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Learning by Visiting: Marguerite Casey Foundation Board Meetings

December 12, 2019

Mcf_logoSunday morning began with a tour through Little Haiti, 3.5 square miles comprising the oldest neighborhood of people of Haitian descent in Florida — and one of the largest communities of Haitians in the United States. Riding in a long yellow school bus, Marguerite Casey Foundation board members listened to Boukman Mangones, a Haitian-American architect, speak about the fight to preserve Little Haiti's heritage and to combat the efforts of real estate developers who could displace the community.

Mangones was joined by Marleine Bastien, the founder and executive director of Family Action Network Movement (FANM), a Marguerite Casey Foundation grantee since 2016. Bastien met the board for the first time that day, in her home community, opening up her organization to ensure that funders know the struggles low-income Haitian families experience daily. When the bus tour ended, board members spent the afternoon in FANM's office — joined by four other grantees — grappling with many of the issues troubling the community, including gentrification, climate change, and immigration.

The Marguerite Casey Foundation works to help low-income families strengthen their voice and mobilize their communities in order to achieve a more just and equitable society for all. The foundation's quarterly board meetings remove "living in poverty" from the sterility of statistics. Since the foundation's founding in 2001, its board has developed a culture that is inquisitive, principled, and clear on priorities. The board understands that families know what is best for their communities and grantee organizations know best how to empower those families. The board sees its role as led by those closest to the issues. They learn by asking, listening, and then acting. That's why the founding board and leadership implemented on-the-ground board meetings starting in 2002, beginning with their first visit to grantee Community Coalition in South Los Angeles — which continues to receive significant, long-term general operating support from the foundation.

"MCF site visits provide board members with an extraordinary level of engagement and interaction with organizers, leaders, and families most directly affected by the issue," says Rami Nashashibi, executive director of Inner-City Muslim Action Network (IMAN) and an MCF board member. "I've had the honor of working closely with many foundations across the country for over twenty-five years, and I've never witnessed a board as committed to hearing from and responding to its grantees as I have with my dynamic colleagues at the Marguerite Casey Foundation."

The foundation's two-day board meetings focus on learning and directly engaging with the communities where grantees do their work. Sunday is spent with grantees, families, and issue experts in the field. Board members learn about their grantees' constituents firsthand, not from a report. They can ask them directly, "What can we do to help?" Or, "What do we need to know about the issues facing families right now?"

Monday begins with a period of reflection, giving board members time and an opportunity to discuss how to apply what they heard the day before to the foundation's strategy.

Reasons This Approach Supports MCF's Work:
  • MCF board members are thought leaders and influencers in their fields and have a set of qualities that allow them to understand the context in which grantees work.
  • MCF's movement building strategy is community driven, not board driven, which creates space for board members to be a part of the conversation as opposed to driving it.
  • MCF grantees partner with foundation staff to put together on-the-ground educational opportunities for the board — a process that lifts up learnings that are beneficial to the board, foundation staff, and grantees.

The board also creates opportunities for grantees to learn from issue experts, including authors like Ibram Kendi (Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America), who recently joined a meeting to speak about the history of racism in America. The board centers equity in its work, openly engaging in challenging conversations about how best to nurture families at the intersection of race, gender, and poverty. As a board whose composition is 82 percent people of color, funding mostly organizations led by people of color (more than 86 percent), conversations about diversity and equity aren't just philosophical; they're personal. The board knows that poverty is about more than just money; it's also about education, child care, health care, housing, climate change, transportation, jobs, and justice, or the lack thereof. Families experience poverty as an ensnaring web of interrelated issues that radiate from a center of financial insecurity.

Engaging the foundation’s board of directors in strategic learning allows grantees to take the lead in sharing their innovative strategies and the lessons they have learned. The practice demonstrates a commitment by the foundation to asking the hard questions and, more importantly, to actively listening to the answers.

Zeeba_Khalili_Marguerite_Casey_Fdn_for_PhilanTopicZeeba Khalili is a learning and evaluation officer at the Marguerite Casey Foundation dedicated to finding clear, effective solutions to the complex problems challenging communities of color across the country. This post originally was published on the Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy blog.

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