Fostering connection, learning and collaboration to advance systems change

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For organizations working to create meaningful, systemic change, it can be helpful to come together with other organizations to work together on a shared challenge. This was the case for a group of education networks working to evolve the way they provide support to teachers and administrators.

Education networks (e.g., associations of education professionals) have long been a source of knowledge and support for teachers and administrators, but for many education networks, it has been difficult to keep up with the pace of change in the field and ensure their knowledge and resources are reaching those who need it most. Many networks are struggling to find formats that align with education professionals’ busy schedules and needs. Others have realized they are not reaching diverse audiences whose engagement is essential to achieving equitable student success — whether it be professionals holding various roles in the education system, working in different parts of the country, or representing different races, ethnicities, and other diverse identities.

Given the changing landscape, how might education networks think differently about their approaches to educator support? How can they help educators learn and adopt new practices in service of more equitable education outcomes for students?

To address this challenge, eight education networks came together from January 2022 – March 2024 to form a community of practice focused on supporting better outcomes for Black and Latino students and students experiencing poverty. They identified two common questions to focus their time: How might we build resilient networks for knowledge mobilization? How might practitioner networks adapt and transform to meet future challenges? Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation funded the community of practice, as part of its K-12 Education Strategy.* Community Wealth Partners led the design and facilitation.

The community of practice’s power was that it created a mechanism to facilitate knowledge sharing across organizations that had not collaborated before. It provided a space for networks to learn from peers, pilot new approaches, inspire further learning and collective action, and share insights with the field.

“At the start of this community of practice, I didn’t know most of the people involved, and wasn’t familiar with all of the organizations,” said one community of practice participant. “Now I feel like I have a bigger community of other network leaders I can talk to and collaborate with in different ways.”

A summary report shares more about the activities of the community of practice and the outcomes that came out of the work.

One key learning for community of practice members was that creating space for members to build community, share knowledge, and pilot new approaches will help educators and administrators adopt new practices in pursuit of educational equity. This ethos can be characterized as a network approach — a method for navigating complex challenges by fostering connection, learning, and collaboration.

We partnered with network consultant Amelia Pape to create a resource — A Network Approach to Educator Support: Cultivating Networks to Advance Educational Equity. The publication includes principles that comprise a network mindset and considerations for assessing the overall health of a network. While this publication is framed in the context of the education field and includes examples from the community of practice, the principles and recommendations are more broadly applicable. Networks exist everywhere, and embracing a networked approach is an important strategy for advancing systemic change.

We hope this resource sparks new ideas for nonprofits, funders, and other organizations working together to create meaningful systemic change on the issues they care about.

* This blog post and resources linked in it were written through funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Views expressed here do not necessarily reflect positions or policies of the foundation.

Leaning into Relationships for Greater Impact: Resources from and for community foundations

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While community foundations have always existed to support local donors who want to give back to their community, many are now exploring how they can deepen their impact by leveraging their unique strengths and relationships with both local donors and nonprofits.

Many of these foundations are centering racial equity in their work out of recognition that, in most communities, race is the biggest driver of disparity on a range of issues that impact residents’ and communities’ ability to thrive. As a result, these foundations are engaging with nonprofits and donors in new ways such as deepening relationships with nonprofits working closest to the issues in communities and communicating a stronger point of view with donors about where their giving can have greatest impact.

Community Wealth Partners has partnered with dozens of community foundations as they work to center community voices in their strategies, direct more resources to BIPOC-led and BIPOC-serving nonprofits, and partner with donors in new ways.  While these foundations differed in terms of size, geography, and grantmaking priorities, each of them has shown commitment to listening deeply to nonprofits and donors, centering the voices of the people closest to the issues in communities, and trying new ways of working in response to what they’ve learned.

A few new resources summarize themes from what these community foundations have tried and learned and provide in-depth examples of what’s possible:

  • Activating Donors for Change synthesizes insights from community foundations who participated in a cohort program facilitated by Community Wealth Partners.
  • A case study of the Pittsburgh Foundation offers an in-depth look at internal changes the foundation has made to bring greater alignment in pursuit of shared goals.
  • Listen, Learn, Act, written by Heather Peeler of ACT for Alexandria and published on Fund for Shared Insight’s blog, shares what happened when the foundation gave community members a seat at the table throughout the strategic planning process.

It’s exciting to see the ways in which community foundations are leveraging their roles and relationships to help create more equitable communities. We hope these resources offer inspiration and guidance for other community foundations considering ways they can deepen their impact.

From Chaos and Competition to Clarity and Coordination: Four Pivots for Aligning Coalitions to Achieve Equity

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We know that changing systems to be more equitable requires collaboration, but sometimes working with a broad network or coalition can feel chaotic, with competing interests among players and a lack of clarity and purpose. How do you get diverse stakeholders, each serving different communities and with its own unique mission and goals, moving together in pursuit of equity?

At Community Wealth Partners, we’ve worked with networks focused on a range of issues from education to economic mobility to health and nutrition. One of these networks has been the Healthy Food Community of Practice, a network of more than 50 organizations working toward a shared goal—that communities of color across the country can access and consume nutritious food. From our perspective, there are 4 important pivots to make—these are shifts in mindset and thinking that can help coalitions and networks to move in one direction.

  1. From scarcity to abundance
  2. From consensus to consent
  3. From breadth to depth
  4. From “I” to “we”

1. From scarcity to abundance.

A scarcity mindset is risk adverse and tends to see things in black and white. An abundance mindset is more open to possibility and emergence. The scarcity mindset can show up in a variety of ways. One example is scarcity of resources—the pie is only so big and everyone is focused on their share. This can lead to competition for resources among organizations within a network or coalition – organizations that ideally would be collaborating with one another. We’ve used a variety of practices with networks to help create a sense of abundance.

Walmart Foundation supported the Healthy Food Community of Practice and provided flexibility in how the resources were spent, giving ownership to the community in determining their priorities. As a result, participants decided to regrant some of the resources to community-based organizations working in innovative ways to address food access and nutrition in collaboration with the community of practice member organizations. Over three years, the community granted $400,000 through a participatory grantmaking process where community of practice members decided together which projects to fund.

The community could have decided to spread these funds across their organizations, each receiving about $8,000 to support their work. Instead, they made fewer and larger grants of up to $50,000 to fund pairs of organizations working in partnership to advance community-based solutions. Giving the participating organizations voice in how resources were allocated helped create a feeling of greater abundance and impact.

2. From consensus to consent.

We often see networks aspire for consensus in decision-making. But when you are engaging a diverse group of individuals and organizations, it’s not realistic to think that everyone will agree on every decision that needs to be made. Instead, it may be better to strive for consent.

You can think of consent this way—while a decision that’s on the table may not be exactly what you would choose if you were making it on your own, you can live with it and don’t have any strong objections. That’s consent.

We learned about consent-based decision-making from Circle Forward Consulting. Consent-based decision-making aims to help a group make a decision that is within the group’s range of tolerance. If a proposal falls outside someone’s range of tolerance, it is the group’s responsibility to modify the proposal to bring it back within the group’s range of tolerance.

After a couple of years working together, the Healthy Food Community of Practice realized it needed to refine its vision and goal to center racial equity. It was not easy for the community to make this pivot. The community includes organizations serving specific communities like the elderly, rural Americans, and college students. But eventually the group realized that focusing on racial equity will yield benefits for other groups of people who have historically been marginalized.

As the community refined its purpose and vision, we worked to ensure the language was within everyone’s range of tolerance. While some organizations may have preferred to have the population they’re focused on specifically named in our goal and vision, they gave consent to a race-specific focus because they understood that in the United States race is the difference that makes the biggest difference, and when communities of color are thriving, everyone is thriving. Getting to this agreement required multiple conversations and would not have happened without trusting relationships within the community. Consent requires continuous investment in strengthening relationships and trust.

3. From breadth to depth

To have deeper impact, sometimes networks need to pivot from being a broad tent where everyone can see themselves to something more focused and defined. And, even when a network has an explicit focus, there still can be power in enabling small groups go deeper around shared interests or priorities.

The Healthy Food Community moved from breadth to depth when it aligned on a more specific focus of prioritizing BIPOC communities. To allow more opportunities for deeper collaboration, we formed innovation pods—small subgroups within the network that are focused on discrete topics. Innovation pods have taken collective actions such as co-creating resources and conducting research together.

For example, the nutrition education pod worked together to create a proposed framework for nutrition education that is wholistic and centers cultural competency. To create this, nutrition educators from several organizations came together to share their approaches, conduct research that centered the voices of communities of color, and imagine alternatives. As the nutrition education pod shares this framework with the broader field and invites feedback and discussion, pod members hope this body of work will help the field shift thinking and practice.

The successes of these innovation pods helped lay the groundwork for additional collaborations across the community. In a 2023 survey of participants, 40% of respondents said participation in the community led to coordinated actions with one or more organizations, and 21% of respondents said they were actively collaborating on a common goal with one or more organizations. The connections and collaborations happening beyond the Healthy Food Community are signs of meaningful progress toward the community’s vision and goals and shows promise that these connections will continue even after the community’s time together has ended.

4. From “I” to “We”

Members of a network need to determine what it is that they can best accomplish together that they can’t accomplish individually. Then, when working with the network, they need to be able to put aside individual or organizational agendas to prioritize the goals of the collective. This takes time and effort and requires a strong foundation of trust. From our work with networks, we’ve found it is important to start by helping network members build relationships and share knowledge. This is an important precursor to a network taking collective action.

When the White House announced a conference on Nutrition, Hunger, and Health for the first time in more than 50 years, organizations working in the field were invited to offer input on the White House strategy. Many organizations represented in the Healthy Food Community crafted their own recommendations, and yet community of practice participants recognized a gap—the voices of people with lived experience of food insecurity were not yet part of the conversation.

To address that, community of practice members organized focus groups with various community perspectives to get their input on what the White House strategy should focus on. They put aside personal agendas to center and elevate community voice.

Pivoting for Equity

Achieving equitable outcomes requires changing systems, and this requires a range of actors coming together, letting go of personal agendas, and working in pursuit of a shared goal. The following action steps can help coalitions make the pivots we’ve found to be important for achieving impact.

From Scarcity to Abundance

    • Invest in relationships to build a foundation of trust. This will help foster collaboration over competition.
    • In grantmaking, provide flexible funding and embrace the principles of trust-based philanthropy. Rather than tightly controlling how funds are spent and the outputs and outcomes you want to see, trust that grantees know best how to use their resources for meaningful impact and be open to different ways of making progress toward your shared vision.

From consensus to consent

    • Make clear and specific agreements about how decisions will be made.
    • Consider consent-based decision-making to foster an environment where members may not fully agree but can support decisions made within the group’s range of tolerance.

From breadth to depth

    • Prioritize having focused goals and strategies for achieving them over offering a broad tent for participation. Trust that this focus will attract the participation needed to have the desired impact.
    • Create opportunities for subgroups to take collective action on areas of common interest. These “small wins” can lay the foundation for larger collaborations.

From “I” to “We”

    • Identify shared goals that require collective action, and support participants in prioritizing the goals of the collective over individual agendas.
    • Spend time supporting participants in relationship building and knowledge sharing. These are important steps that help coalitions move toward meaningful collective action.

Embracing these pivots can help coalitions transcend individual interests, foster collaboration, and yield greater impact. Committing to abundance, consent, depth, and collective action helps lay a more inclusive and effective path toward equity.

As you think about your own collectives, collaboratives, or even organization, we welcome you to reflect on the following: which of these pivots feel exciting to lean into? Which feel challenging? How might you begin shift mindsets to further your impact?

Evolving Your Organization to Sustain and Deepen Impact: Why a Clear Business Model is Important

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The events of the of the last several years—a global pandemic, a racial reckoning, administration changes and new legislation as a result—have had a dramatic influence on what nonprofits do and how they do it. In our 2020 Stanford Social Innovation Review article Three Things Nonprofits Should Prioritize in the Wake of COVID-19, we offered advice to leaders as they faced immediate concerns about sustaining their work. Four years later, we are seeing an uptick in nonprofit organizations wanting to explore what sustainability will look like going forward, leveraging the lessons learned from the pivots they made during the last few years of uncertainty and responding to recent shifts in the contexts in which they are working.  

For many nonprofit leaders the impact they want to have is clear, but the path to getting there is keeping them up at night. In some cases, leaders are now seeing new opportunities, and in other cases they are seeing issues that need to be addressed. Here are a few examples:  

  • A nonprofit with a fee-for-service model has seen a shift in buyers’ willingness to pay for what it has to offer. During the pandemic, the organization had an opportunity to secure significant philanthropic funding to support its work, but leaders are concerned that this funding isn’t sustainable. Leaders are wondering what the sustainable model is going forward and how they can leverage the best of what both revenue streams have to offer.  
  • Another organization experimented with virtual programming during the pandemic. Not only did this allow them to continue vital programming, it also inspired thinking about opportunities to reach new audiences. Leaders are wondering how the organization could deliver both in-person and virtual programming going forward and what revenue model would sustain these programs.  
  • A third organization doubled down on its racial equity commitment after the killing of George Floyd. With renewed energy around this commitment, the organization is rethinking its priority audiences, what their needs are, what they want, and how to deliver and sustain that.  

The questions these organizations are asking are all business model questions.  

What’s a business model anyway?  

In the nonprofit sector, we’re all familiar with strategic planning. Strategic planning often focuses on helping an organization clarify what it is trying to achieve—its purpose and goals. Sometimes, however, strategic planning stops short and doesn’t get to the business model that is needed to support the strategy. The business model is about how the organization works and sustains itself financially to achieve the impact it aspires to. The business model is a series of strategic choices about what an organization will deliver, to whom, and how it will create value or impact. As seen in the diagram below, it starts with being clear about the people you want to serve, what their aspirations and needs are, and designing programs, products or services that will meet those needs and/or help them achieve their aspirations. After an organization has answered these questions, it’s important to clarify the resources, structures and processes that will be needed to deliver, what they will cost, and what will drive revenue, whether contributed, earned, or a combination of both. (If you are considering earned revenue (ex., fee for services, product sales, or membership dues) as part of your business model, read our field guide for more recommendations on developing earned revenue strategies.) 

Tips for Evolving Your Business Model 

We want to offer a few tips we’ve learned from our work helping organizations navigate these moments of evolution, and in some cases, reinvention of their business models. The first step is to recognize if your business model might need to change. Is there an opportunity that you want to capture that will require shifting an aspect of your business model? Or, are you experiencing a pain point that needs to be addressed? If you decide change is needed, here are three tips: 

  1. Make sure you know what your current model is. Consider taking the business model diagram and writing down what is happening today. What is your value proposition? What are the key resources, structures and processes that are critical to your delivery of value or impact? What are the costs of these, and how will you fund these costs? (For more guidance on assessing financial health, visit Nonprofit Finance Fund’s Financial Self-Assessment.) 
  2. Alignment is key. Once you decide upon change to one aspect of the model, discuss what other aspects of the model need to change to bring everything into alignment. For example, if you decide to pursue new sources of revenue, you may need to also develop new resources, structures, or processes.
  3. Be intentional about managing the change. Start by having a compelling vision or explanation for why an aspect of your business model needs to change and identify champions inside the organization who can help you make that change. Create an action plan, outlining key milestones on the path to change, immediate next steps, and owners and deadlines for each step. Make sure you have someone who is monitoring the action plan to track progress and troubleshoot when challenges arise.  

As nonprofits evolve to stay resilient and deepen impact amid an ever-changing environment, checking in on the organization’s business model is important. If you have aspirations to evolve your nonprofit’s business model and want to explore how we might be able to help, please don’t hesitate to reach out to us at Community Wealth Partners by emailing me at acelep(at)  

Bridging Differences to Advance Equity: Three Lessons Community Foundations Are Learning About Engaging Donors and Community

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This post originally appeared on Grantmakers for Effective Organizations’ blog. View the original post here

An exciting evolution is happening among community foundations in the United States.

While community foundations have always existed to support local donors who want to give back to their community, many are now exploring how they can leverage their unique strengths to contribute to transformational change in their communities. CFLeads’ Igniting the Future of Community Foundations survey found that 98 percent of community foundations plan to deepen or expand their community leadership. Most of these foundations are also centering racial equity in their work out of recognition that, in most communities, race is the biggest driver of disparity on a range of issues that impact residents’ and communities’ ability to thrive.

Since 2020, Community Wealth Partners has facilitated peer learning cohorts for community foundations working to advance racial equity and direct more resources to BIPOC-led and BIPOC-serving nonprofits. (This work was made possible through funding from Fidelity Charitable Trustees Initiative.) Through these cohorts we were able to work with 18 community foundations, located all over the country, and ranging in size from less than $300,000 to more than $1 billion in assets. While these foundations had differences in terms of size, geography, and grantmaking priorities, some common themes emerged from these cohorts.

Many of these foundations are centering racial equity in their organizations’ strategies, and, as a result, are prioritizing engaging in new ways with donors and community to advance these strategies. For the most part, foundations in the cohorts were looking to deepen relationships with communities and nonprofits that historically had not had access to resources from the foundation—especially those organizations that are most proximate to the challenges the foundation seeks to address. At the same time, these foundations have also been experimenting with communicating a stronger point of view with donors. For example, foundations were educating donors about systemic inequities in their communities, having explicit conversations about racial disparities, and inviting donors to support discretionary funds aligned with the foundation’s strategic priorities.

Working in these ways requires community foundations to bridge differences in lived experience and perspective. Some foundations have had to stretch themselves to build trusting relationships with nonprofits and community leaders that perhaps the foundation has not supported before. At the same time, they are having conversations with donors that are different from how they’ve engaged donors in the past. While the community foundations we worked with would say they still have a lot to learn about how they can bridge differences to advance equity, through experimentation and iteration, some lessons are emerging. Here are three of them.

Lesson 1: Leverage and deepen relationships and trust.

As Rev. Jennifer Bailey of Faith Matters Network has said, “Relationships are built at the speed of trust, and social change happens at the speed of relationships.” Community foundations are finding ways to leverage their unique position to build relationships and bridge divides between donors and organizations working closest to the issues in communities, with the goal being donors, nonprofits, and the community foundation working toward a shared vision of a thriving community with equitable outcomes for residents. Doing this requires time and patience.

On the donor side, some community foundations are trying to engage donors differently to share a point of view about outcomes the foundation is working toward and opportunities for donors to support this vision. To do this, they are finding personal connections with donors to be an effective strategy. While mass communications and learning and networking opportunities are important tools for donor engagement, community foundations we’ve worked with are finding that one-on-one conversations are what makes a difference in helping donors understand the foundation’s goals and priorities and having a meaningful influence on donors’ giving.

“We’re working to leverage the trust in the donor services team that our donors have to create better connections and get to more robust giving,” said Lindsay Aroesty, vice president of development and donor services at the Pittsburgh Foundation. “We are trying to make more of a connection between what we’re funding through our discretionary grants and how aligning with those priorities is a value-add for donors. This speaks to the need for our donor services team to be able to communicate about the foundation’s grantmaking priorities effectively.”

On the nonprofit side, some community foundations are taking a closer look at their own history of funding and working to rectify disparities to ensure organizations closest to the issues have access to foundation resources. Reaching a more diverse range of nonprofits has required community foundations to do intentional outreach and relationship building.

One way the Community Foundation of Northern Virginia (CFNOVA) is doing this is by promoting grant opportunities to area chambers of commerce that represent diverse cultural and ethnic communities, such as the Northern Virginia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, the Northern Virginia Black Chamber of Commerce, and the Asian American Chamber of Commerce.

CFNOVA also has created a tiered funding model for one fund, offering different sized grants to organizations depending on the size of their organizational budget. This allows organizations of similar size to be reviewed and vetted alongside one another rather than alongside organizations with widely different budgets. The foundation also has leaned into its convening role to host events featuring regional data and providing opportunities for diverse stakeholders from government, private, and nonprofit sectors to come together.

“We have recognized that community leadership on part of the foundation is essential, and we are striving to provide as many entry points as possible, with the goal of creating a community that works for everyone,” said Sari Raskin, vice president of grants and community leadership.

Lesson 2: Words matter—use language that offers “grace and space.”

Community foundations have relationships with a broad swath of the community, representing diversity in identities, lived experiences, and understanding of historical drivers and current data showing inequities that exist in communities and how racial justice strategies can lead to better outcomes for all residents. “When we’re talking about why racial equity matters to us, we have to assess where people may be and what they don’t understand and give them grace and space to engage in dialogue with us,” said Judy McBride, director of strategic partnership investments at Hartford Foundation for Public Giving.

In Texas, Communities Foundation of Texas has worked to stay the course living their diversity, equity, and inclusion values, charting toward a community that thrives for all. Dr. Reo Pruiett, chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer for the foundation, says a helpful strategy has been staying focused on the issues community stakeholders and partners have an interest in—which in North Texas has been education, health, and economic workforce opportunities.

“I try to enter these conversations from my background as an educator and principal,” Dr. Pruiett said. “Healthy communities have education, health and safety, and economic workforce opportunities as their center of focus. Concentrating on these points has helped open doors with people who may be wary of language sometimes categorized as polarizing or politicized, and it’s also enabled me to further listen and learn what continues to be top of mind for the community.”

The Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham learned similar lessons when they surveyed their donors and hired Frameworks Institute to offer guidance on language and messaging. Recommendations from Frameworks Institute included 1) lead with the shared values and principles of the community, 2) clearly define “equity” for your audience, 3) use stories to show local solutions to challenges and the impact of those solutions. (See more guidance from Frameworks Institute in their report Navigating Cultural Mindsets of Race and Place in the United States.)

“Words have power, and the context in which they are used matters,” said Christopher Nanni, president and CEO. “We have learned that the language we use and the audiences that receive them can determine how the message is received. We know that we need to be thoughtful in how we frame our communications around these challenging issues so that people will be open to hearing and not be alienated. It is not about watering down the message, but, rather, being more strategic in communicating the message so that it is actually received. We are learning to talk about equity-related issues in a way that distinct audiences can understand so that we can move forward together in unity as opposed to feeding into an already divisive environment.”

Some community foundations are leaning into their role as a connector and working to bridge differences in experience and perspective. The Community Foundation of Northern Virginia names community resilience as one of its strategic priorities. This includes supporting and encouraging civic engagement and helping residents bridge what divides them with civil conversations and dialogue.

The foundation recently launched a book circle, inviting donors and other members of the community to read and discuss Monica Guzmán’s book, I Never Thought of It That Way: How to Have Fearlessly Curious Conversations in Dangerously Divided Times.

“Our belief is that a resilient community is a connected one, and we saw Guzmán’s book as a unique formula for civic healing,” said Gabrielle Webster, director of donor relations. “The book is challenging readers to be curious and build or maintain relationships. Over the course of the year, we were able to engage more than 425 readers in conversations across the region and learn how they were using the text in their homes, workplaces, places of worship, and beyond to enrich our collective understanding and dialogue.”

Lesson 3: Create more bridges internally between donor services and programs.

As community foundations center racial equity in their strategies and work to engage donors in their vision for a more just and equitable community, it is important for programs and donor services teams to be working in alignment. Some community foundations have recognized the need to break down silos that have been occurring across these parts of the foundation — each side focused on a unique segment of the community and with their own goals — to bring greater alignment.

“Silos between donors services and program teams aren’t going to work if the goal is racial justice,” said Aroesty of the Pittsburgh Foundation. “You need to leverage the foundation’s reputational and social capital across all areas of its work.”

One way the Pittsburgh Foundation has worked to bring stronger alignment across the donor services and program teams is through joint visioning sessions. For example, the donor services team invited members of the program team to offer advice and coaching as to how the foundation might reimagine donor events to align with the foundation’s new strategic framework and focus on racial justice.

Leaning Into Community Foundations’ Role as Bridge Builder

As community foundations work for more just and equitable communities, many are bringing more intention to their relationships, communications, and internal ways of working. For community foundations interested into leveraging their role to build bridges across differences in the community, here are some things to try.

  • Invest time in relationship building with donors with donors and nonprofits. Community foundations hold a unique opportunity to unite a community around a shared vision.
  • Create a vision for the future that will attract broad support by focusing on the issues that everyone cares about. This could include things like quality education, access to jobs and affordable housing, and the health and safety of residents.
  • Find ways to bring alignment across teams in the foundation. Possibilities include co-creating strategies and plans, cross-team peer coaching and support, or joint learning opportunities.

Using Movement-Building Strategies and Tools to Cast a Wider Net

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As education networks work to advance educational equity, many are recognizing a need to reach broader and more particular audiences. For example, NCSM is working to have a more racially diverse network and leadership to support high-quality, equitable mathematics teaching and learning. Similarly, as Benjamin Banneker Association (BBA) works to improve math outcomes for Black students, the network is working to attract more white members that effectively teach Black students. 

Efforts to center equity and inclusion have become more challenging for some educators recently, as issues and language akin to “diversity, equity, and inclusion” have become increasingly politicized. Some state legislatures have gone so far as to suggest and require removal of language (like the words gay and equity), goals (for example – teaching about the realities of slavery in the U.S.), and instruction related to equity (ex. how women and People of Color are having distinct experiences) from public education materials.

Despite these challenges, and given this urgent context, there are definitive opportunities for education networks working to advance equity to invite more and different people to join their campaigns for increased equity. Strategies and tools from social movements can help, and members of the K-12 education networks cohort learned some strategies and tools in a session with Trina Olson and Alfonso Wenker of Team Dynamics.

“Movements aren’t simply showing up for an action, they are about the long-haul work of moving people closer to living their values in a particular way,” Wenker said. “If we’re interested in broader equity in the education space, we have to be thinking together about what movements are, and specifically what are the values that motivate us?”

Logic and data alone are not enough to motivate people. Research shows that messages that lead with values are more effective. (Learn more about this in the resources below.)

“We know that identity and education have been politicized,” Olson said. “One of the things that takes the most discipline is to not get sucked into the frame of the people that are organizing on an opposing side. It’s neither strategic nor helpful. Instead of fighting their message, you need to have your own message that’s more effective.”

BBA is working to spread a message that their network is for “people who have a passion for math education for Black students.” “This can include classroom teachers, coaches, people in higher education, corporate members, or vendors,” said Shelly Jones, board president. “Most of our members are Black, but we want people to understand that this is for whoever is interested in supporting education for Black students.”   

As networks think of possible frames to craft their own message and invitation, research shows one frame that resonates with many in this moment is the notion of interdependence and collectivity. This has not always been a frame that would motivate many. As the image below shows, there have been different frames which have ebbed and flowed in popular opinion over time.

In 1969, “rights” was polling as the number one issue people cared about. During this time, the civil rights movement and women’s rights movement made significant gains, and the gay rights movement was born. On just about any social issue, “rights” were a frame that garnered support.

By the mid-1970s, “rights” were no longer polling as a compelling frame. Instead, a frame of individualism was getting growing support. By the early 2000s, a frame of interdependence and collectivity started to gain popularity, and we are in a moment where this frame is continuing to rise.

For leaders and organizations working to support a movement for education equity, there is an opportunity to lead and be consistent with frames of interconnection, interdependence and belonging.

NCSM has historically been a network of mathematics directors that work with math teachers. As the organization works to grow and diversify its membership and leadership to include more people of color, they are working to redefine what math leadership can look like so that a broader range of practitioners might feel both a sense of their leadership potential in mathematics education and a sense of belonging in this network.

“Our members include curriculum directors, instructional coaches, administrators, and classroom teachers,” said Katey Arrington, board president at NCSM. “They’re all leaders if they’re influencing what happens in math instruction in some way, whether it be at the school level or district level.”

By helping math practitioners reimagine what a “math leader” could be, NCSM is working to foster connection and belonging among a wider network than they were previously.

Try This

As you think about ways to attract broader, different, and deeper participation in your network, try this path to begin to craft a values-centered invitation to join your movement.

  1. What is the first time you remember showing up for justice, whether it be at a rally, in support of a campaign, or an action you took individually? What value felt under threat that motivated you to show up? (Examples include safety, respect, choice)
  2. Think about your work and the invitation you want to offer. What value or values might motivate people to join you?
  3. Now think about who you are trying to motivate. How might their perspective and life experience be different from yours? How might that influence what motivates them? Does that spark a different idea about values that might motivate people different than you to join this movement? What words might you use to bring along people who aren’t with you yet, but could be?
  4. Now that you’ve refined which value(s) you want to lead with, experiment with crafting values-based messages that might motivate people to join you.

Additional Resources

These resources offer more guidance, frameworks, and tools for understanding social movements and using language that can attract more people to your cause:

Four Lessons Learned in Building Trusting Relationships with Community

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Four Lessons Learned in Building Trusting Relationships with Community 

Many nonprofits and foundations are recognizing the importance of centering the voices of those closest to the issues as a key factor in designing programs and strategies that are likely to succeed. Being able to authentically engage these voices requires a level of trust between the organization and the community it serves, and some organizations have found they have work to do to build or regain trust with the community.  

We recently spoke with a group of leaders from nonprofits and foundations who shared their lessons learned in building trusting relationships with community for authentic engagement. Here are four lessons that emerged from the conversation.  

Be honest and reflective about your organization’s past, repair harm where necessary. Community members may be leery about requests for input or co-creation because they’ve seen similar requests in the past that didn’t lead to meaningful change. It is important to understand and acknowledge ways your organization has broken trust in the past and take steps to proactively rebuild trust in ways that center what the community wants. This will take time and will likely require a different way of engaging. 

Some organizations have found the need to start with some internal work to be able to engage with humility and authenticity for community. Deputizing one or a few people from an organization to engage with community is not enough. Authentic engagement will require buy-in from leadership, a culture that values and supports this type of engagement, and structures and processes that allow the organization to respond to what you are hearing from community. 

Be clear and honest about where input is wanted, how it will be used, and what other factors must be considered. A common tension that, if not managed well, can end up damaging trust is the tension between wanting to be open to community input and also having to work within some real parameters about what is possible. Sometimes organizations don’t communicate those parameters upfront, and this can cause community members to feel their input wasn’t valued or heard. Clarify and decisions that have been made and are not up for discussion so community members can offer ideas that can work within those parameters. (For example, the budget you have to work with, the goal the effort must support, the population(s) you are prioritizing, etc.) Be clear and specific about how decisions will be made.   

Lean on partners when you can. You may not yet have relationships with members of the community your organization serves, but you may have grantees or partners that do. Consider ways you can leverage their relationships, knowledge, and skills. These partners may be able to convene community members, help with or lead facilitation, or offer insights they’ve already gathered from the community to inform your work. These partners could also serve as “critical friends”, offering feedback on ways your organization might engage with authenticity and humility to build trusting relationships with community members in the future.  

Be intentional about follow up. We’ve likely all had experiences where we’ve been asked for input and then wondered what ever happened with that input. This is another common practice that can damage trust. Make a plan for how and when you will circle back to the community once you’ve engaged them. Some leaders we spoke with also recognized the need to make a plan for how the organization will maintain relationships after an initiative is over. For example, if you’ve built relationships with a group of individuals through a strategic planning process, what can you do keep those individuals connected and engaged after the process concludes?  

Read more insights and examples about building relationships with community for authentic engagement in our field guide, Sharing Power with Communities 

Telling a Different Story of Impact

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Many of the partners we work with share our commitment to racial equity. Together, we are working toward a vision of justice that we may not see in our lifetime. Given that, how can we know if we are making meaningful progress toward the goal?

We had the pleasure of discussing these questions with funders in a session at GEO’s 2023 Learning Conference in the spring. Some funders are working to build relationships with and invest in BIPOC-led organizations as one way to help correct historic, systemic inequities in funding, and this is encouraging. Yet we also have seen some resistance to changing funding practices due to concerns around how to know whether new approaches are having the desired impact. Specifically, we see some funders struggle to give the types of support BIPOC leaders say matters most—such as unrestricted funding and multiyear support—because they have concerns about measuring and communicating impact. We also see funding preference given to organizations that have capacity and resources to measure and tell the story of their impact—which can perpetuate inequities in funding.

Understanding the progress, we are making toward dismantling inequitable systems in pursuit of racial equity will require different ways of thinking about impact. Below are three tools that offer alternate approaches to understanding the impact of long-term, complex work.

A tool to help understand the impact of narrative change. Advancing racial equity often requires changing hearts and minds. Narratives are commonly held ideas about individuals and society. Measuring Narrative Change is intended to help practitioners identify key outcomes and indicators relevant to various aspects of narrative change work and offer tools, frameworks, and resources.

A tool to help assess the strength of relationships. Social change work is relational. Measuring Love on the Journey to Justice makes the case for why focusing on love in social justice work matters and offers four interconnected dimensions of emergent, transformative, catalytic love to help guide change leaders in their relationships with themselves, with others, and with community.

A tool to help assess shifts in power. Achieving equity will require shifting power and resources to people who have historically been kept farthest from power and resources. Evaluating Power Building makes the case that power building has long been overlooked by the evaluation sector and offers considerations on ways to assess power-building efforts.

Strengthening Relationships Through a Community of Practice

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How can a diverse range of organizations—each serving unique communities and each with its own goals and priorities—come together to push for systemic change? And how do these organizations align around a shared purpose and commitment to equity?

Since 2020, Community Wealth Partners has designed and facilitated the Healthy Food Community of Practice, a community of more than 50 national and regional organizations coming together for relationship building, learning, and collective action centered around a goal of helping to ensure that Black, Indigenous, and other people of color (BIPOC) and communities kept furthest from power, can access and consume healthy food.

In a recent podcast interview with Collective Impact Forum, Carolina Ramirez and Kaylyn Williams of Community Wealth Partners and Taylor Thompson of Intertribal Agriculture Council share about the genesis and evolution of the Healthy Food Community of Practice and elements that have contributed to its success so far.

Listen to the podcast to learn more about how the community focused on building relationships as a foundation for collective action, how participants leaned into discomfort to align a diverse group of organizations around equity, and the community’s decision to shift resources directly to BIPOC communities through participatory grantmaking.

Listen here:

To learn more about the design and facilitation of the Healthy Food Community, read this blog post.


Secrets to Success in Engaging Broad, Diverse Stakeholders for Transformational Change: Insights from the Healthy Food Community of Practice

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The Healthy Food Community of Practice is a space for connection, learning, resource sharing, and action with a goal: help people experiencing food insecurity — particularly those facing systemic barriers — access and consume healthy foods. The community, funded by the Walmart Foundation and facilitated by Community Wealth Partners, is made up of nearly 50 organizations across the country focused on healthy food access and consumption. Community members come from various parts of the food system and represent diverse experience and perspectives, ranging from program delivery to benefits enrollment to policy analysis to nutrition education to community activism.  

The community kicked off in 2020, just before the start of the COVID pandemic, In the midst of stay-at-home orders, increased need in communities, and shifts in how food was safely distributed, the community of practice provided a space of connection and support for members.   

Over the past two years, community members have built relationships, taken some collective action, and begun to align around a shared vision of an equitable and just food system that is rooted in community. While we still have a long way to go to achieve that vision, we are seeing some encouraging signs of progress. Reflecting on our experiences, we see four factors that helped create the conditions for collective action across this large, diverse group.  

  • Flexibility in the Community’s Design 
  • Time and Space for Building Relationships 
  • Distributed Power and Decentralized Decision-Making 
  • Opportunities for Learning and Trying New Ways of Working

Below we share more about how the community incorporated each of these factors and some recommendations to consider. 

Allow for Flexibility and Emergence in the Community’s Design
From the beginning, the community of practice has prioritized being responsive to participating organizations’ needs, and flexibility has been critical for making that happen. In fact, the Walmart Foundation decided to fund a community of practice based on feedback from grantees expressing their desire to connect with peers, share best practices and learn from each other. To ensure the community had flexibility in its design, the Foundation offered guidance and counsel as the funder, but left the shaping of the vision, purpose and design up to the community members.   

The community began with a planning phase that engaged community members in co-creating the design and theory of change. In 2020, when the country was simultaneously responding to the COVID pandemic and going through a racial reckoning in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, we had to quickly make some adjustments to respond to immediate needs. We canceled plans for bringing participants together in person and redesigned for a fully virtual engagement. We created space for participants to come together on emerging issues such as making benefits enrollment more accessible and prioritizing racial equity in the work. Later, when the White House announced its 2022 conference on hunger, nutrition, and health, we pulled together a convening to amplify the voices of those with lived experience of hunger to help ensure those voices helped inform the White House strategy. Now, at the two-year mark, we are revisiting our vision, purpose, and outcomes with the community to align around the change we are hoping to see and how this community can help create that change. 

In addition to having the flexibility to pivot in response to emerging opportunities and needs, the Healthy Food Community also allows for flexibility for each participant’s engagement. The community is a large diverse group, and we have worked to create a space that allows individuals to contribute in different ways to help us be able to leverage the unique strengths and perspectives of each participant while also staying relevant to their needs. There are opportunities for active engagement in the community—such as serving a term on the advisory council, participating in innovation pods, and helping craft new knowledge and content. Participants who are more actively engaged report making new relationships via the community that are helpful to their work and forming partnerships to advance common goals. Some participants participate in the community primarily for learning and professional development. For these participants, the value in the community is learning what other organizations are doing to address common challenges and taking new insights back to their organizations. 

Provide Ample Time and Space for Building Relationships
A common mistake we have seen in other collaborative efforts is an expectation to move quickly to action and results. Collective action that has meaningful impact cannot happen without a strong foundation of trusting relationships. The Healthy Food Community has prioritized giving space for relationships to develop.  

A key ingredient for building trusting relationships—especially in a virtual space—has been helping participants be able to bring their full, authentic selves into the space. Recognizing the stress of working on food access and nutrition during the pandemic, we focused on the wellness of participants in addition to focusing on the work at hand. We introduced somatic practices into Zoom meetings, such as breathing and mindfulness exercises. We facilitated learning sessions on topics connected to well-being such as rest and healing. We also set clear expectations for how participants show up in the space by co-crafting partnership principles. The partnership principles address things such as how community members navigate conflict and address harm when it happens. The progress we have made to build trusting relationships has laid the groundwork for collective action the group has taken.  

Providing Opportunities for Learning and Trying New Ways of Working
Engaging a broad group of diverse perspectives is important for achieving transformational change, and yet, that diversity can sometimes make it difficult for participants to find common ground and ways to move forward together. One way the Healthy Food Community addressed this was by forming “innovation pods”—small groups focused on discrete topics to engage participants on issues most relevant to them. Innovation pods have formed and disbanded as needs from the community have emerged. We have eight active innovation pods now on topics including supporting tribal communities, intergenerational food access, nutrition education, and improving benefits access.  The collective action these pods have taken have helped the community achieve some “quick wins” and build momentum for further action. Accomplishments of the innovation pods include developing a proposed community nutrition education framework, crafting guidance for organizations that want to partner with tribal communities, and gathering data to better understand the impact of the pandemic on nutrition assistance programs 

Another way the community has offered opportunity to try new ways of working has been through participatory grantmaking, where community members have come together to make collective funding decisions for grants that support the community’s vision in ways that center community and promote collaboration across organizations. One example of a grant made through the process is a partnership between the National Council on Aging and the Santa Clara Pueblo in New Mexico. After participating in participatory grantmaking through the healthy food community, some members are considering how their own organizations might use a similar process.  

Distribute Power and Decentralize Decision Making
Some collaborative efforts default to a “hub and spoke” structure where a backbone or intermediary ends up as the primary holder of decisions, communications, and relationships. While this structure often makes sense for the sake of simplicity and efficiency, the limitation is that this limits the ability to tap the power and potential of all participants. 

We have worked to distribute power and decentralize decision making in the healthy food community through a variety of ways. For example, the community is led by an advisory council of members that serve on a rotating basis. The advisory council often serves as thought partners and a sounding board after we have gotten input from the full community on things like annual priorities or group values and norms. Advisory council members serve for six months and receive a stipend in recognition of the extra time they are contributing. Another example is the innovation pods, described above, that allow small groups to make progress on areas of common interest. We also have delegated decision-making to the full community at times, through activities such as participatory grantmaking, and aligning on the community’s purpose and vision going forward.  

While we’ve made some good progress in distributing power and decision-making, we’ve encountered challenges as well. A large group of diverse stakeholders are not going to agree on everything all the time (or maybe ever!). We have learned it is important to set clear processes for how decisions will be made, as well as what will happen if the group does not reach consensus. For example, in our participatory grantmaking process, each organization in the community is allowed to vote on how the funds will be spent. If the vote results in or near a tie between two grant applications, the advisory council holds final decision-making power.  

Recommendations to Consider
Based on the experience of the Healthy Food Community so far, we offer some recommendations to funders and intermediaries that want to create the conditions for collective action across a broad, diverse group of stakeholders.  

  • Stay flexible and responsive to members’ needs. Members of the community or collaborative know best what will work in their context, and their needs may shift as the context changes. While it is certainly helpful for a funder or intermediary to hold a vision for what the collaborative could achieve to help bring people together in the beginning, it is important to hold that vision somewhat lightly and be open to evolving it based on what you hear from members. 
  • Allow time and space for building trusting relationships. Stephen Covey said “change happens at the speed of trust”, and building trust across broad, diverse groups takes intention and time. Consider how your effort is designed to build relationships and trust. Pay special attention to the experiences of the members that hold the least power and privilege in the group. Be patient, and avoid unreasonable expectations around how quickly the group should get to collective action and outcomes.  
  • Right-size and customize the experience for members. A one-size-fits-all approach is unlikely to work for a broad, diverse group, and could miss opportunities to tap individual members’ abilities to contribute. Consider how you might offer customized experiences so that each participant is able to contribute what they can and are getting the value they seek in return. Look for opportunities for “quick wins” to help build momentum for larger-scale success. Create opportunities for learning and trying new ways of working.  
  • Shift power to the community. Strive for your collaborative effort to look like a “network” rather than a “hub and spoke”. Decentralize power and decision-making and consider structures that allow individuals to step in and out of leadership roles.