How Community-Funder Collaboratives Can Build Regional Power

By Dana Kawaoka-Chen

Dana Kawaoka-Chen is Executive Director of Justice Funders, a partner and guide for philanthropy to reimagine practices that advance a thriving and just world.

Dec 6, 2018 | Governance, Society | 0 comments

In 8th grade, a passage in my Richmond, CA district-issued U.S. History textbook read: “During World War II, Japanese Americans were interned for their safety.” As someone whose entire paternal family was incarcerated without due process, I knew this statement to be wholly untrue.  This incident taught me a lot about power.

Power – or rather, the absence of it – defined my family’s history. Power is a privilege that allows one to have freedom over big and small choices throughout one’s day. This privilege is invisible to those who have power, but looms like an oppressive shadow over those who don’t.

Consider how our daily interactions with workplaces, transit, banks and academia are designed by those with power in their physical abilities, citizenship status, educational attainment or language ability.  Meanwhile, those without these kinds of power struggle for equitable access to these systems.

But even people within the most marginalized communities, when organized, can amass political, economic and cultural power to affect change on the issues affecting their lives.  Yet power in marginalized communities doesn’t just happen, it must be built and maintained though a social movement infrastructure made up of an interconnected network of community-based organizations.

In the last decade, the San Francisco Bay Area has seen the strengthening of local power building infrastructure through the creation of San Francisco Rising and Oakland Rising, two citywide alliances that are effectively mobilizing working class communities of color. More recently, grassroots leaders have identified a clear need for dedicated funding to build regional power building infrastructure.

However, even with the plethora of grantmaking foundations in the Bay Area committed to advancing progressive social change, less than 3% of philanthropic resources support grassroots organizing and power building.

To address this gap, Justice Funders has been coordinating two local Community and Funder Collaboratives to re-orient philanthropic resources to be aligned with local movement priorities and support regional power-building. Over the last 4 years, we have successfully aligned more than $1.5 million to two powerful civic engagement alliances comprised of frontline groups organizing for racial and economic justice. These collaboratives are facilitating new levels of partnership, trust and coordination between grantmakers and community organizations to leverage the strengths of existing citywide alliances toward building regional grassroots power.

 

The Need for Regional Power-Building Infrastructure

In 2014, as the Bay Area housing crisis was beginning to intensify, local community organizations began noticing that a growing number of people who made up their organizing base – mostly working-class people of color and immigrants – were being displaced from their homes and neighborhoods.

As a result, working class communities of color were becoming less concentrated in urban cores, forced to move into suburban areas where community organizations are sparse, and power building infrastructure is nonexistent.  

Citywide alliances like San Francisco Rising and Oakland Rising – and their 30+ member organizations – came to recognize that gentrification and displacement were region-wide problems, and therefore required a regional response.

But how do a group of nonprofits find the time and money to actualize a collective response when they have to keep their own organizations running?

As a trusted conduit for relationships between community-based organizations and philanthropy, Justice Funders (then called Bay Area Justice Funders Network) reached out to our allies in philanthropy who were committed to social, racial and economic justice to explore a critical question:

Can funders and grassroots organizations form authentic partnership to align philanthropic resources around movement-identified priorities and support regional power building infrastructure?

After receiving an enthusiastic response, Justice Funders activated a Community and Funder Collaborative to support the formation of a new regional civic engagement alliance, Bay Rising.

 

What Authentic Collaboration Looks Like

In the beginning, the Collaborative focused on relationship building between grassroots organizations and funders. Anyone who has worked for either is keenly aware of the power dynamics that exist between the two, which lead to distrust, strained relationships and a lack of honest communication. We spent time on the following:

1. Seeing each other’s full humanity.

Often, funders and grantees only talk to one another when grantees ask for money, or when the funders ask for reports on what was accomplished with the funds they granted. This leads to transactional relationships centered on immediate needs. To shift this paradigm, we engage participants in deep conversations by asking each other:

  • What brought you to this work?
  • What do you care about?
  • What does social justice look like to you?

2. Encouraging transparency about funder processes.

When funders hold all the power in their relationships with grantees, they can choose what information to share and what to hold back. Critical information – like why a funding request was denied – is shrouded in mystery, which fuels distrust among grantees.

For example, a foundation program officer might ask an organization for a grant proposal a year in advance of the work. With a limited grantmaking budget and a set fiscal year, they want to reserve enough funding for when the groups will need it. However, if they don’t share this information, the organization may perceive the program officer as being unreasonable in their request for information so far in advance. With greater transparency, the organization can come to a more nuanced understanding about the institutional constraints within which their program officer is working, and approach the situation with empathy.

3. Trusting and supporting movement-identified strategies that build power.

Foundations are notorious for creating their own funding strategy without any guidance from the communities they seek to support, imposing their strategy on grantees, and expecting them to achieve pre-determined outcomes that support those strategies. Within the Collaborative, we ask that funders listen to and trust the grassroots leaders and organizations, who we know are best positioned to propose the most effective solutions for their communities.

For example, grassroots leaders are clear that supporting regional power building infrastructure requires adequate funding for both individual organizations AND the regional alliance. Only supporting one or the other – which foundations tend to do – sets up both for failure.

With more authentic relationships, trust and communication, grassroots organizations and funders can begin to practice new ways of working collectively to support regional power building that ignites long-term systemic change for racial and economic justice.

 

A New Level of Regional Movement Infrastructure

The Community and Funder Collaborative for Bay Rising has lived up to its intended vision of collectively supporting the creation of new regional movement infrastructure that may never have happened otherwise. City-level organizing campaigns have become more coordinated, and their impact amplified across the entire Bay Area. Bay Rising has leveraged its success to support the formation of a new regional alliance, Lift Up Contra Costa, for which Justice Funders has activated another Community and Funder Collaborative.

What we are seeing is that powerful citywide alliances can serve as the foundation for powerful regional alliances. These authentic collaborations are bringing grassroots organizing to scale, building the power of working-class communities of color to advance a vision of racial and economic justice to determine their own futures.

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