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2019 Funders Institute: Reflections from a Family Foundation Perspective


Marci Lu, Senior Program Officer at the William J. & Dorothy K. O’Neill Foundation, attended the first day of the July 2019 Funders Institute, Removing Barriers to Advance Racial Equity from the Ground Up. In this post she outlines key takeaways on how family foundations can support community work that’s advancing racial equity and addressing racial disparities.

As funders, we’ve long recognized that the conditions in which people are born, grow, live, work and play matter, and we’ve worked diligently to support strategies to improve these conditions. Increasingly, philanthropy has also come to understand that our definitions of adverse community environments must expand to include racial discrimination – that is, the historic and persistent structural racism that contributed to, and continues to account for, glaring disparities in outcomes that poverty alone cannot explain. Indeed, we are only beginning to unpack the implications and multigenerational effects of racism and discrimination on families and children.

Last year, the William J. & Dorothy K. O’Neill Foundation rolled out a new strategy based on Ascend at the Aspen Institute’s two-generation framework for moving children and their parents toward economic security, together. Applying a racial equity lens is one of the guiding 2Gen principles. As we began this work, we engaged our Trustees and staff in racial equity training. Since then, my colleagues and I have been exploring what additional steps we can take to deepen our foundation’s understanding and to enhance racial equity practices. To this end, I was eager to gather with my peers to consider the session’s key questions:

  • How can we better support community work that’s advancing racial equities?
  • How can we operate differently to reduce disparities and help dismantle racism?

The day began with an inspiring kick-off panel of foundation leaders from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the Bush Foundation, the Consumer Health Foundation, and the Nathan Cummings Foundation. As I jotted down their sage insights, I also grappled with the reality that the philanthropic institution where I work, similar to other small, family-driven foundations, operates with a different structure and make-up than those on the podium.

By the end of the day, however, I realized that instead of focusing on what is not possible given our current constraints, we should ask instead, “What is within our sphere of control?”  By reframing the question, funders can begin to move forward in ways that make sense for our individual foundations or even our specific role within a foundation. 

Takeaway 1 – Racial equity work is a journey, both personally and professionally. Nan Roman, President & CEO of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, reminded us that we are far from done. We all must continue to educate ourselves, work on our internal policies, procedures, and structures and bring our boards along. Anita Patel, Leadership Programs Director at the Bush Foundation, suggested we keep asking our boards to question why we see glaring disparities in communities of color, and try to shift to more upstream, preventative work.

Takeaway 2 – Avoid taking the first off-ramp as an easy way out.  For those of us working at predominantly all-white family foundations, we should consider where we can make changes. If it is not possible to change the governance structure, can we find other ways to engage those with lived expertise in meaningful ways?  We were also reminded that not all community members may want to serve on a board, but may prefer other ways to contribute to and co-create solutions.

Takeaway 3 – Talk about lived expertise versus lived experience.  Leticia Peguero, Vice President of Programs at the Nathan Cummings Foundation, urged us to change our terminology, noting those who are impacted are the experts with the answers. When considering their expertise, funders (and grantees) should provide compensation, just as we would for consultants. Angelique Kedem, Senior Associate, Race, Ethnic Equity and Inclusion at the Annie E. Casey Foundation, urged us to take the time to not only disaggregate data but also to make sense of the data with those who are impacted to better understand the communities we support.   

Takeaway 4 – Practice cultural humility and lift up culturally-specific organizations.  In the afternoon, we learned about the over-representation of Native Americans experiencing homelessness from Collen Echohawk, Executive Director of Chief Seattle Club. Her powerful remarks reminded us that culturally-specific organizations are essential to reaching and serving people with deep-seated fear of mainstream institutions and systems. Instead of questioning the capacity of such grassroots organizations ask, instead, what do they need?  

Amanda Andere, CEO of Funders Together, challenged each of us noting that it’s easy to change one’s mission and vision statements; the harder part is living out the values of racial equity. The O’Neill Foundation works across many communities, both urban and rural, including in Hawaii where Native Hawaiians are over-represented in the growing homeless population.

This year’s 2019 Funders Institute was motivating, and provided a forum for my peers and I to ask ourselves what changes we can make this year and next that are within our sphere of control to contribute to more equitable practices and outcomes.

Marci Lu joined the William J. and Dorothy K. O’Neill Foundation in 2017 as its senior program officer. Her experience in philanthropy includes managing a portfolio of national grantees at the Social Innovation Fund, a federal evidence-based grantmaking initiative devoted to scaling and evaluating what works, consulting for private and corporate foundations, and serving as a program officer at the Cleveland Foundation where she focused on strengthening the social safety net and building nonprofit and philanthropic sector capacity.

We joined Funders Together because we believe in the power of philanthropy to play a major role in ending homelessness, and we know we have much to learn from funders across the country.

-Christine Marge, Director of Housing and Financial Stability at United Way of Greater Los Angeles

I am thankful for the local partnerships here in the Pacific Northwest that we’ve been able to create and nurture thanks to the work of Funders Together. Having so many of the right players at the table makes our conversations – and all of our efforts – all the richer and more effective.

-David Wertheimer, Deputy Director at Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Very often a lack of jobs and money is not the cause of poverty, but the symptom. The cause may lie deeper in our failure to give our fellow citizens a fair chance to develop their own capacities, in a lack of education and training, in a lack of medical care and housing, in a lack of decent communities in which to live and bring up their children.

-President Lyndon B. Johnson, 1964 State of the Union Address

Funders Together has given me a platform to engage the other funders in my community. Our local funding community has improved greatly to support housing first models and align of resources towards ending homelessness.

-Leslie Strnisha, Vice President at Sisters of Charity Foundation of Cleveland

Our family foundation convenes local funders and key community stakeholders around strategies to end homelessness in Houston. Funders Together members have been invaluable mentors to us in this effort, traveling to our community to share their expertise and examples of best practices from around the nation.

-Nancy Frees Fountain, Managing Director at The Frees Foundation

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