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Funding Innovations That Break the Mold

By Lateefah Simon & Timothy Silard

Patrisse Cullors is creating a network of rapid responders, as an alternative to police, to support victims and survivors of state violence and mass criminalization. Raj Jayadev is helping individuals who face incarceration, their families, and their communities play an active role in their defense. Nicole Pittman is taking on the practice of placing children on sex offender registries.

These leaders are finding new ways to break down barriers to opportunity and justice at a time when people of color, immigrants, and other communities face a resurgent wave of hostility and violence, both in the United States and elsewhere. In this moment, we need more leaders who are not satisfied with anything less than obliterating the systems of oppression that harm communities of color and working people, and who are deeply embedded in the communities they serve. But to make headway against these challenges, these leaders need those of us in philanthropy to step up and completely rethink our approach to investing in social change.

What does it take for philanthropy to effectively support emerging leaders and their risky ideas? Our experience with the Leading Edge Fund—a three-year fellowship launched by the Rosenberg Foundation and the Hellman Foundation in 2016 to support cutting-edge, social change ideas—has underlined the importance of four funding practices. While these practices aren’t particularly new, we believe our experiences over the past three years can offer some fresh examples of and new perspectives on how to apply them.

Give Leaders Space and Opportunity to Think—and Act—Big

Nonprofit and movement leaders are chronically overworked. The constant stress related to fundraising, and managing and growing organizations—all while advancing movements and organizing communities to push back against injustice—leaves little time or space for deep thinking about how to fundamentally change the odds for and with disenfranchised people.

The Leading Edge Fund is a state-based fellowship that provides unrestricted support to organizers and activists to help nurture their long-term vision for change. The fund supports fellows to think (and act) big by providing general support funds to use as they wish in their efforts to change our communities. Our hope is that the availability of flexible, unrestricted support will allow fellows the space to reflect and focus their energy and creativity on pursuing their boldest ideas. As one example, building on her strong history of advocacy and activism, including as a founder of #BlackLivesMatter, Cullors has used fellowship funds to support the development of community-based, rapid-response “justice teams” to combat police violence and to write her New York Times best-selling memoir, When They Call You a Terrorist.

Give Leaders Time to Try and Fail

In any endeavor, it can take years to turn promising ideas into reality, and that’s especially true for social movements. Take, for example, the movement to make marriage equality a reality in the land, and the ongoing fight for civil rights. Bold and transformative change is possible only through sustained, long-term, patient, and coordinated advances; there may not be a straight path to change, and the work may occur in fits and starts. But scarce resources often force nonprofits and activists to focus on the short term. The impulse can be to play it safe and stick to tried-and-true approaches that will appeal to philanthropic supporters, even if those approaches are not delivering the systemic change that will unlock real progress.

To get rid of restrictions and requirements that often stifle long-term thinking and groundbreaking ideas, we let go of the need to have measured outcomes. Instead, we decided to invest in the leaders and support their development for the long haul. We also connect fellows with experts and partners that can help them identify areas of growth as well as the type of supports they need. For example, Raja Jorjani, who is working to ensure that immigrants impacted by the criminal justice system have legal representation, was able to meet with Bryan Stevenson, founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, and learn even more about the transformative power of litigation for social change.

We also let go of funding practices intended to “manage” grantees’ work. For example, the fund does not require detailed proposals or budgets with annual deliverables, quantified outcomes, and frequent reporting. Our expectation is not that fellows will accomplish their goals in one year or three years—or even 10 years. Rather than giving us ongoing grantee reports, fellows share their failures and successes with their cohort and with us during regular retreats, and submit annual updates about their efforts. Since we are focused on the leaders, rather than the success of their idea, accepting the risk that some of their ideas may fall short even as others take hold and flourish is baked into the design.

Support the Leader, Not Just the Organization

Leadership awards are typically tied to the work people are doing within a specific organization, and grants are awarded for project-based goals or for organizational support. Even in leadership development, the trend is to support not only leaders, but also their senior team, the board, or organizational systems.

By contrast, our fund is agnostic when it comes to affiliation. Fellows can be leaders or founders of staffed nonprofit organizations, solo operators with nonprofit status, employees of public systems or legal aid organizations, or individual activists. Instead, we focus on the strength of their potential and their ideas.

For example, Jayadev founded Silicon Valley De-Bug to mobilize communities in Silicon Valley around social justice issues, including workers’ rights and criminal justice reform. Today, the platform is a vehicle for community organizing to impact the outcome of cases and transform the court system. However, Meredith Desautels’ fellowship—and effort to end the incarceration of children—isn’t tied to her work with any one organization, and Jorjani is working within a government institution as a public defender.

Remember That Movements Thrive on Connections

Social justice work can be isolating. Its fierce urgency and the daily grind can be all-encompassing. And fundraising pressures can make organizations feel more like competitors than allies, which puts the success of our collective movements at stake.

Part of our work, therefore, is to help foster a network of activists who can support each other to advance equity and social justice. Toward this end, we convene retreats where fellows share ideas, get hands-on training to build their capacity, and grow and strengthen their personal relationships. Training has included how to make a case of support for funders and wellness for social justice leaders.

Fellows also have had the opportunity to collaborate on issues and projects during retreats. Raha Jorjani and Raj Jayadev, for example, collaborated on a symposium that focused on prosecutor accountability. Patrisse Cullors and Morning Star Gali organized a convening for leaders from Movement for Black Lives and Native organizers. We also make the retreats family friendly; fellows can bring their children to mealtime and retreat activities.

In other efforts to spur cross-fertilization and relationship building, we encourage fellows to use their grant funds to support networking with other fellows, whether through site visits to their communities or shared learning opportunities. As one example, Nicole Pittman visited Silicon Valley DeBug to learn how to integrate participatory defense in her work. From the beginning of this work, participants told us they wanted a “relational vs. transactional” experience—and we’ve tried to deliver.

All too often, nonprofit and community leaders feel bound and beholden to philanthropy, responding to our often-difficult requirements, and tailoring their ideas and proposals to what they think we want to fund. Working with these inspiring fellows has reminded us that the best role philanthropy can play in advancing social justice is to flip the power equation and work in service to those who are making a difference on the frontlines.

Listen to these grassroots leaders, invest in their great ideas, help them grow their networks—and then get out of the way. That’s what we’re trying to do, and we hope it is a promising formula for building and growing stronger social movements. Now more than ever, we need to give movement leaders the resources, flexibility, and connections they need to bring their vision for justice to life.

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Philanthropic Leadership Means Following the Frontlines

By Alison Corwin

When we talk about “building the capacity” of frontline and grassroots leaders who are changing structures, policies, and systems, what does that really mean for funders? Many funders use antiquated and static systems of inquiry to identify and make judgements about which groups are well-equipped to achieve social change. The truth is that philanthropy holds a disproportionate amount of power; it serves as a gatekeeper for the resources that belong to our communities. And while the folks most impacted by any given issue—particularly frontline communities of color—hold the solutions and are in the best position to implement equitable systems change, our field continues to struggle with identifying and funding existing capacity on the ground.

An evolved approach is not only necessary, but also possible. As Ayanna Pressley, who beat a 10-term Congressman in her primary race in Massachusetts, said on her campaign trail: “The people closest to the pain should be closest to the power.”

A funder’s role, then, is to build our own individual and institutional skills to receive and incorporate the insight these leaders and communities provide. We must listen to them, follow them, and respond in ways that help us model the systems change—the new rules, norms, and equitable power structures—they are creating.

It begins with community

For me, a big part of doing this is building a community of folks to talk to, and learn with and from, in a space that encourages vulnerability and welcomes curiosity. For example, I participated in a year-long collective-learning program for funders housed at the Neighborhood Funders Group (NFG)—an organization that has centered its mission on power and racial justice for nearly 40 years. Called Project Phoenix, the program fostered a community of funders eager to work together at the intersection of democracy, the economy, and the environment, and enabled us to grow together and deepen relationships. Those experiences continue to heavily influence my view of what is possible through collective learning and action. In spaces like these and in the communities where we work, partners can cultivate trust over time by working together, making promises to one another, and addressing broken promises when they happen. In doing so, we remain accountable, transparent, and open to change and self-reflection.

Learning environments help those of us with white privilege and philanthropic institutional privilege ground ourselves and our work in community and, in many cases, re-educate ourselves about history. My formal education about the history and systems of the United States was in part an intentional miseducation to perpetuate the dominant white power structure. An evolved approach means recognizing that history is storytelling. We must seek out and listen to a wide range of stories, especially from communities of color, if we are to more fully understand how our current, racially unjust system in the United States came about, what has reinforced it, and what we can do to change it.

The real face of leadership

Funders do not always see that the lived experience of many powerful frontline and grassroots leaders is what makes them experts. Their expertise might not fit neatly into a box that funders can check off, and they may not agree with funders’ ideas or strategies. But it is not their role to agree with us or fit into philanthropy’s predetermined and often structurally racist criteria; it is our responsibility to see them, listen to them, and follow their lead. Building relationships and trust with these leaders means spending time with folks in communities—where they live, play, pray, congregate, eat, organize, dream, and work together.

Based on many conversations with field leaders about what it takes to recognize and resource frontline strength and leadership—again, particularly among leaders of color—here are some specific recommendations:

  • Be responsive to the way people and movements organize themselves. Social justice movements are highly informed and have their own analysis about how best to advance power, justice, and solutions. Funders shouldn’t be prescriptive about their own theory of change or outcomes. The Chorus Foundation, for example, uses grantee-led processes to make local funding decisions that support organizations working toward a just transition; shifting from old, extractive economies to regenerative, democratic alternatives that benefit frontline communities.
  • Support organizational capacity, as well as the capacity of individuals, networks, and coalitions. Not all impactful work happens inside a nonprofit structure, and it often requires that funders support an ecosystem of collaborative work. The Solutions Project’s Fighter Fund, for example, provides rapid-response grantmaking to support pivotal frontline leaders, not just organizations.
  • Make space for divergence and debate in movements, rather than force consensus and uniformity. Movements are not a monolith; movement leaders will not always agree on solutions, in part because they bring different experiences and histories to their work. The Advancing Equity and Opportunity (AEO) Collaborative creates space by bringing together leaders with a diversity of perspectives, across 13 states in the southeast, to advance environmental solutions rooted in equity.
  • Ask your partners what they need to be healthy and present in their work. Many frontline leaders are working tirelessly and on thin budgets. Cover the cost of childcare, eldercare, or other priorities when asking partners to travel or spend time away from their daily lives and community. The Andrus Family Fund, for example, helps strengthen grantee partners’ ability to serve system-impacted young people by providing flexible support that includes leadership development.

  • Provide long-term, flexible (general operating) resources at a level that allows leaders to dream, build, implement, and realize the change they seek. Restrictive funding keeps folks having to defend their communities daily, leaving little room for them to do systems-level work. More funders need to provide long-term resources that complement immediate and responsive support such as rapid-response funding.

Nick Tilsen, president and CEO of NDN Collective, a national organization building Indigenous power, declared to a room of funders recently, “Philanthropy has historically invested in frontline, grassroots, and Indigenous leadership just enough for us to fail.” In other words, many funders expect transformative results from frontline leadership on a shoestring budget. They invest in frontline leadership work just enough to say they support it, but often not at the same level they fund white-led organizations or initiatives. I have heard others express this sentiment many times over—including at the Solidarity to Solutions Week, a frontline response to the Global Climate Action Summit, organized collectively by hundreds of It Takes Roots members and its directors Angela Adrar (Climate Justice Alliance), Cindy Wiesner (Grassroots Global Justice Alliance), Dawn Phillips (Right to the City Alliance), and Tom Goldtooth (Indigenous Environmental Network).

Grounded in race

Even if we implement these practices, we will ultimately fail to create real systems change unless we center and pursue racial justice and equity, both in our organizations’ internal operations, and in our external grantmaking and investment strategies.

Race is the predominant determinant of quality of life in the United States, and we know communities of color face disproportionate injustice. Racial justice—the systemic, fair treatment of people of all races that results in equitable opportunities and outcomes for all—cannot be a separate goal or outcome; it must be the central objective of our collective work. We grantmakers must not only be allies, but also join our partners’ struggle on the frontlines, and recognize that the same communities bearing injustice are the heart and soul of our social movements.

What if our philanthropic practices around diversity, equity, and inclusion were the entry point for moving along a continuum toward justice and power?

Learning takes place in communities

I did not come to these ideas on my own. I certainly did not enter philanthropy six years ago understanding how to support capacity or power building. Resources such as NCRP’s Power Moves toolkit and the Funders For Justice’s Divest/Invest’s From Criminalization to Thriving Communities toolkit have been helpful guides along my learning journey. So has participating in communities of practice like NFG and others where I can be vulnerable and curious. I would not know how to, nor would I have the resolve or energy to do this work in isolation.

Together, by learning from and growing with these various philanthropic and frontline communities, we funders can shift the culture of philanthropy so that we are part of—rather than in control of—social movements and systems-change work.

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