Place-based funders are eager to explore what it looks like when philanthropies build authentic relationships with community members. The 12 peer funders who gathered in a learning group in 2020 shared how they were adopting a “service first” mindset, were recognizing that there is no single best practice for tapping into community leaders’ knowledge and expertise, and were sharing decision making with (or ceding to) community leaders when possible. All were embracing the notion that, when it comes to building community-centered teams, lived experience is at least as relevant as subject-matter expertise.

Positioning yourself to learn from the community

As a first step toward building meaningful relationships with residents and community leaders, participants discussed the need to change how they work. Their organizations had sometimes operated in a top-down way, by taking a directive approach with grantees. To be of service to their communities, many agreed they would benefit from leaning further into learning from grassroots groups, block leaders, and residents themselves.

If you don’t have honest, open-forum conversations, you’re not going to have the impact you want. You have to be in it to win it for your community.

Manuel Santamaria, Vice President of Community Action, Silicon Valley Community Foundation

Manuel Santamaria, vice president of community action at Silicon Valley Community Foundation (SVCF), shared how trust is earned by showing up at community forums time and again, actively listening instead of opining to community members, and remaining open even when conversations heat up and one’s very presence is called into question. “It’s been agonizing sometimes, sitting in front of a room with hundreds of people and getting grilled on why we do certain things and why we don’t do other things,” he conceded. “It’s hard to maintain that vulnerability and transparency, but you have to do it.

“If you don’t have honest, open-forum conversations, you’re not going to have the impact you want,” Santamaria added. “You have to be in it to win it for your community.”

Nina Revoyr, executive director of Ballmer Group’s philanthropic efforts in Los Angeles County and California, shared that while it’s not always comfortable, frank feedback from frontline organizations often reveals opportunities to learn. She once got a phone call from a community leader who was frustrated over the fact that his community-led initiative was not funded at the same level as a more institutionalized program.

“He chewed me out pretty good,” Revoyr recalled. “Not five minutes later, I got a call [from another leader], apologizing for the first guy. I told him there was nothing inappropriate about calling to give feedback. Being justifiably angry and pointing out the faultiness of how I approached something was important for me to hear. The second people can’t say things to me, we’ve lost trust.”

The second people can’t say things to me, we’ve lost trust.

Nina Revoyr, Executive Director of Philanthropic Efforts in Los Angeles County and California, Ballmer Group

For Seattle Foundation (SeaFdn), receiving and responding to feedback is not a one-off event. In 1991, the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP) published the results of a survey of six large cities and concluded that Seattle Foundation was less than equitable in supporting nonprofits helmed by Black and Latino leaders and other people of color. This was due in large part to SeaFdn’s discretionary funds being directed to capital and equipment grants, which favored large, predominantly white institutions that had the resources to apply for them.

NCRP’s critique sparked difficult but necessary conversations within SeaFdn, resulting in the launch of Neighbor to Neighbor, a grants program supporting grassroots organizations that support people who are working to reverse the effects of poverty and racial disparities in their communities. Over the next three decades, SeaFdn shifted 85 percent of its discretionary funding to nonprofits with leaders who are Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) and that serve BIPOC communities.

Read the full article about race and place-based philanthropy by Debby Bielak, Darren Isom, Marion Michieka, and Bill Breen at the Bridgespan Group.