A post to Exponent Philanthropy's blog

Outsized Impact Award Nominee: Katherine Zavala

Katherine Zavala sees, senses, and responds to what is possible and what is preferred by her grantee partners.

Katherine has spent the vast majority of her career at Thousand Currents, starting as an intern and working her way through several program positions, directorships, and currently as the Director of Grassroots Partnerships and member of the Senior Management Team.

She has been at the forefront of what have become core practices in responsive philanthropy: general operating support, multiyear grants, culturally competent communication and evaluation, and building authentic, trusting relationships with grantees (who Thousand Currents calls “grassroots partners”) over years and even decades.

She expands her colleagues’ imaginations for how to move more money to groups led by women, youth, and Indigenous Peoples around the world—those who otherwise get less than 1% of international grantmaking dollars.

Several years ago, Katherine bravely suggested the foundation shift from time-bound grants to grant cycles based on mutually agreed-upon outcomes between the grassroots partner and Thousand Currents. This fundamentally shifted its grassroots partners’ ability to be agile, thoughtful, thorough, and bold, free from arbitrary funder deadlines.

Katherine builds partnerships that are personal and focused on bringing equity and trust to what is normally an imbalanced power dynamic of grantor and grantee. She is patient and kind, trusting and rigorous.

Katherine has an exceptional aptitude for discerning when and how her support is appropriate. When longtime partner AFEDES in Guatemala led the National Movement of Weavers in Guatemala to win legislation to protect their collective property rights as Indigenous craftspeople, Katherine knew that, more than any grant amount she could give, her role could be most useful in connecting AFEDES with other funders, media outlets, and additional ways of sharing their story.

After she heard from grassroots partners about their desire to connect with one another, Katherine was central to convening various Learning Exchanges, including a recent one in Chiapas, Mexico, that brought together over 120 practitioners to learn from one another’s work on food sovereignty in different locales around the world.

Although working in philanthropy is a particular uphill battle for people of color and for women, Katherine has committed herself to sharing her grant partners’ wisdom with the sector. Earlier this year Katherine co-organized and supported a workshop for other funders including Open Society Institute, Wellspring Fund, Wallace Global, and several others from the United States and internationally.

Katherine also generously shares her learning as a core faculty member at the Thousand Currents Academy. Heading into its 9th Academy with more than 150 graduates, Katherine has been there every step of the way to ensure that what she learns as a grantmaker doesn’t just stay with her, but can be shared throughout the sector and becomes the fuel for deeper collaboration.

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