The Philos Interview: Dr. Alandra Washington on changing philanthropy from the inside-out
The following interview transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Diallo Brooks: In an SSIR webinar last fall, you said of philanthropy: “Now is the time to throw out our old playbook of hierarchy, unproductive requirements and maintaining the status quo.” What examples of that have you found in the sector that you feel need to be uprooted?
Alandra Washington: Thanks for that question. I appreciate going back to that great work! The SSIR panel featured the “What’s Next for Philanthropy in the 2020s” report. We were looking at the new possibilities, models, interventions, the future of philanthropy and how the sector can really step up.
That report produced four “scaling edges,” which we used as a framework to examine ourselves as a philanthropic organization; how can we start to better meet the needs of what’s happening in this country and globally? Those four edges included rethinking philanthropy’s role, balancing power, catalyzing leverage and redesigning the enterprise. The W.K. Kellogg Foundation (WKKF) had been working on all four of these edges for years, but now we really focused in on a few edges important to shift our practice and respond to our grantees and our community partners.
For example, WKKF’s work redesigning the enterprise started about six years ago. We took on this journey to look at ways that we can really shift our culture: change the way we do business, redesign our grant making practices and processes, better engage our communities, our grantees, stakeholders and partners. We recognize these challenges are not unique to the Kellogg Foundation, but rather issues we deal with across the whole sector.
We were making some of these shifts right before the pandemic hit which really accelerated the work in this space.
A few things here: one was around authentic community engagement practices considering how what we consider the Kellogg Foundation’s DNA – racial equity and healing, leadership and community engagement. We worked with our grantees, our partners and stakeholders across the portfolio to engage their knowledge, skill, and lived expertise to inform and help design our five-year strategic plan.
And we knew that if we were going to make radical shifts in the field, to really change the trajectory of the lives of children and families, we couldn’t just rely on our own knowledge and skill and expertise. We needed to work with our partners and grantees to inform us around the work that we’re doing.
Essentially to find out: What’s working with our strategies? What are we aware of? Are we missing the mark? And how can we reconsider or consider reshaping our work as we move forward in the future? Authentic community engagement is paramount.
We were also working to shift our grantmaking policies and internal practices. We looked at providing general operating support and more multi-year unrestricted funding. It’s those kinds of opportunities for our grantees that helped stretch their capacity to impact real change in their communities.
In addition, we took the bold step of restructuring to a network-based organization model. It was about becoming more agile in how we do our business, implementing responsive grantmaking, and adapting to the changes for our grantees and communities. We’re not perfect, we’re still learning, and we’re still growing and developing. But we know to be the best foundation to work for and work with, we needed to make those radical shifts.
DB: Based on all of that, what would you recommend to foundation staff who are seeking to move their organization out of its comfort zone and toward funding racial equity and justice work?
AW: It’s good work, hard work, and for us, a lot of lessons to be learned in that space. At the Kellogg Foundation, children are at the heart of everything that we do. But children live in families and families live in communities. If we really want to see children thrive, we have to understand ways to support communities as places for equitable opportunity and access.
In 2007, our board of trustees intentionally and explicitly committed to becoming an anti-racist organization, promoting racial equity and racial healing as core to our strategies. For us, it was the opportunity to embed this lens in everything we do throughout the organization, both internally and externally.
Our CEO La June Montgomery Tabron speaks about our mission as unfinished work and unfinished business. It’s a mission that seeks to challenge and dismantle racism in all its forms, support racial healing, identify and address historic oppressions, and then remove the present-day barriers that keep us from equitable opportunity and access.
We talk about this work as being inside-outside: we had to focus first on ourselves before we could actually think about taking this work out to the community, grantees and other partners.
We’ve had decades of work in the racial equity and racial healing space now and have learned a lot.
First, we’ve learned that it’s important to create an authorizing environment. We saw that happening when our board explicitly made this the way we show up and live out the values of the Kellogg Foundation. This is important from a board perspective as well as a leadership one.
Second, we learned that one size does not fit all. Our racial equity journey is our own. It’s embedded in our culture and the values of the organization. That journey is going to be different for another organization. There’s no cookie cutter approach to this. Each organization needs to understand how racial equity aligns to their mission and to their values.
We also learned you can’t do this work alone. How do you step into that space of vulnerability with others in the field, with your grantees and partners who are also focused on this work? How do you reflect on your biases and learn together ways to challenge structural racism? What does that mean for your organization, and how do you amplify community voice and their wisdom? This isn’t something where you can, and you shouldn’t be trying to, do it alone.
And lastly, this is an opportunity to deepen your learning as an organization. I would encourage coming together internally as a foundation and learning together around these racial equity practices and principles. I’m excited to say in 2020 we published a publication around our racial equity journey, called “One Journey.” It lays out our journey toward the lessons we learned and it provides action steps that other foundations may want to consider as they’re thinking about racial equity and healing.
DB: Before joining the Kellogg Foundation, you led the Greater East St. Louis Community Fund. How do you see a foundation’s size and scale impact its ability to shift values and practice?
AW: I really appreciate this question. I’m celebrating 25 years in philanthropy and the nonprofit sector. This question allows me to reflect on what it took for me to lead a community-based philanthropic organization with limited resources while still working to make equitable and systemic community change.
While size, scale and resources are all important to shifting values and practices, there are a couple of other things that are also vitally important.
Most importantly, understanding your values as an organization. Knowing the how and why you are doing the work that you are doing, and the ways that you want to show up in the community. These values center around authentic community engagement, the stewardship of influence, leveraging others’ wisdom, skill, and expertise for real change, and then having a strong collaborative spirit. Once we understood what those values were for us, it helped shape our community strategies, all informed by the residents and their change-making work on the ground.
What birthed out of that was a strong collective action model we used for our work. We worked with many corporations, nonprofit organizations and other funders to create opportunities to look at and collaborate on real systemic change, both in the community and regionally. This was the late ‘90s, early 2000s, and I think we were doing collective action before the phrase “collective action” or “collective impact” was even coined as a real discipline in the work. What it helped us do was treat some intractable issues that were plaguing the community for such a long time: issues around affordable housing, regional transportation and access to quality jobs, as well as the work that we did in community and economic development.
We knew we were a small foundation but understood that we could go further together. We used our collaborative spirit to forge partnerships across the region to move the needle for children and families in East St. Louis.
DB: From your time on the boards of both the Association of Black Foundation Executives (ABFE) and the Women’s Funding Network (WFN), you have a particularly intersectional vantage point in what has traditionally been a white male dominated field. What progress towards racial and gender justice do you think has been made and both in grant making and the sector’s internal culture?
AW: Those are two of my favorite organizations; we’ve been working with them for such a long time. The Kellogg Foundation was an early partner and investor in the infrastructure and the formation of these organizations. We’ve continued to have a strong and strategic partnership with them over many years. I was honored to serve on the boards of both organizations and have a hand in helping steward some of their amazing work.
All the issues we focus on in philanthropy are intersectional: across race, class, and gender. Those issues have a profound effect on people of color, and especially women and women of color, and more specifically, Black and brown women. Across the philanthropic sector, the data speaks for itself, and there’s more work to do in this space. We’ve made some progress and improvements, but I know in my heart we have a long way to go as we think about the intersectionality of this work.
All we have to do is follow the dollars: where are we making our philanthropic investments? We know for women-led organizations, and especially women of color-led organizations, we have some work to do. The resources are still stagnant. They’ve been stagnant for decades.
Even with everything we’ve seen with the racial reckoning and the gender injustices we continue to see, philanthropic dollars are not flowing to those types of organizations. And so how can we really start to strengthen those funding streams? We know that ABFE, WFN and organizations like them are the ones that are on the ground, in the trenches, supporting and building resilient social justice movements and communities.
When I think about what we’ve invested over the years with these organizations, and my role on the board, I’ve always thought: you can’t talk about racial equity issues without talking about gender issues. You can’t talk about gender issues without talking about racial equity issues. They are truly intersecting and linked in how we approach our work. If we want to, as a field, strategically move this work forward, we must embed integrated strategies. If we don’t do that, I think we’re missing the mark.
Over the last two years, this pandemic has shined a light on what’s happening in communities of color and the disparities and inequities that exist.
But for folks who have been living in communities of color and doing this work, we’ve known about this, experienced this, and have been working on it for decades.
Women of color have carried the brunt of this pandemic and been impacted disproportionately as have their children and families. Let’s double down in this space. We can see it unfolding right now today with many issues around the racial reckoning and the gender reckoning in this country.
We need to partner more, give more resources, engage more with these organizations to really move the needle on the issues we think are most important. Some of these conversations we’ve continued to have at the Kellogg Foundation. We’ve looked at ways, especially during the pandemic, to provide more resources to communities. For example, two years ago, we issued a $300 million bond to provide additional capital to be used for our grant making. Last year, we launched our Racial Equity 2030 Initiative, a call for bold action to drive equitable futures for children, families and communities across the globe. We’re right in the middle of reviewing those applications and making those decisions around that initiative.
And then there’s work that is so near and dear to my heart: as a program officer, 18 years ago I designed, launched, and implemented our Catalyzing Community Giving work. We’ve continued to invest in about 32 grantees across the country who are expanding locally-driven philanthropy by and for communities of color. So we continue to show up in this space in tremendous ways, and I feel like for the field, it really is the time to double down.
DB: And so with all of that intersectionality that’s happening, and all the amazing work that you all have led at the foundation, what do you see as what do you see that’s happening on the horizon? Or we should be focusing on in the horizon as we move toward the future?
AW: Looking at the horizon, philanthropy needs to seriously think about our relevance to the work in communities. We know that different philanthropy forms are surfacing, like Mackenzie Scott’s. But what’s our relevance moving forward with all the great tax breaks as philanthropic organizations, and as a sector?
How do we think about moving the needle and having real systemic impact with all the issues facing us? I think relevance is an issue that’s on the horizon for us. And how do we deal with that?
We also continue to grapple with what it will take to have more grantee collaboration across our work? How do we pull together grantee work in our respective portfolios, look at intersectionality to think about integration? What can be the innovative programs that can be evolved? I think that we’re just scratching the surface there.
Finally, philanthropy does have a very definite role in this time. It can step up and play, as we continue to think about policy and systems change, policy advocacy, and advocacy. How do we continue to develop and grow that muscle and become a stronger player in that space? What does that look like, especially as we see our democracy being compromised, as we see the polarization that’s happening across the country? How can philanthropy help to be an equalizer in that space in the role that we play?
Lee Parker: “Why would a donor engage with a non-profit but not resource them for their whole journey?”