations with friends across the aisle. At New Media Ventures (NMV), we see the same need in the funding world. From our perspective, most people fund people and organizations they already know, moving money through referrals and established networks. But if we’re going to solve the big problems facing our world, we need to move beyond our personal echo chambers.

As a mission-driven venture fund that invests in both for-profit and nonprofit startups, NMV stands with one foot in the venture capital world and one foot in philanthropy – driving change at the intersection of technology, media, and civic engagement. When we first got started, we found ourselves sourcing opportunities in all the traditional ways – using our personal networks and attending conferences – but we quickly realized that we needed to try something different to ensure that we were actually identifying new approaches to the problems we wanted to solve. In 2014, we launched the NMV Innovation Fund with two main goals: 1) increase the number of investable projects crossing our desks (our deal flow); and 2) break through the bias for “the usual suspects” to fund more diverse entrepreneurs.

In the simplest terms, the Innovation Fund is an open call for world-changing innovations. Twice a year, we ask our network, and our network’s network, and their networks (you get the idea: we cast a wide net) to send us the best opportunities they’ve seen for how technology can catalyze progressive change. This year, in response to our “Resist and Rebuild” Open Call, we received nearly 500 applications – a new record – and we are blown away by the creativity of the applicants.

“...If you haven’t tried an open call, you might be missing out on amazing solutions beyond the usual suspects.”

While it may sound overwhelming to sort through hundreds of applications, we have developed a methodology for doing this work efficiently.  This process includes recruiting a volunteer screening committee of funding peers, simplifying our application as much as possible, asking more detailed questions only to the applicants who rise to the top, and using a technology platform to easily manage all of the applications in one batch. Ultimately, New Media Ventures makes the final funding decision, but the screening committee is one of the most powerful aspects of the process – many heads are better than one – and working collaboratively with other funders allows us to leverage different domain expertise in evaluating opportunities. 

Here are two takeaways from our experience opening ourselves up to open calls, and the reasons why we hope other funders will consider similar approaches:

1) Big problems require new solutions (and diversity is not a “nice to have”). Funding exclusively through referrals can limit what funders see and increase the risk of confirmation bias – one of the reasons white men are so much more likely to get venture capital funding in Silicon Valley. By having an open and transparent application process, heavily marketed to ensure we’re getting outside our own bubbles, we’ve made a tremendous
impact on the diversity of our portfolio. Our website, blog, social media platforms, and partners broadcast details about the open call, allowing us to
reach new audiences who may be deterred by less transparent philanthropic opportunities. We’re proud that 65% of Innovation Fund applicants have New Media Ventures logoat least one female and/or trans founder, and 30% have at least one person of color on the founding team. We still have a long way to go, but by comparison 8% of venture capital goes to women founders and 13% to founders of color.

However, focusing on diversity is not a “nice to have” and it’s not just about the numbers – it’s a core part of our strategy. Our societies and systems are facing entrenched problems, and solving them will require new and bold solutions. We need all hands on deck. Women, trans people, and leaders of color have much-needed perspectives and expertise, but often lack access to capital, networks, and traditional philanthropy. For example, news platform Blavity, founded by a young black woman, has grown to reach 7 million readers by creatively combining pop culture content with thoughtful coverage of race and gender issues. We might never have identified this opportunity were it not for our open call.

2) Less control over outcomes leads to more welcome surprises. When funders issue a request for proposals (RFP), we essentially define the terms of the discussion: we’ve often developed a strategy, and we’re looking for organizations to execute that strategy. Unlike a traditional RFP, the Innovation Fund Open Call process has very broad parameters by design. We’ve found this requires us to be comfortable with uncertainty and develop the humility to stay in a learning mindset. The approach isn’t without risks. What if you open the gates for a broad range of applicants, and don’t find anything you want to fund? What if you keep your parameters flexible and only get applications that aren’t in your wheelhouse? But with careful planning and a good process, we have developed strategies to mitigate the risks, and find we gain real value from being able to scan the field and identify gaps as well as opportunities. It has paid off in delightful and unexpected ways.

For many of our portfolio organizations, NMV is their first institutional funder, and our early investment gives our grantees the validation and runway they need to go on to great things: CoWorker.org hosted the Summit on Worker Voice with President Obama; Blavity went on to participate in 500 Startups; Vote.org got into Y Combinator and scaled up quickly to send SMS voting reminder messages to more than 1 million people in swing states leading up to the election. And that’s just a few examples.

To sum it up, if you haven’t tried an open call, you might be missing out on amazing solutions beyond the usual suspects. If boosting innovation is one of your goals, we recommend starting small and collaborating with others to share the work. Consider carving out a portion of your grantmaking budget to fund projects selected through an open process, and remember that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. NMV and other similar groups have developed deep expertise around open calls and we’re excited to partner with other funders. In fact, we did just that when we worked with the Pluribus Project on a democracy-focused open call last year.

So go ahead, open up and let yourself be surprised. It worked for us.

--Christie George

 

Soulful Innovation: Increasing Diverse Tech Entrepreneurship
February 22, 2017

SAVE THE DATE: April 13, 1:30-3:00 p.m. EST.  Like this blog series?  Attend our Look Inside Innovation Funding event in person or via livestream in San Francisco.  More details and registration info coming in March.

C-Brown-Photo(Cedric Brown has been a leader in philanthropy and the civil society sector for nearly two decades. He is currently the Chief of Community Engagement at the Kapor Center for Social Impact, in Oakland, California. The Kapor Center won the 2017 Crunchies Social Impact Award.)

This post is part of the Funding Innovation series, produced by Foundation Center's Glasspockets and GrantCraft, and underwritten by the Vodafone Americas Foundation. The series explores funding practices and trends at the intersection of problem-solving, technology, and design. Please contribute your comments on each post and share the series using #fundinginnovation. View more posts in the series

Frankly, I get tired of talking about innovation. Sometimes discussions about innovation come across as Sisyphean pursuits, where style is greater than substance, and preening is greater than practice. I’m looking for conversations about innovation with soul. With gravitas. With a conscience. Ones that advance uplifting solutions that make this Earth more habitable or help more people meet their hierarchy of needs (or as of late, that strengthen the fast-unraveling social contract necessary for humankind to co-exist).

Three years ago at the behest of our benefactors, the then-Kapor Foundation began to explore how to move away from our traditional responsive grantmaking. The benefactors had begun to invest in seed-staged tech startups that aim to address and mitigate equality gaps. They witnessed the power of designing solutions for markets - "communities" - that operate at scale. They saw how different and disruptive ways of approaching problem solving can create a culture shift. They came to us, the foundation staff, and requested that we start thinking about this intersection of tech-for-good and our grantmaking work.

“Are we overlooking the resourcefulness that resides in the 'hood, favela, sticks, and bush?”

In the ensuing years, we experimented with different approaches, borrowing from our new knowledge of Lean Startup principles. Through a clunky, iterative learning process - which in hindsight I would like to label as our R&D - we decided to lead the way by doing our part to expand access to the tech sector and innovation economy.

Van Jones has shared that his dear friend Prince said we need to create a "Black Zuckerberg." While I take issue with that particular mold (pattern recognition and Ivy league degree-as-entry-barrier are part of tech's diversity problem), I get The Purple One's point, echoed by Mitch Kapor: "Genius is evenly distributed across zip codes, but opportunity is not." Working with a variety of partners in this ecosystem, we seek to plug leaks in the tech talent pipeline while sharpening the skills and talents that reside in all of our diverse communities.

To this point, I’ve judged a number of youth hackathons and design sessions, mostly attended by low-income, “low opportunity,” or similarly-labeled young people. These youth are participating in these activities as an initial exposure to tech skill-building and careers, and I am consistently impressed by how these young teams create apps that address information and resource gaps: student loan payment platforms; mentoring matching; anonymous bully identification; and safe passage routing among them.  

Our premise is that as the high-tech industry becomes more inclusive, companies and teams will become better at problem solving, will create better products and solutions that serve a wider market, and will utilize tech-driven platforms to solve pressing problems that are informed by their lived experiences. Our backup? Heavy hitters like  McKinsey, Catalyst, Kellogg and Stanford have found this to be true.

How are we benefiting from the terrific brainpower, scrappiness, and necessity - as the mother of invention - that resides in nonprofit leaders, in low-income communities, with people who are "making a way out of no way" as my church folks used to say?  Are we overlooking the resourcefulness that resides in the 'hood, favela, sticks, bush?

Kapor_logo_dark_rgb

You've heard these questions before, I'm sure. So what are we doing about it?

We're catalyzing and strengthening tech innovation, in line with the theme of this blog, by introducing and preparing more people to lead its creation. Tech shouldn't be an insular economy; now more than ever, we need thinkers, tinkerers, designers, and dreamers who are motivated by the pursuit of a significantly positive impact rather than a sinfully profitable buyout.

In 2017, the Kapor Center - including our sibling organizations, Kapor Capital and Level Playing Field Institute - are committed to increasing diverse tech entrepreneurship, access to capital, access to tech and STEM education, and building strong community institutions to promote a more diverse tech ecosystem in the Bay Area, with a special focus on Oakland, our home.

We’re employing a range of old tools for new outcomes - convening key partners to coordinate around systems-level goals (kind of collective impact-ish), providing financial support to select roundtables to support this coordination work, and utilizing the visibility of our benefactors and brand to raise awareness about the issues at hand and to channel resources to efforts aligned with our work, helping to create a larger, stronger network of collaborators. And we’re using our brand-spankin’ new building on Oakland’s Broadway corridor to host events that welcome, validate, leverage, and enrich diverse talent - namely people of color and women - as they pursue their entrepreneurship, technical, and impact goals. We see this work as a powerful overlay between the ubiquity of tech, the possibility of entrepreneurship, the integrity of fairness, and the necessity of economic mobility and empowerment for a just society.

But back to the issue at hand - innovation. I think that soulful, meaningful, conscientious innovation is rooted in a nagging question: “What can we do to be more effective?” It’s organic; a quest to find the bull’s eye of effectiveness en route to real impact. It requires experimentation, evolution, and even a bit of envy - as a competitive motivator to be top of class, of course. And while so many of these variables are present in innovation economy practitioners, I’d like to see them more firmly rooted in addressing real world issues informed by and for real people.

--Cedric Brown

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  • Transparency Talk, the Glasspockets blog, is a platform for candid and constructive conversation about foundation transparency and accountability. In this space, Foundation Center highlights strategies, findings, and best practices on the web and in foundations–illuminating the importance of having "glass pockets."

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