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Hill-Snowdon Foundation's Courageous Philanthropy Defends Democracy

November 28, 2018

Since winning an NCRP Impact Award in 2014, the Hill-Snowdon Foundation has been unrelenting in calling out white supremacy and anti-black racism while taking risks to invest in black-led social change work.

2014-ncrp-impact-awards-winner-badgeThe D.C.-based foundation's grantmaking has long been bold, but the leadership it has modeled through its Defending the Dream Fund matches the urgency of the real threats to our democracy. The foundation's decision in 2017 to simplify its practices and collaborate with other funders in creating the fund has resulted in more than $1 million in rapid-response grants being moved to groups working to fight policies that threaten the most vulnerable populations in the United States.

Even in 2017, however, the foundation knew this moment in American history — one that has seen the emergence of movements calling for just and fair elections, human rights for LGBTQ people and people of color, and economic equity — would not last forever.

So the foundation launched its Making Black Lives Matter initiative (MBLM), pushing philanthropy to look beyond the immediate moment and invest in longer-term infrastructure for black-led social change work. Grantees, funding partners, and other nonprofit groups in the community have rated that work as the most impactful they have done in recent years.

How did the foundation do it?

The Hill-Snowdon board of directors worked for almost fifteen years to understand what it really means to seek systemic solutions led by the people who are most impacted by the issues the foundation cares about. Consultants helped educate board members about the reality of systemic change, and with that information in hand the board went out and hired Nat Chioke Williams, a longtime youth and community organizer who had served as a program officer at the Edward Hazen Foundation and the New York Foundation, as the foundation's executive director. When Williams approached the board a few years later about wanting to speak more publicly about Making Black Lives Matter, the board readily agreed. Within two months, the board went from talking about it to releasing a request for proposals in the area of black-led organizing and leadership development.

Unsurprisingly, the 2016 election inspired even more action from the foundation. In the months following the election, and after conversations with other funders, Hill-Snowdon developed a framework to "defend the dream" against the growing threats to our democracy. The framework made the fund actionable, and within a year other funders had pledged almost $600,000 to it.

That collaboration has helped "stretch" the foundation and its partners to fund groups new to their staffs, streamline their proposal processes, and support issues outside their regular portfolios.

Throughout the process, Hill-Snowdon focused less on building its own influence and more on using the influence it had to move others to act. And it succeeded. The Defending the Dream Fund has attracted other funders and activists who have come to the foundation because of the sharp analysis it offers around anti-black racism.

In developing MBLM and the Defending the Dream Fund, the foundation modeled three practices that funders of today's most important social movements would be wise to consider:

  1. Executive Directors/CEOs: The foundation's leadership engaged board members in discussions and activities that helped them internalize an intersectional equity analysis so that when opportunities emerged, they were well versed in the issues and able to move quickly.
  2. Boards: HS board members trusted and empowered staff to make courageous strategic decisions that advanced the foundation's mission.
  3. Staff: HS staff committed to a culture of accountability and ownership and used all the foundation's resources – reputation, status, networks – to advance bold ideas anchored in a racial equity analysis.

The Hill-Snowdon Foundation has shown its peers that funding systems change work requires a commitment to facing hard truths, a willingness to act, and resilience in the face of challenges. When staff, board, and foundation leaders take the time to educate themselves and hold one another accountable, they build a solid foundation for the impact they hope to achieve. Today, movement leaders across the country are making a real difference. They need more funders like the Hill-Snowdon Foundation to step up and support their efforts.

Headshot_jeanne_islerJeanné L.L. Isler is vice president and chief engagement officer at the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy.

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