Interview with a Funder
In what ways are the Northwest Area Foundation’s program goals around achieving sustainable prosperity grounded in a commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion?
At the program level, we’ve had a version of this conversation for many years. In recent years, however, we’ve embarked on an intentional diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) journey that includes an explicit racial equity lens. As a foundation, we are trying to better understand the intersections of race and poverty and the impacts of racial discrimination at all levels – individual, systemic, and structural – on limiting opportunities for communities to thrive on their own terms.
Within this process, we have revisited our Theory of Change to clarify and focus our work. To work toward our mission to reduce poverty and achieve sustainable prosperity in our region of eight states and 75 Native nations, we have to acknowledge that the current reality is that not all communities are able to thrive on their own terms; that there are systemic barriers to resources and opportunities. Our Theory of Change puts our priority communities – Native Americans and other communities of color, people in rural areas, and immigrants and refugees – at the center of everything we do and we target our funding to organizations that reflect and directly benefit these communities. Our Theory of Change helps us understand why diversity, equity and inclusion is a priority for the Foundation.
As an aside, our priority communities even impacted the structure of our Theory of Change document. As we were developing the instrument, we asked our community partners for feedback. One partner noted that the instrument read western, written left to right. This feedback challenged us to think about our Theory of Change in circle form, which would ultimately better illustrate intersections and complexities.
When it comes to supporting prosperity in our region for the long-haul, we value local ownership and culturally-anchored solutions that are driven by the individuals and organizations in those communities most impacted. Since 2012, we have pushed ourselves to dedicate 40% of new grant dollars to Native-led organizations in our region. Understanding community leadership and power dynamics is vital, and the ownership and empowerment of community leaders has led to more sustainable solutions.
Internally, we, as a foundation, recognize the importance of intentional learning. We prioritize listening to and learning from our grantees and the people they serve. Only then can we support communities to develop their own responses that will work and sustain over time.
How are these goals reflected within an organizational perspective?
Every person in our organization has a role in advancing our mission. We know that if we want to weave DEI into how we work, from how we show up for our communities to how we use our resources, we need to start this journey with ourselves. We are deliberately working to embed a DEI lens into our internal culture and systems so that we can advance our mission more effectively and powerfully.
It’s a complex learning journey, but we aren’t doing this work in a vacuum. We are building on our commitment to our priority communities and to learning from our grantees. We’ve also looked to others in the field and have learned from local and national partners who have been intentional about their commitment to DEI.
On a practical level, we started with a DEI steering committee that included staff across the organization. We began with developing an understanding of where we were, what we meant by DEI, and where wanted to go. We’ve now done organizational assessments and engagements with our staff and board over the past year. We have in place a DEI multi-year plan that touches everything we do – from reviewing hiring practices to thinking about vendor selection, to infusing DEI into our board committees.
One way we think about this work is by thinking about choice points – those moments, large or small, in which we have the opportunity to make a choice that either advances equity and inclusion or keeps things the same or even reinforces damaging cycles.
This work isn’t easy, but DEI gives us a compass. We’ll continue to be thoughtful about applying what we’ve learned and will continue listening and learning.
Tell us a little about the African American Financial Capability Initiative.
The African American Financial Capability Initiative is a three-year NWAF-funded initiative supporting African American-led nonprofits in their efforts to address the racial wealth gap in six cities across our region – Des Moines, Minneapolis, Portland, Seattle, Tacoma, and the Twin Cities. The Initiative brings together six communities of practice (CoPs) that collaborate on development and implementation of community centered financial capability efforts.
Before co-designing this Initiative, we hosted a series of listening sessions about financial inclusion in the six cities. This process allowed us to better understand the local context; it also elevated the assets and strengths that already existed in the communities.
We were intentional about looking at organizational leadership. We conducted a regional scan of organizations focused on asset building and found that there was often a disconnect between African American-led organizations and the asset building field. Organizations were asked to be at the table, which expanded diversity, but they weren’t always listened to; in other words, the process wasn’t inclusive. We asked ourselves how we can support African American-led organizations in their efforts to identify community resources, strengthen service delivery, and advocate for policies on their own terms.
The entire first year of the Initiative was focused on community centered learning. The Foundation supported the CoPs to learn from their own communities and from each other about asset building needs, ideas, and opportunities. Each city has a unique policy and program environment and the strategies and solutions each community developed reflect these unique circumstances. We provided each CoP with resources such as technical assistance and guidance from Prosperity Now, but remained open about what this process would look like.
In Year Two, the CoPs worked together to strategize on pilot projects that tackled the racial wealth divide in local communities. Again, there was no prescription for what these pilot projects could be and they ultimately looked completely different from one another. For example, in Des Moines, the CoP Pilot Project is focused on creating a CDFI focused on providing resources to theAfrican American community. In Seattle, the CoP response was to create an African American Community Land Trust. In Tacoma, the response to the gap that exists between the African American community and the organizations that provide financial resources included a Community Based Participatory Action Research approach to increasing understanding and activating social capital, knowledge, and expertise. Read more about these innovative projects here.
As the Initiative wraps up its third and final year, what are some of the lessons learned you would like to share with other grantmakers?
Being able to provide flexible, longer-term resources for organizations to work together was incredibly important. Relationships and trust had to be built and strengthened, and this is a process that takes time.
The journey of this Initiative actively interacts with our organizational journey. We learned from our grantees. And we supported the work to develop enhanced leadership structure, a strengthened advocacy voice, and culturally anchored asset building and financial capability programs and services that will lead to long-term financial inclusion. These organizations built a network of leaders and organizations that collectively move us all closer toward equity.
Are you or your partners currently using EITC-related and free tax prep strategies in your work? How are you thinking about this work and what does it look like?
Our partners and grantees are actively thinking about and using the EITC as strategy, especially within the context of the tax time moment. For example, Prepare and Prosper is an organization that not only provides free tax preparation and financial services, but is a leader in thinking through ways to help individuals and families achieve financial success at tax time. Micro Enterprise Services of Oregon (MESO) in Portland provides assistance through loans and matched savings. Our partners and grantees think about equity and racial disparities and ways the tax code can be used to create a more equitable economy.
What topic or issue would you be interested to talk with your funder-colleagues about?
We would like to connect with other funders who have committed to being on a DEI journey and learn more how they are engaging their community partners, staff, and board. We would also like to learn about how their journey has impacted grantmaking strategies and how they find partners to join them in their efforts
**Prosperity Now recently released the African American Financial Capability Initiative: An Implementation Blueprint, a guide revealing insights from the three year-long African American Financial Capability Initiative funded by the Northwest Area Foundation. Click here to access the report and watch the live stream footage from the release event.