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5 Questions for…June Wilson, Executive Director, Quixote Foundation

July 11, 2016

Named for Cervantes’ fictional knight errant, the Quixote Foundation was established in 1997 by Stuart Hanisch, a civil rights activist and documentary filmmaker who poured his family’s wealth into social causes. With a mission "to see free people in fair societies on a healthy planet," the Seattle-based foundation has been focused on progressive causes in the areas of the environment, reproductive rights, civil and human rights, and media reform.

In 2010, Quixote announced it would spend down — or, as the foundation puts it, "spend up" — its endowment by 2017. (As of year-end 2014, its assets totaled approximately $12 million.) Grants awarded in recent years have supported the Media Democracy Fund’s campaign to ensure net neutrality and the National Wildlife Federation’s diversity, inclusion, and leadership development efforts. MDF founding director Helen Brunner was awarded the Council on Foundations' 2016 Robert Scrivner Award for Creative Grantmaking for her work with the foundation, while NWF recently recognized it for its guidance and support with the National Conservation Organization Award.

PND spoke with June Wilson, who joined the foundation as executive director and board member in 2013, about diversity in environmental organizations and across the nonprofit sector and the foundation's "spend-up" process.

Headshot_june_wilsonPhilanthropy News Digest: A 2014 study by Dorceta E. Taylor, a University of Michigan professor of environmental justice studies, found that minorities and people of color are underrepresented on the staffs of environmental organizations. Since then, fellowship programs and other efforts have been launched to address the gap. What is behind the lack of diversity in the field, and why is it imperative for the field to increase diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI)?

June Wilson: The report lays out some of the issues behind the lack of diversity in the field very well, such as the lack of cross-race and -class collaboration, as well as employment/recruitment practices. And I think looking at DEI in the environmental movement is imperative because those who are most likely to be negatively impacted by climate change are communities of color and poor communities. Hurricane Katrina is one of the most obvious examples: Katrina affected the entire city of New Orleans, but the communities that suffered the worst impacts, those whose residents couldn’t come back because they lacked the resources, those whose homes and neighborhoods were destroyed, were mostly black communities.

We put so much effort and resources into conservation policies and encouraging people to access the outdoors and the natural environment, and those benefits are meant to be shared by all, so engaging communities of color in the environmental movement is imperative.

PND: Quixote has invested in the National Wildlife Federation's commitment to improving DEI in its internal and external practices through training and leadership development. Can you describe the foundation’s work with NWF — what opportunities did you see in the chance to work with the federation, and what are some of the successful outcomes of that work?

JW: NWF is one of the few grantees we've worked with on a consistent basis since the foundation was created. We talked about our commitment to DEI efforts with NWF’s [then-director of individual philanthropy] Chris Harvey, who connected us with [then-vice president for affiliate and regional strategies] Dan Chu, who was looking at how to develop a leadership program that really could affect the leadership pipeline, increase diversity, and educate staff internally about issues around structural racism, equity, and inclusion. So it just felt like a win-win: there was someone at NWF saying, "This is important for this organization," and we were saying, "We want to champion this." In 2010, we funded the Leader to Leader program for NWF staff with a three-year grant, and Dan felt it was important to frontload the grant to maximize its impact in terms of increasing understanding within the organization's leadership.

Our investment was pretty significant, and we could see how the program and related trainings and workshops were beginning to have some impact at the individual level. But at the end of the grant period, in 2013, we hadn’t seen a lot of change at the organizational level in terms of executive-level leadership transitions and capacity. So, even though we didn't give them an additional grant, for the last two and a half years we've been in conversation with the team there about their work around DEI and continued commitment to ensuring that it is sustained. [Associate director for the Pacific] Les Welsh, who was part of the Leader to Leader program and is truly committed to that work, brought board members and Collin O'Mara, NWF's new president and CEO, into the conversation, and it's been remarkable to see how constant engagement and investment in our relationship with the grantee beyond the grant is enabling the long-term impact we seek, including the implementation of new policies to diversify the organization’s leadership pyramid and a lot of interest on the part of key members of the board.

PND: As a woman of color who leads a private foundation, what do you think needs to be done to increase diversity, equity, and inclusion in the philanthropic sector more broadly?

JW: As both a woman of color and someone who believes in the possibility of transformational change, I would say that a focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion has to be an essential element of all philanthropic work. We have to keep looking at DEI issues; we have to keep talking about them. It is work that requires active, proactive, and conscious engagement in conversations where those issues are front and center — and not only conversations with grantees, but internal conversations within our foundations. Quixote has been doing its own DEI training, and it has been painful at times. But it's a conversation we have to have in order to consciously see structural racism, see how it plays out in the way we make decisions and choices, see how it biases us. Otherwise, it's pretty easy for those of us in philanthropy to believe that the work we're doing is creating change and not see the limitations of that change for the communities affected by racism and prejudice.

We're at a moment of particularly heightened awareness of how racism affects how we see, treat, and engage with other people. And those of us in philanthropy who can bring resources to bear on these issues — we have to be constantly engaged in that difficult, uncomfortable conversation within our own organizations and not just impose it on our grantees. As I said, it was difficult to adopt this lens while preparing to close our doors at the end of 2016, but it's been the most important work we could do internally in terms of the legacy of the foundation.

PND: Why is "spending up" the best way for the foundation to produce, as you’ve said elsewhere, "the strongest long-term legacy"? Can you give an example of an upfront "landmark" grant that is designed to have a long-term impact in the foundation's priority areas? And what is the foundation aiming for in terms of collective impact in those areas?

JW: In 2004 and 2005, when the board looked at how the foundation could best continue the legacy of founder Stuart Hanisch — who passed away in 2002 — as a small foundation with assets of only $23 million or $24 million, it decided that making substantial early investments over a short period of time and seeding underfunded efforts in our priority areas was more effective than making small grants over a long period of time. One landmark legacy grant, for example, was a $1 million award — a large investment for Quixote — in 2010 to the Media Democracy Fund, a funder collaborative that supports policy reform aimed at countering the trends toward media consolidation and commercialization. Being part of that collaborative — which not only pools resources but shares all kinds of learning and was instrumental in shaping the Federal Communications Commission's 2015 decision on net neutrality — was a way for us to invest in MDF's organizational infrastructure and capacity while ensuring that our grant would have long-term impact even after we were no longer around.

I will say that a focus on progressive infrastructure is a through line that cuts across our areas of practice. We knew from the beginning that in order to create change in the policy arena, supporting progressive infrastructure would be important. One of the ways we did that early on was to bring activists, donors, and progressive leaders together to talk to one another. The director of Oregon's Bus Project met a Washington state donor, and they put Washington Bus in motion. Some of the leaders later contributed to the creation of [civic engagement network] State Voices — though I can't say it came directly out of those conversations. In the area of media reform, because MDF was a funder collaborative, we could leverage and focus our resources on the progressive grassroots in a way we wouldn't have been able to if we had tried to go it alone. We also invested resources in the Womens Donor Network and Resource Generation, two donor networks that support progressive organizations.

In terms of collective impact, again, our focus is on relationships and collaborations — supporting organizations that are engaged in other networks or collaborations. For example, originally we were the sole investor in the Election Verification Network, which was formed by computer scientists, election officials, and activists who came together to support policy-based change aimed at ensuring that every vote is counted as cast. After we're gone, EVN may or may not receive funding from other sources, but the relationships that were fostered within the network will continue. The way we approach all of our work is through relationships, making sure that we're investing in areas where there are cross-collaborations and relationships that can help leverage impact — not necessarily leveraging our funding but leveraging the relationships that are built through those collaborations, so that if no other funder comes in, the work will continue in some way. And that's what we are seeing.

PND: Hanisch is said to have loved the notion of "tilting at windmills" — charging into the fray to defend passionately held ideals no matter how fierce the resistance or whether or not others share your cause. But tilting at windmills also can mean fighting imaginary enemies. Are you at all concerned that going "full tilt" and spending down over a short period could lead to investments in programs that may not prove be the most effective?

JW: That's a very interesting question because it begs the question of risk. In many ways, as a funder we're not the ones taking a risk. We can say, "Oh, this isn't working," and walk away from an investment at any time. It's really our grantees that bear the risk, and once we have that awareness, we can think about how we can help insure against and support the risks they are taking. Our greatest asset has been their commitment and willingness to take risks, and we've been lucky to have a part in that. We certainly hope the investments we've made — which are a drop in the bucket, really — enable them to take additional risks in the future. Some things will succeed and some things won't, and that's okay. But where the rubber meets the road is whether the leaders and organizations we've supported succeed in leveraging our investments to create transformational change. If they have, that means we've done something, that means we've been effective.

— Kyoko Uchida

 

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