October 03, 2015
It was 1:00 a.m. and six college students were crammed into a small hotel bedroom in New York City— but we weren't wrapping up a night on the town. Crouched around computers, we were putting the finishing touches on our first presentation, which would be given to the entire Andrus Family Fund board. The atmosphere was generally light – we were having a blast hanging out with cousins – but we felt the weight of the following day, too. Our presentation would directly impact the allocation of $25,000. We were also proud to be engaged so meaningfully in our family's philanthropy.
AFF was launched fifteen years ago as an offshoot of the Surdna Foundation to engage members of the extended Andrus family in philanthropy. BETs, the Board Experiential Training program, was designed to introduce 18- to 24-year-olds to philanthropy by building awareness of social justice issues for future board members. Both AFF and BETs emphasize "sharing power to build a culture of learning." This sharing manifests itself in the communication that AFF establishes with organizations and communities to ensure that vulnerable populations have a voice. The culture of learning is essential for AFF's and BETs' funding goals, which focus on issues of social justice related to youth involved in foster care and the justice system.
Our training with BETs focused on learning about social justice and its implications for philanthropy and applying that knowledge in a supportive learning-focused environment. Though our BETs cohort was all family, we hailed from five states and many of us had never met. When we'd first connected a year ago in New York, we received an orientation to the program and learned that our task over the following twelve months would be to go through the grantmaking process like board members. Our two facilitators noted that AFF was shifting its language and focus to further incorporate awareness of inequity in the grantmaking process. As a result, our learning about the practical implementation of grantmaking would be grounded in social justice.
Most importantly during that first meeting, we learned about each other. We were all in different phases in college, with a range of majors spanning interior design to chemical engineering, and we all had different hobbies and career aspirations. We were family, yet we had different backgrounds. Moreover, we were tasked with connecting with and funding communities around the country that most of us hadn't personally experienced. It was important to realize our differences early so we could collaborate effectively and eventually make cohesive decisions.
Throughout the yearlong process, we used virtual tools to communicate and collaborate with BETs members and mentors across the U.S. Despite the occasional video-chat snafu, we learned as a group during thematic monthly meetings that included spirited discussions of outside readings. For example, after reading Beverly Tatum's book Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria, we shared our earliest memories of social messaging around race and identity and how these messages had stayed with us. In that same conversation, our mentors asked us to close our eyes and imagine the board of a major philanthropy: What did the board members look like? (You should try it too. What do you imagine those board members look like?)
Many of us imagined a board made up of predominantly older white men, which forced us to interrogate our assumptions about what philanthropy is and who participates in it. In learning about social justice, we explored issues of identity, intersectionality, privilege, and power. We focused on the history and evolution of philanthropy, power dynamics in grantmaking, and the balance of strategic and socially just aims. As we built our theoretical base, we also discussed its application to "real world" examples, such as analyzing a fictional foundation board's proposal to contract with a university to conduct research about "maximizing its impact" in a particular community. Given this situation, we considered potential conflicts of interest, asked about the individual involvement of the affected community in the research, and wondered whether the cost-benefit analysis might be better generated through a process that engaged and empowered those who had a stake in the issue the fictional foundation sought to address. Further, we began to examine the nuances related to the very notion of maximizing impact. In response to the case-study scenarios, each BETs member wrote responses for the other members to reflect on before the next meeting. Because we often had varied opinions with equally valid intentions, these exercises were foundational in understanding how we operated as a board. For instance, what metrics should be used to quantify impacts, and what role should these numbers play in issues that are difficult to measure? It was fascinating to have these conversations and made us wonder how often professional grantmakers get to do the same.
Four months into the program, we began drafting a statement of purpose to clarify our mission as a group. The following month, we used the statement of purpose as a jumping-off point to write a request for proposals (RFP). The RFP process itself was a stark transition from our learning modules. It was the first time we had organized our thoughts as a group, and it was a powerful experience. After having read many different statements of purpose, we had a better sense of what we wanted to write, but it was a challenge to craft language that clearly conveyed our message to potential applicants. (We'll never read a mission statement the same way again!) Writing together helped us forge a group identity, which served as a guide for the rest of the grantmaking process.
We outlined our funding focus (to support organizations that can efficiently contribute to the amelioration of inequities for our most vulnerable young people) and our approach (we are dedicated to forging connections with potential grantees to encourage collaboration and an ongoing relationship). After finalizing the RFP, we sent it to five organizations selected by AFF staff based on their existing funding relationship with AFF and their fit with BETs' funding focus.
To counteract the inherent power imbalance between grantmakers and potential grantees, we prioritized open communication with the organizations. Not only was this fair, it also afforded us an understanding of the grantmaker-grantee relationship in a way that is impossible to glean through paper proposals alone. We did this by assigning individual BETs liaisons to each organization that submitted a proposal. For most of us, this meant a phone call or email exchange with the organization to learn its values and culture. Our communication process had some unforeseen challenges. One BETs member had to weigh the pros and cons of accepting an invitation to a potential grantee-hosted event scheduled to take place before a funding decision had been reached. While it promised to be an exciting personal opportunity, it also might generate undue expectations for the grantee — and represented a level of access that other organizations wouldn't get. After discussing it as a group, we decided that declining the invitation, while difficult, would be most in line with our social-justice principles.
Through our communications and the funding requests received, we evaluated each of the five proposals using a specific set of criteria: the project's alignment with our social-justice principles, AFF's values, our BETs statement of purpose, the coherence and design of their budget, and our overall impression. After evaluating the proposals individually, we met (virtually) several times as a group to discuss our choices. This was followed by an anonymous vote to determine the two organizations we would recommend to the AFF board for funding. We each knew that the other group members would approach the conversation with respect and consideration for others' perspectives. The anonymous poll resulted in a unanimous vote.
Finally, exactly one year after we first met as a group, we reconvened in New York to present our recommendations and our learning experience with BETs to the AFF board. After a day of reflection and a late night of preparation, we found ourselves in front of the AFF board and staff: fifteen experienced grantmakers and professionals. Though we were nervous and a little intimidated, we knew the board wanted to see us succeed. During our presentation, we prefaced our funding recommendation with an explanation of our learning and tried to engage the board members as if they were experiencing BETs themselves. From using an online polling platform to solicit audience responses in real-time to role-playing a case-study conversation, we did more than just make a presentation; we asked the board to consider individual bias, the transition from traditional philanthropy, and the intersectionalities of identity. Even though we were relatively inexperienced, a social-justice approach meant the board was willing to listen to, and even learn from, us. It was invigorating and intensified our eagerness to engage in philanthropy.
Participating in BETs challenged each of us to grow personally and intellectually, both as philanthropists and as agents of social change. This meant understanding ourselves as members of a long-term team, learning the intricacies of intersectionality and the obligation to use areas of privilege in our lives to effect change, not shying away from issues of social justice in our own communities, and forging relationships with distant family members in a meaningful and productive setting. Even now, months later, we still send out a group text when we come across a relevant article or podcast — or when we're just thinking about the group.
Going forward, the BETs model continues to evolve to better represent AFF and better prepare young family members for philanthropic involvement. There are many approaches to engaging family members and the next generation in philanthropy. BETs is just one approach, but in our experience, it works.
A recent graduate of Johns Hopkins University, Wadsworth Williams is passionate about effecting change in the healthcare industry and is currently traveling the country as an electronic medical records implementer for Epic. Naomi Wright, a recent psychology graduate of the University of Oregon, currently is working in clinical research in Portland. This post originally appeared on Foundation Center's GrantCraft blog.