A post to Exponent Philanthropy's blog

How Deep Relationships With Community Informs Our Grantmaking

Photo by Matt Gross on Unsplash

The coronavirus pandemic has opened many of our eyes to how sectors and systems do or don’t address the ever-growing health and income inequities in this country.

We can approach this realization in two ways:

  1. We can admit the inadequacies of our systems, especially those focused on health, housing, food insecurity and education, or
  2. We can go a step further to recognize that our existing systems have not been built with the safety, dignity and well-being of BIPOC communities in mind.

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

In the last few months, we’ve seen the sector issue solidarity statements and commit to easing reporting and funding restrictions, especially around general operating support.

We applaud these trust-based approaches and recognize trust takes time. But 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

As a health conversion foundation committed to community-led approaches, the team at the Healthy Communities Foundation was in many ways primed for this moment. But that’s not to say we weren’t tested — we’ve had to put our values into practice, evaluate the efficacy of our policies and operations, and most importantly, reinforce the ways we aspire to be in right relationship with grantee partners.

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 is applicable beyond the plant world. It requires that we recognize the sacredness of our relationships, with ourselves and the values that drive us; with grantee partners who intimately understand how issues impact their communities; and with peer funders to strategize nuanced responses that center community voice and lived experience.

Taking a cue from “Resituating Reciprocity” in our relationships, we are community members invested in lifting up structural inequities because they harm all of us.

Embedding racial equity in our pandemic response

When we embarked on a new strategic plan three years ago, we explicitly named addressing racial equity as a key to achieving health equity and 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. The unique makeup of our board and staff has, in part, enabled our response.

No one on staff had prior experience in philanthropy. But we have extensive experience in the nonprofit sector as well as community organizing and cultural work. And we’re all committed to our values-driven mission that centers equity and justice in our processes, relationships and aspirations.

We also understand that nonprofits, especially those led by communities of color, struggle to access capital. And many are neither able to navigate the shifting public and private funding landscapes, nor do they have the infrastructure to weather a crisis.

Our board is reflective of our community demographics. Members either live, work or have some connection to our region. And with their support, we’ve already committed more than 90% of our grantmaking to general operating support. We have also 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. And 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, and 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?
  • How is our staff and leadership reflective of the communities our foundation represents (whether through demographics, lived experience or deep familiarity and expertise of community issues)?
  • Which communities and populations are missing from the data that’s available to you? Whose stories are being told and from what perspective?
  • How do our application and reporting processes impose a greater administrative burden on smaller and under-resourced organizations? The recent SSIR article “Transformative Capacity Building” takes a deeper dive into other ways to take a race-explicit approach with insights from the Rainer Valley Corps.

It is our duty and obligation to consider how our practices, policies and strategies are evolving to meet the complexities and needs of our communities at this time. 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.

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. Grounded in kapwa practice and values rooted in interconnection and interdependence, she seeks to understand how we collectively center relationships, well-being and resilience in organizational and community spaces.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *