Navigating the foster care and juvenile justice systems, enduring abuse, struggling to make ends meet and battling despair were the stories shared by four youth panelists a few months ago at the Santa Clara County Children’s Summit. These four panelists are youth members on the Leadership Council of the Santa Clara County Opportunity Youth Partnership, a collaborative with more than 35 community partners that are committed to recalibrating the trajectories of young people. In July 2012, the Aspen Forum for Community Solutions and Opportunity Youth Incentive Fund was launched in response to the more than 6.7 million “opportunity youth,” defined as young people between the ages of 16 to 24 who are neither enrolled in school nor participating in the labor market. These youth represent enormous economic and social potential, and successfully reconnecting them to our nation’s economy requires community collaborations that effectively remove barriers and build and deepen education and employment pathways. Local sites in both Santa Clara and Oakland have been chosen to participate as part of this national partnership and, as a member of the national leadership council, I was asked to moderate the youth panel at the recent Children’s Summit.
As one of the panelists recounted his own odyssey to the nearly 200 nonprofit executives, government employees, advocates, and grantmakers in attendance, he began to cry, and it was clear to everyone that he was no longer merely re-telling the ordeal, but reliving it. The conferees shifted uncomfortably in their seats. As the panel’s moderator, no one was more uncomfortable than me.
Let’s back up a little bit. Eighteen months ago, I began working at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation as a two-year Fellow, the first fellow hired in a new initiative that introduces early-career professionals to philanthropy. The idea is to provide the fellows with the experience they need to improve the practice of charitable giving, while helping donors refresh their strategies with new perspectives. In other words, we are tasked, virtually from our first day of work, with both learning about philanthropy and with helping experienced program staff tackle thorny dilemmas. I work in - the Effective Philanthropy Group where Director Fay Twersky constantly challenges her team to ask the tough questions about situations exactly like the one that confronted me at the Children’s Summit.
One of the things we’ve learned is that there are few things more useful to donors and advocates than storytelling: personal narratives keep us in touch with the people we are trying to support, and trigger the discourse that, in turn sparks the imagination. That’s when great and transformative things happen in the world.
But in the process of trying to unlock grantmaking’s black box by encouraging panelists to share their stories, I had also helped to unlock Pandora’s Box, unleashing from it this young man’s great pain. Was I helping to exploit someone who I claimed I wanted to help?
Perhaps the most profound lesson that I have learned as a Fellow is that, for all our talk of outcomes and data-driven grantmaking, we’re still dealing, on the most molecular level, with human beings. Fay is a proponent of evidence and numbers, but does not shy away from words like “empathy” or “compassion;” she often exhorts us to examine our own privilege and to integrate the voices of the communities we serve into our work. Finally, I cleared my throat and, with all the gravitas that I could muster, said:
“I want to take a minute to pause here and acknowledge how vulnerable this young man has been with us,” I said. “We often ask young people to share their stories with crowds like this, but we don’t do the same ourselves. Maybe now is a good time to pause and just acknowledge how much courage this takes.”
I wasn’t quite sure if I had done the right thing, but the young man seemed to appreciate what I had said. Later, during lunch, an administrator at a local nonprofit who was attending the summit, approached me and said, “You know, “those panels are always hard. How do we avoid tokenizing youth, but at the same time gain some real understanding to help organizations do their work better?” I think she said it best. As we talked for a few additional moments we both acknowledged the difficult paradox often faced in this work.
Of everything I’ve learned however, I think the most profound is this: we can always do a better job of trying to authentically engage and listen to the stories of the communities we serve. It can make all of us stronger at the work we do.
March 19, 2014 — By June Wang and Elisha Smith Arrillaga
The Hewlett Foundation has long been associated with the term strategic philanthropy. But respectful debate is a critical and healthy aspect of any field. When our president Larry Kramer arrived, he immersed himself in the field of philanthropy and learned a lot about the different ways of approaching philanthropy. He thought it would be valuable to continually expose the Hewlett community to these different approaches as well. As a result, we’ve started hosting a series of lunchtime talks where our staff—and other foundations and grantees—can explicitly hear from those who have different perspectives on philanthropy. This has turned out to be a really interesting exercise.
To date, we’ve been lucky to hear from individuals who challenged our assumptions about what effective philanthropy looks like (Bill Somerville of Philanthropic Ventures Foundation, whose talk is featured below), offered grantmaking models that differ from our own (Quinn Delaney and Melanie Cervantes of Akonadi Foundation), or helped us think about the role of foundations in a larger context (Rob Reich of the Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society). The ideas they, and many others, offered are far too rich to convey in a single blog post, and we’ll be sharing many of these talks here on the blog over the coming weeks and months.
Having spent the time (and more importantly, other people’s time) gathering these different perspectives, what do we take away from it all so far? We can’t speak on behalf of the entire Foundation, but a few themes stand out for us:
Philanthropy is full of healthy tension, and we often talk about the poles: academics versus those “on the ground;” pursuing strategic goals versus investing in organizations; investing in organizations versus investing in people; quick and easy grant applications versus strong due diligence; strategic philanthropy versus responsive philanthropy. While it’s easy to talk about the extremes, most of the time, we’re trying to find our way between them. Clear goals and strategies are important, so that the sum of our grantmaking adds up to more than just the individual grants—but we also want to build strong organizations and form true partnerships. Grantees are not contractors. We need to create processes that are easy on grantees, but while being responsible stewards. We need solid research and evidence, but we also need to listen to and honor experience and wisdom. By recognizing the extremes, we can better find our place along the spectrum.
We need to find even better ways of getting dissenting feedback. In the invitations we give to our speakers, we ask them to challenge us in our work. However, we have realized two things: 1) it remains hard to get honest, dissenting feedback in a foundation—even from other foundations, and 2) we desperately need it. The best conversations have occurred when speakers had something critical to say, or questioned our approach. It may be asking a lot of one speaker to challenge a roomful of Hewlettonians, but we need to find other avenues for getting feedback on our strategies and processes, and to get that feedback from a wider group of individuals—not just friends and family. The blog is a great forum for many things, but it can lead to speech-writing rather than real conversation and dialog.
We need to create more spaces to integrate the voices of constituents and communities. Many of the speakers brought up the importance of incorporating local knowledge into grantmaking decisions. This can be challenging for a foundation whose work is often at the national and international policy level. But it’s still critically important. In 2014, we are continuing our speaker series with an additional focus on constituent voice and both our Philanthropy and Global Development and Population programs are exploring grants to support this type of work. We’re looking forward to learning more about how we can do this successfully.
So what’s changed as a result of what we’ve heard from others so far? Well, truthfully, many things remain the same. While it’s good to think about the merits of providing only project support or only general operating support, we continue to believe in retaining the flexibility to provide both depending on what’s appropriate. And we continue to believe in setting goals and strategies for our work. But there are also things we plan to do differently. We will be starting some internal conversations around how to continually evolve our strategy development processes, so that it incorporates more constituent voice and less false precision. We have been thinking about how to get better feedback, and looking hard at what we want to do differently based on our recent Grantee Perception Report. We are also thinking about how we can streamline and “right-size” our grant application and reporting forms, so as not to be so burdensome on our grantees or ourselves.
Although the Hewlett Foundation is not planning to depart from strategic philanthropy any time soon, these speakers have been and will continue to be important in helping us question our assumptions and sharpen our thinking. Hearing from those outside our walls is a critical component of continuous learning, and we look forward to sharing our thoughts with you. We also hope that whether at philanthropy conferences or in your individual conversations with funders, you too find ways to spark healthy debate about philanthropy.