In Conversation: Equitable Approaches to Capacity Building Webinar

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In this webinar, two funders — Caroline Altman-Smith of The Kresge Foundation and Jennifer Wei of The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation — joined our senior director Idalia Fernandez to share their experiences striving to make their capacity-building offerings more equitable. Building on the field guide, they share stories, frameworks, concrete tips, lessons learned, and questions they’re still grappling with as they’ve reconsidered their assumptions and approaches to capacity building. They talk about the ins and outs of their capacity-building programs, feedback they’ve received, how they navigate power dynamics with nonprofits, how they navigate internal organizational barriers, what still feels hard about centering equity, and more.

Watch the webinar here and below. Read the field guide here.

Building a Culture of Equity and Inclusion in Collaboration

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Culture can make or break collaboration. Culture guides how members of a collaborative will work together and impacts what the group is able to achieve together. When the goal of collaboration is to address inequities in a system or community, it is critical to build a culture that centers equity and inclusion. Without this intentionality, collaborations, just like organizations, will default to behaviors of white dominant culture—behaviors that can stand in the way of the authentic inclusion and long-term, systemic thinking needed to achieve equitable outcomes.

Since March 2020, we have worked with a community of practice of more than 35 nonprofit organizations focused on healthy food access and consumption. The goal of this community is to increase access to and consumption of healthy foods—particularly in Black, Latinx, Indigenous, elderly, and rural communities. The funder of the community, Walmart Foundation, has been intentional about fully ceding power to participants and us, as the backbone of the collaborative, in deciding how to build this community.

From our work with this group, we have seen firsthand the importance of intentionally building a culture that prioritizes equity and inclusion. As designers and facilitators of this community, we have reflected on mistakes we’ve made and celebrated small wins that have happened along the way. As we reflect on our experiences with this community and other collaboratives we’ve been part of, we see three aspects of white supremacy culture, as described by Tema Okun, that can be common—urgency, quantity over quality, and paternalism.* By sharing our experiences, we hope to help other collaborative efforts find ways to actively work against harmful aspects of white supremacy culture.

Right-sizing the sense of urgency

A false sense of urgency can crowd out space for thinking about the long term, recognizing where you have gaps in perspective or in knowledge, or building an inclusive space where all voices are welcome and heard. Sometimes collaboratives move too quickly to action because of external pressures such as funding timelines or in response to the urgency of the issue they seek to address.

When we started our work with the Healthy Food Community of Practice, we recognized early on that we did not have full representation of the communities we wanted to serve among the participants we were bringing to the table. We knew we needed to start somewhere, and at the time it made sense to start with the organizations who raised this idea in the first place, which happened to be mostly large, national organizations. In hindsight, we should have paused to ask ourselves some questions: What is the implication of building the community around these organizations? How might that help us or not help us achieve the goal of creating healthy food access and consumption for historically marginalized folks? Taking the time to dig into those questions would have led to a more intentional, and probably more inclusive, design process.

At the same time, a common challenge we’ve seen with collaboratives that do not have some urgency is they can become groups that are all talk and no action, and this can be a waste of time and resources. Some balance is needed between an unnecessarily heightened sense of urgency and lack of urgency that can also feel like lack of accountability to the community you say you want to help. Collaboratives can resist white dominant culture by creating regular space for reflection and self-awareness about how urgency is showing up in the work, centering the people affected by the collaborative in the reflection. If you are feeling urgency, what is driving it? If there doesn’t seem to be any urgency, what is the cost of that? How might adjusting where or how you place urgency bring you into closer alignment with your values and how you want to work together?

Countering paternalism through shared power

Without clarity at the outset about how decisions will be made, it can be easy to default to patterns where decision making is clear to those with power and unclear to those without power. Lack of clarity and intentionality about decision making can also result in people affected by the decisions not being involved in making them. This can become more complicated in large collaboratives with many participants, when someone is playing a backbone role, and/or by funding relationships.

Nearly all these dynamics are at play in the Healthy Food Community of Practice. The participants represent organizations of various sizes and hold a range of roles within their organizations. It’s not practical (or desired by the group) to engage the full community in every decision. For the decisions where we do engage the full community, there can be power dynamics at play among participants. As facilitators of the community, we recognize that every decision we make is a form of wielding power.

One way we have tried to mitigate these dynamics is by forming an advisory council, a group of seven to 10 participants that we engage periodically to advise the program design. We offer a stipend to help compensate for the extra time participation requires, and when members join, they are signing on for a period of five months. At the end of their term, new members can join the advisory council so that the power that comes with this role is shared broadly across the community over time. The advisory council has added an important voice to the design of the community, helping to ensure the topics we elevate for discussion and thought leadership bring maximum value and relevancy to the community.

When we had extra funds available for the community (due to the shift from in-person to virtual meetings in 2020 and 2021), we worked with participants to design a participatory grantmaking process. As a result, the community awarded grants to three collaborative efforts happening among participating organizations. This was a step towards countering paternalism, however, we recognize that we could move further along the power-sharing spectrum. Ultimately, it is the communities that are most impacted by the issue of nutrition insecurity that should be deciding how funds are allocated. We continue to learn and evolve to move further along this spectrum.

Flipping the “quantity over quality” default

In general, there is an over-reliance on quantifiable outputs and metrics as a way to gauge effectiveness in the nonprofit sector. This is driven in large part by funders and the “what gets measured gets funded” refrain that is so common. This way of thinking crowds out space for developing thoughtful processes, building relationships, clarifying values for working together, and prioritizing long-term, systemic change over short-term gains. While it is always important to respond to immediate needs, we also need nonprofits to have the resources and time to work upstream to change the systems that are causing the immediate needs.

To flip the “quantity over quality” mentality, collaboratives can first ask, “why are we coming together?” and “how do we want to work together?” before getting too far in figuring out “what do we want to do together?” Our theory of change for the Healthy Food Community of Practice centered relationship building as a foundational step in forming the community, recognizing that this was a critical first step for the group to move toward learning, action, and field-building. The community began by establishing some shared goals and norms for working together. These have evolved over time as the group has deepened relationships and dug into the work together. As more BIPOC leaders have joined the community and we have been having tougher conversations about the intersection of race equity in food systems, the norms and behaviors that guide the community’s conversations have needed to evolve. While we recognize it is not possible to prevent all harm, we also believe it is our role as the backbone to establish conditions that prevent as much harm as possible and equip people in the community of practice to repair harm when it happens. We continue to learn how best to do that.

We have also found it helpful to create opportunities for “small wins” as a way to help deepen relationships and help the group find common purpose. The Healthy Food Community of Practice has formed small work groups, which they call “innovation pods,” to work on discrete topics, such as developing a revised theory of change for nutrition education that is more culturally competent and conducting research to understand how the pandemic impacted benefits enrollment processes and form recommendations moving forward. These small wins help participants build relationships with one another, help the group take steps toward their broader goal, and help build momentum for larger actions the group can take in the future.

Once the work is underway, collaboratives can rethink how they measure success beyond outputs and outcomes. Interaction Institute for Social Change’s Results-Process-Relationship Triangle offers a helpful frame for reflecting on what’s working well within a collaborative and areas for improvement.

Building a culture that prioritizes equity and inclusion

Culture builds within a collaboration whether you are intentional about it or not, and collaboratives that don’t focus on building a culture that prioritizes equity and inclusion are likely to default to the white dominant norms that are deeply engrained in our ways of working. We know this because we’ve been there many times. While we’ve learned there are many ways white dominant culture could show up in harmful ways in collaboratives and many ways collaboratives could buck against it, here are three possible places to start:

  • Right-sizing the sense of urgency: Create space for regular reflection on whether and how the group is feeling urgency. If you are feeling urgency, what is driving it? If there doesn’t seem to be any urgency, what is the cost of that? Where might a different level of urgency bring you into closer alignment with your values and how you want to work together?
  • Countering paternalism: Be transparent about how decisions are being made. Work toward sharing decision-making power. Ensure you are involving people that will be affected by the decision.
  • Prioritizing quality, not quantity: Prioritize strong relationships and thoughtful, inclusive processes as equally important as achieving measurable results. Hold space to reflect on process and relationships in addition to results.


* If this statement is raising feelings of defensiveness for you, consider the words of Tema Okun: “The invitation for this and every characteristic is to investigate how each and all characteristics and qualities lead to disconnection (from each other, ourselves, and all living things) and how the antidotes can support us to reconnect. If you read these characteristics and qualities as blaming or shaming, perhaps they are particularly alive for you. If you find yourself becoming defensive as you read them, lean into the gift of defensiveness and ask yourself what you are defending. The description of these characteristics are meant to help us see our culture so that we can transgress and transform and build culture that truly supports us individually and collectively.” We are sharing our reflections in the spirit of contributing to a collective culture of equity and inclusion in nonprofit collaborations. 


Supporting Leaders of Color

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Particularly amid the dual pandemics — COVID-19 and systemic racism — organizations need strong leaders who bring lived experiences and can support, reflect, and understand the concerns and needs of the communities that are disproportionately impacted. Some of these organizations are responding by shifting practices including hiring leaders of color. “This practice is necessary but not sufficient,” said Angela Romans of AchieveMission.

Following the Nonprofit Quarterly article “Failure Is Not an Option: How Nonprofit Boards Can Support Leaders of Color,” the podcast Nonprofit SnapCast interviewed Angela Romans, Idalia Fernandez of Community Wealth Partners, and Monisha Kapila of ProInspire about their work coaching and supporting nonprofit leaders of color and some key patterns they see emerging as many historically white-led organizations appoint leaders of color for the first time. Listen to the episode here.

Here are some highlights:

  • Organizations and boards looking to hire leaders of color need to look inward: “What is the context we’re bringing someone into? To what extent are we prepared to tackle the inequities we’re propagating within our own organization? How will we tackle those as a board and as an organization so that we can truly create the kind of ecosystem that embraces the vision and leadership of a new leader of color and also helps them grow?” — Idalia Fernandez
  • Boards play a critical role in supporting the vision of CEOs of color: “Boards can encourage and support the change by aligning to the CEO’s vision. It’s the board’s job to identify the CEO, but then the CEO sets that vision and the ways the organization needs to change to achieve it. The board has to be on board with supporting that leadership and not second-guessing it.” — Monisha Kapila
  • Organizations and boards need to identify and plan for the challenges a new leader of color might face: “Every organization has strengths as well as growth edges or gaps. So if there’s a big financial mess [at the organization], does the [new] leader of color have strong financial chops and training? If they do, great. If they don’t, develop a professional development plan and staff or consultant support to help that leader face those organizational gaps. You can’t be ready for every challenge, but it’s a matter of understanding where the gaps are and then creating the right plan to address those challenges.” — Angela Romans

Listen to the episode

Read the Nonprofit Quarterly article


Podcast: The Impact of COVID-19 on the Sector

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In a recent episode of the Business of Giving podcast, Amy Celep (CEO of Community Wealth Partners) talks with host Denver Frederick about what we’re hearing from the organizations we work with. The conversation explores many things including:

  • How the COVID-19 crisis is exposing deep inequities but also accelerating action to address those inequities.
  • The ways leaders are leading effectively in a virtual world and taking care of staff and themselves. If you want to do best by your mission, clients, and staff, Amy says, you have to pay attention to what you need. And as Maurice Jones, CEO of LISC, told Amy, “We’ve had to up our game in matters of the heart, and give people permission, through our words and deeds, to display their pain.”
  • How scenario planning can help organizations prepare amid uncertainty. Around Minute 8, Amy shares a five-step process for scenario planning.
  • How funders can address power dynamics to better support nonprofits. Funders can proactively encourage grantees to be bold in their asks. They can also continue practices of trust-based philanthropy long after this has passed.
  • How nonprofits can better understand the reliability of their revenue streams. Nonprofits can ask bold questions of donors and funders like, “What are your intentions for our grant/donation? What do you anticipate continuing to do and fund? What might you consider stopping or pausing?”

You can listen to the full interview here on the Business of Giving website or below.


What Does Virtual Leadership During COVID-19 Look Like?

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It’s hard enough to lead an organization through a period of difficulty and uncertainty. It’s even harder to lead through the extreme societal and organizational disruption we are experiencing in the wake of a pandemic and to do so virtually with team members juggling work with watching children, caring for sick loved ones, navigating difficult home situations, and managing a roller coaster of emotions.

In response, many leaders are asking, what does virtual leadership look like?

While virtual leadership like this is new for all of us, there are leadership principles that are particularly relevant right now. Just as before, leaders can offer:

  • Inspiration and realism: Give hope to your team while being realistic about the future and its uncertainty and challenges. Getting this balance right is key to helping your team have faith in leadership, their own work, and the path forward.
  • Action: Help your team get unstuck by focusing on immediate steps they can take to make a difference and adapt, especially if they seem paralyzed by the changes. Show them you are in it together.
  • Love: Support your team, assume best intentions, and create space for team members to be multidimensional, imperfect humans who can try new things and learn in the process.

This time also calls upon us to be creative with how we lead. Here’s what strong virtual leadership can look like this moment.

  • Assume the best and give grace. Let’s face it: work and home have just collided like never before, and you may not know what challenges people are facing or what they need. This is a moment to assume the best of intentions, be flexible where you can, and listen to your team. Ask questions to understand what’s going on. Pay attention to the circumstances people may be facing in their homes and personal lives – particularly team members with disabilities, with dependents, with sick loved ones, and who are part of communities that are on the front lines of this pandemic or that are receiving the least support right now. (The Management Center put together this survey to help you understand staff needs.)
  • Be present from afar. As always, your presence matters. As you lead from afar, you can get creative with how to be present virtually. For example, consider temporarily creating daily 15-minute check-ins with teams to stay connected and provide support. During meetings, turn on your video so people can engage with your facial expressions and body language. As you communicate with your team, consider that many people have a greater need right now to feel connected and informed; but also, if their inboxes look like mine, they’re receiving a huge influx of emails. Be generous but intentional in your full-team communications. Consider using email to communicate organizational things and using a chat platform (like Slack or Zoom) to manage smaller, daily, project-level communications.
  • Walk the virtual halls. Connecting one-on-one with individuals can help maintain or strengthen relationships. You can’t physically walk the halls of the office to connect informally with people, but there are virtual ways to do this. You can set up virtual coffees or meet-ups with people you don’t typically see in meetings, particularly people with less access to power in your organization. It’s also important to support your team’s virtual social gatherings to help foster a sense of community. Encourage and support virtual social events like lunches, snack breaks, or mindfulness gatherings. As we distance ourselves physically, we need more social connection.
  • Live your culture virtually. Now more than ever culture matters and will be tested. Culture challenges are often exacerbated amid all the pressures staff are facing, which can lead to less effective work in a time when it’s greatly needed. At the same time, this moment may offer an opportunity for breakthroughs because it may force your team to break down silos and change ineffective ways of working as you try new things. Model the values and behaviors that make your organization effective, and continue to hold teams accountable for doing so too. Most importantly – this is a time to prioritize the conversations that help you uphold your culture. It can be easier to avoid difficult conversations when you are virtual. Instead, insist that your team engage, listen, and have the conversations that matter most. You might hold time with your team to talk about what it looks like to live your values right now. How might you manage power dynamics over your virtual meeting platform? How might you collaborate in real time with each other when people are dealing with slow internet? How can you ensure everyone feels they can fully participate in team meetings when the technology isn’t intuitive to some team members?

We’ve learned some of these lessons over the years, and some have emerged in the last two weeks. This moment and the months that follow will teach us a great deal about how to lead. What are you learning about virtual leadership? What’s working, and what isn’t? We hope to keep learning, making mistakes, and finding humor alongside you.