Adventures in Silo-Busting and Trust-Building

Since 2020, we’ve been taking deliberate steps at the Walter & Elise Haas Fund to re-examine our grantmaking purpose, reimagine our practices, and strengthen our commitment to justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion. We didn’t know where these steps would lead, but we knew we were building towards something transformative. 

What has resulted is a re-articulation of the Fund’s values and the development of a new grantmaking philosophy that centers three big practice shifts that anchor our work. We have detailed these shifts in a previous post, but, briefly, they are: Silos to Integration, Contributions to Commitments, and Symptoms to Systems Solutions. (Since establishing these shifts, we’ve added three ideas: Use Trust-based Philanthropy, Always Center Community, and Build Right Relationship, the sum of which we call our operational pillars, which we now use to guide all our work.) 

In many ways, the Fund’s story of learning to work in new ways is still at the beginning. We share where we are now in this evolution to spark new questions and ideas for you. 

Integrating teams, ideas, and roles

As we began to operationalize the three big shifts into our grantmaking, we realized that if we wanted to truly succeed, those changes had to apply to our organization internally. We looked at what our work was, how we delegated and how tightly we held onto it, what it meant to be on a team or lead a team, and what was deemed “expertise.” We began moving from siloed workers to integrated teams, implementing new ways of working collaboratively. 

One example was the Creative Work Fund (CWF), which supports nonprofits and individual artists creating new work together. CWF is a funding collaborative, with other philanthropies participating in the project over its 30-year history. But it wasn’t an internal collaborative: the work was held in a siloed space within the Fund. When that leadership transitioned to a new relationship manager (Natalia), embracing integration was the priority. Team CWF now represents a cross-organization roster of administrators, project managers, learning associates, and grants managers. The diverse lenses and experiences of the team members, including two active artists, lends strength to the project as they handle the day-to-day, run the application cycles, and envision larger programmatic changes. Having grants management (Marcel) and finance team (Suki) members in early conversations about how to center grantseekers led to streamlined application and due diligence processes that are lighter lifts and deeply insightful: collecting and analyzing only what is necessary. With a bigger team powering CWF we have engaged with community more, running surveys and holding focus groups. By including and valuing our internal community first, we built trust among grantseekers and grantees, and we share our methods with our colleagues toward a Fund-wide approach.

Designing for, and with, collaboration

The Endeavor Fund — our flagship program under the Economic Well-Being program — has also benefitted from our move from silos to integration. When Relationship Manager Pui Ling Tam began to design this new initiative, well before there was a list of possible grantees and before it even had a name, she invited others into the work. Fund staff members were invited to meetings, asked for feedback, and welcomed into a process of co-creating a program in which they would feel connection, responsibility, and pride. 

By valuing and recognizing our existing expertise we could tap into it early. The Strategist (Anna) and Grants and Learning Associate (Deep Chadha) were invited to create a rubric and align our interview questions. Program team member Natalia was invited to share lessons from the Creative Work Fund’s group decision-making model. Based off the CWF model and the new rubric, Marcel created the internal review process in our grants management system. Suki piloted a financial analysis process that prioritized insight and understanding. 

Interviews with potential grantees were open to anyone on staff. Staff chose which interviews they attended and alternated between which roles they took on: you might be taking notes in one interview and asking the questions in the next. Everyone had to apply the rubric to every organization, based on their own perspective and interpretation. 

When it came to making grantmaking decisions, the process was done collectively by a seven-person team. While we entered individual notes and scored organizations based on the rubric, we also scheduled several working sessions for rich discussion, and to allow for people’s different processing times. Coming to a decision was difficult, but we did it as a group — with all of the wisdom, experiences, and curiosities that we hold collectively. 

This fruitful collaboration continues. Our Economic Well-being team members continue to meet every other week. We have strands like learning, events, communications, and grantmaking. Individual staff members lead work in a particular strand and report back to the rest of the team, asking for help, or offering it. 

We also brought on our board early in the process of designing the Endeavor Fund, sharing our thinking with them and asking what questions they had so we could incorporate their feedback into the design of the initiative. So, when months later staff recommended the seven nonprofits that had been selected, trustees unanimously and excitedly approved a program that they were already a part of. 

With the Endeavor Fund, we had the advantage of building a program from scratch and being able to think critically about how we would use equitable grantmaking practices. Throughout the process, feedback from all the involved parties was immediate and frequent, resulting in changes that strengthened our process. This unfolding, emergent, organic process was something very new for us as an organization. It was a different way of working collaboratively with each other and a different way of showing up for nonprofits.

Continuing to learn and repair

As we have shifted toward becoming an equitable, learning organization, we have become more and more comfortable knowing that we don’t have all the answers. We see our role as continuously learning about and re-examining ourselves, our history, and whether we are creating and sustaining the conditions that will bring about more equitable and just results. 

Part of how we hold the work of acknowledging and committing to repair harm is through our Reparative Action Framework — our ongoing effort to name the ways in which, throughout our long tenure in the philanthropic field, our practices and grantmaking have caused harm to communities and organizations. Our practices are changing with the hope that we don’t continue inflicting the same or new harms, but instead start making strides towards repair, healing, and righting our relationships. 

The Reparative Action committee was an internal learning lab, where we were could flex our growing muscles for building diverse teams, cooperating, sharing the work, and leaning into transparency. We began by inviting staff members to analyze past grantmaking programs using JEDI lenses to determine who we were, and were not, funding in our core program areas. We grappled with questions about who had been excluded and who else we may have harmed. The result was the co-creation of the Reparative Action Framework — a living document that we have committed to revisiting each year as we evolve and sharpen our thinking. We then used that framework to guide our capital grantmaking. 

A self-selected team came together to guide the process, and decision-making was made by all staff. We used the tools and skills we had been building; we borrowed from the Endeavor Fund rubric, recreated the CWF’s reviewer portal, and relied on our culture of trust and inclusion to come to a unanimous staff recommendation to present to our board. At one point, trustees rightfully questioned our change in strategy — we had not been actively communicating our work around bridging capital and reparative action and so we found another opportunity for discussion and learning. Deeper engagement also brings in new questions, and greater clarity. We realized we also need to have a shared understanding of vocabulary such as capital, real estate, and risk through a justice and equity lens. It was also a good reminder that alignment with our board is paramount and have since revisited and shared our learnings with our board. 

In the end our recommendation was approved, and the Fund’s biggest capital grant in over ten years was awarded to a project that will be built in an area of Oakland that the Fund’s previous grantmaking had not focused on. We are proud of how we held ourselves accountable to the framework and of how much our team’s collaboration skills have grown. Our reparative action work enabled us to name our operational pillar of right relationship, and from the practical work of making grants together, we’re finding new ways to embed our shared understanding and practice throughout all our work. 

Starting over, and over again

All of these changes are part of an evolutionary process. We know this work will continue to shift, and we look forward to hearing how others are also approaching internal changes toward greater collaboration, learning, repair, and more. 

Transformation is a journey requiring vision, motivation, a willingness to start (and start over again), and the right set of tools. We hope you share our analysis that there is power in bridging program and operation teams; in connecting to community; and in breaking down silos and building across departments and teams. We don’t have a perfect story of transformation, but we invite you to take inspiration from our wins, gather wisdom from our mistakes, and find more opportunities for reimagining how we work together to transform our institutions, in order to better serve our community and nonprofit partners. 

(This blog was based on a presentation at the PEAK Grantmaking Conference, March 18, 2024, Seattle, Washington.)  

Economic Well-being, Arts, Blog, Grantmaking, News, Reflection

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