Aiming to be an Equitable Learning Organization

In this blog, we share the big picture of why the Walter & Elise Haas Fund aims to be an equitable learning organization, why learning matters to us, and how it drives our relationship with grantees. As we build our learning practice, we’ll share tactics and processes in future blogs.

Justice, equity, and learning are linked

True to our founders’ personal values, the Fund has always had a strong sense of justice. For decades we have supported organizations that work towards equitable outcomes for the people of the Bay Area. Yet, we have not always been explicit about our commitment to racial equity. In the summer of 2020, the Fund voiced our commitment to racial equity, publicly committing to speak out against the inequities and injustices caused by systemic and institutionalized racism.

We are making good on our commitment by using JEDI – Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion – as a lens applied to all of our work. In 2021, we created a new position on the team, the strategist for justice, equity, and learning, to lead this work. As one member of an eight-person team, this is a significant commitment of our resources and talent to work towards becoming a learning organization that centers justice and equity. Becoming a learning organization and committing to a JEDI lens are inextricably linked. We can’t envision doing one successfully without the other. If we say we want to further our JEDI practice, then we must learn deeply from our past and current grantmaking and grantmaking practices with racial equity in mind. We must reflect, and make changes that lead to more equitable grantmaking.

We know that we don’t have all the answers and that conditions and community needs change. We know we have gotten it wrong before, both as an individual funder and as part of the philanthropic sector. And because conditions change, we know that we must continue growing and evolving with them. We seek to be an equitable learning organization, to pay attention and listen actively to those who know better, to be open to question our practices and hold ourselves accountable to our commitments, so that we can contribute to a more just society.

Throughout our grantmaking shifts, the launch of the Endeavor Fund, a $24.5M multi-year initiative, program integrations, and program sunsets, we reviewed our grantmaking portfolios taking note of when we were (or were not) taking JEDI approaches, which leaders and communities we overlooked in our funding, and interrogating whether our grantmaking practices and policies were burdensome or harmful, rather than equitable and accessible. These learnings continue to inform every part of our work, especially our approach to learning with grantees.

Learning, not evaluation

When we began designing the Endeavor Fund in 2022, it was in response to grantees’ calls to provide long-term, flexible grants that enable nonprofits to make the decisions needed for community to thrive. We knew early in our design process that the grants would be seven year-long general operating grants, a period we understand to be the cycle of organizational change. The Endeavor Fund was created for the long haul. We designed our grantmaking to create sustainable relationships for the long term.

Taking the expansiveness of time as one of our greatest resources, we structured our grantee-grantor relationship to grow over time so we can listen carefully and learn from and with the Endeavor Fund grantees. We had a rigorous and in-depth selection process where we identified and selected organizations that are deeply embedded and accountable to their community. We spent hours with multiple staff, board, and community members, hearing about their organizations, their visions for the future, and their aspirations. All Endeavor Fund grantees, using different approaches and models to further their missions, are working to close the racial and gender wealth gap.

Those early interviews catalyzed our interest in adopting a learning orientation. Rather than placing burdensome reporting requirements or setting goals and metrics just for the Fund’s benefit, we are hearing directly from grantees about their goals, how they track their progress, and what impact means to them. Learning with and from grantees allows us to amplify and elevate their challenges and wins, influence our philanthropic peers, and advocate for policies that create the conditions for nonprofits to be successful in their work.

Based on our conversations, we drafted and then finalized a learning agenda with the Endeavor Fund grantees. The learning agenda has multiple priorities that reflect what they told us were important to them. We didn’t define their individual goals. Instead, grantees identified their own goals for their organizations under the learning agenda priorities, depending on that organization’s mission and trajectory. And each year we are asking if those goals are still relevant to them.

Each year we spend half a day with each grantee for the express purpose of learning. We use the learning agenda and the organization’s goals as a guide for our time together. While we learn we ask Endeavor Fund grantees what else we could be doing, so that we can learn how to better play our role as a funder. Our conversations are candid, deep, wide-ranging, and instructive.

We do it this way because we believe that if we are to be in genuine relationship with a grantee partner — with all the history, the resonant power dynamics, and the often unmet need to earn our partners’ trust — then this is the only way to do it. We must spend our resources, our time, and our human capital to actually, genuinely, learn and center grantee organizations, their staffs, and their communities. This means understanding what is important to them, in their own words, with all the nuance and complexity their answers and experiences deserve; and, understanding what is actually happening for them, in this moment, informed by the past and the future, all at once.

What we’ve learned so far, one year into the Endeavor Fund, is that we can design an experience that helps us gain context, information, and language to go deeper with our grantees and grow our partnership. This is more than going over an annual report. It’s active listening, humility, and respect, always asking: what role can we play so that they can win?

Economic Well-being, Blog, Grantmaking, Reflection

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