So many individuals, me included, are committed to making positive change in the world. In philanthropy, many of us dedicate significant amounts of time and thought to making change that is external to ourselves or our organizations—change that happens to and for, and maybe with, other individuals or communities.

As someone who held the role as an executive director of Mortenson Family Foundation for 13 years, I have had some time to reflect on how positive change is made. So often, for funders, the focus of making positive change happens out in community, and indeed it is community leaders and nonprofit partners who are responsible for much of the change we see. However, I have come to see internal change—to a foundation’s power, policy, and practices—is a critical component of providing effective support to communities.

As a white female family foundation leader, I was aware of the demographics of the sector’s executive leadership—only 13 percent of top leadership roles at foundations are filled by people of color, according to Exponent Philanthropy’s 2022 survey. While trustees typically hold the majority of power in a foundation structure, executive leadership has its fair share of power in day-to-day operations and decision making. Although I did see significant leadership gaps, I didn’t see our sector taking many actions to change who held power.

While Mortenson Family Foundation was founded in 1999, it started formalizing its work in 2010 when I arrived as its first staff member. Because philanthropy is an expression of values, the Foundation started its work by anchoring itself in its values. The board asked to live into its values before determining its mission. In 2017, the board was ready to establish its mission and relied on its significant experience in working with community to arrive at a mission that included advancing equity and centering community. After codifying the mission, we began aligning every aspect of “what” the Foundation’s work was and also “how” the Foundation’s work was done to meet the Foundation mission. I also began reflecting upon who I was as the Foundation leader and how I was going to lead into that mission.

A component of “how” the Foundation would meet its mission was through a commitment the board made to increase grants to BIPOC-led organizations and organizations led by and for community. In order to act upon that commitment, we started asking prospective grantee partners about the demographics of their board and staff leadership. If the same question had been asked of us, our own answers would include a white leader and 90% white board—not very reflective of the communities we wanted to support.

Once again, I questioned if I was holding the Foundation back from meeting its mission of centering community, recognizing the limitations of my lack of proximity to the communities we wanted to center. I had long believed in leading with values; I started to understand that by continuing in the leadership role that I was not aligned with my personal values of advancing equity. As the Foundation was living into its mission, I had been hiring a staff team from communities proximate to our work—all whom identified as individuals from communities of color, none of whom had prior foundation experience, and all whom had an amazing depth and breadth of competencies. Funders can teach grantmaking skills and philanthropic knowledge; they can’t teach the lived experiences and proximate relationships.

Read the full article about centering community by Donna Dalton at the National Center for Family Philanthropy.