How Deep Relationships With Community Informs Our Grantmaking - Exponent Philanthropy
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How Deep Relationships With Community Informs Our Grantmaking

Photo by Keira Burton

The coronavirus pandemic opened our eyes to how sectors and systems do or do not address the ever-growing health and income inequities in this country.

We can approach this in two ways:
  1. Admit the inadequacies of our systems. Especially those focused on health, housing, food insecurity and education, or
  2. Go a step further to recognize that the safety, dignity, and well-being of BIPOC communities is not built into our existing systems.

For foundations, what does that going a step further look like?

In the last few years, the sector has issued solidarity statements. It’s committed to easing reporting and funding restrictions, especially around general operating support. We applaud these trust-based approaches and recognize trust takes time. However, our intentions must align with our action and impact. Not once, but every time.

If we want our communities to thrive, we need to reimagine our systems, policies and how we engage with community to address the root of our inequities. No single funding strategy can magically erase the impact of generations of structural racism and income inequality. Not much will change without the leadership and insight from those most impacted.

“Being in Right Relationship” With Grantee Partners

Healthy Communities Foundation is a health conversion foundation committed to community-led approaches. Being in right relationship is a concept we humbly borrow from our peers steeped in Indigenous traditions. It’s an orientation that acknowledges our connection and interdependence within the ecosystems of our work, which, in “Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants,” Robin Wall Kimmerer reminds us applies beyond the plant world.

It requires that we recognize the sacredness of our relationships with:

  • Ourselves and the values that drive us
  • Grantee partners who intimately understand how issues impact their communities
  • Peer funders to strategize nuanced responses that center community voice and lived experience

In our relationships, we are community members invested in lifting up structural inequities because they harm all of us.

Embedding Racial Equity in Our Strategic Plan

When we embarked on a new strategic plan, we explicitly named addressing racial equity as a key to achieving health equity. Undoubtedly, it was vital to ensuring all residents in our region could lead full, healthy, resilient lives. We also committed to being agile and adaptive in our decision-making and actions.

To emphasize, we have a somewhat unique board and staff. No one on staff had prior experience in philanthropy. But we have extensive experience in the nonprofit sector, as well as in community organizing and cultural work. What’s more, we’re all committed to our values-driven mission that centers equity and justice in our processes, relationships, and aspirations. We understand that nonprofits, especially those led by communities of color, struggle to access capital. Many can neither navigate the shifting public and private funding landscapes, nor have the infrastructure to weather a crisis.

Our board reflects our community demographics. Members either live, work or have some connection to our region. Moreover, with their support, we’ve already committed more than 90% of our grantmaking to general operating support. Similarly, we’ve streamlined our grantmaking and reporting processes to align with a trust-based framework.

Community Embedded and Community Led

For us, community engagement is not an afterthought or a separate strategy. It’s part of a deep-seated commitment to achieve health equity through reciprocity and interdependence. This spans our relationships with each other, grantee partners, peers, and even the land and geographic footprint of our work. We’re still learning and growing. Thus, throughout the journey, we reflect on how we can be in right relationship with our communities, and in alignment with just actions and policies.

These questions have guided our reflection. They may help you too:
  • How might existing philanthropic practices perpetuate harm in the community? Do current practices place undue burdens on organizations or box out leaders (especially leaders of color) from networks and resources?
  • Does our staff and leadership reflect the communities our foundation represents. That could be through demographics, lived experience or deep familiarity and expertise with community issue.
  • Which communities and populations are missing from the data available to you? Whose stories get told and from what perspective?
  • How do our application and reporting processes impose a bigger burden on smaller and under-resourced organizations? This SSIR article takes a deeper dive into other ways to take a race-explicit approach.

It is our duty and obligation to consider how our practices, policies and strategies evolve to meet the complexities and needs of our communities currently. Our paths may differ, and we might not get it right every time. But we can either continue to address the symptoms of larger structural issues, or we can deal with the issues themselves. To achieve the change the world needs right now, the key lies in our relationships with community.

More Resources to Start Your Race Equity Journey

Racial Equity in Lean Foundations
Collected through FOMR data, surveys, and interviews with members. We also describe how racial equity relates to good governance, grantmaking, and investment practices.
Get your free copy.


Attend the Healthy Communities Foundation’s Session at This Year’s Conference

Minneapolis, MN
We’re thrilled to return to in-person gatherings this year. Above all, our top priority is to provide a safe environment where lean funders can learn and connect.
See the schedule!


About the Author

Tina Ramirez Moon is a program officer with the Healthy Communities Foundation. Tina has extensive experience in community engagement, federal grant oversight, program implementation and workshop facilitation, informed by more than fifteen years in the nonprofit sector and cultural organizing work.

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