Two years ago, in September 2019, the World Education Services (WES) Mariam Assefa Fund awarded its first grants to organizations working to build more inclusive economies for immigrants and refugees in the United States and Canada. We were excited to begin our journey as a philanthropic funder and energized by our new grantee partners, though we knew there was much for us to learn. Still, we could not have imagined how profoundly the world would change so soon after our journey began.

Just six months after we awarded our first grants, the COVID-19 pandemic began to transform the world around us. The economic recession — as well as major impacts on immigrant workers in the U.S. and Canada — meant that we needed to adapt our work to the rapidly changing world while ensuring that our grantee partners were supported in their efforts to uplift immigrant and refugee communities.

The reckoning for racial justice in the past year and a half simultaneously forced us to grapple with how we must abandon inequitable, business-as-usual practices in philanthropy and be more explicit and intentional about our values and how we apply them to our work. We had to be more responsive to the needs of our partners and shake off expectations about the way things have traditionally been done in philanthropy.

The WES Mariam Assefa Fund is committed to being transparent; so, in that spirit, here are three key lessons from our challenging and unusual first two years:

  1. Our No. 1 job is to support our grantee partners’ success; we can’t do that without their input.
  2. Shifting to more inclusive approaches is sometimes uncomfortable, but it is essential to philanthropy’s progress toward shifting power to community and organization leaders.
  3. Providing flexibility to grantee partners from the beginning is one of the most valuable things a funder can do.

Read the full article about how the pandemic shifted priorities by Monica Munn at the Center for Effective Philanthropy.