Listening & Feedback:
A Funder Action Menu
Incorporate listening into other areas of foundation operations
While much of our work in the feedback field has been focused around grantmaking practices, we recognize the importance of infusing listening throughout foundations. Here are some ways funders are listening in other areas of their work, internally and externally.
Meetings: Hold board meetings or other convenings in community settings
The U.S. Partnership on Mobility from Poverty, an initiative of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, held its capstone event at THEARC, a multi-tenant nonprofit community center located in and serving one of Washington, D.C.’s most impoverished neighborhoods.
Capstone event: Dramatically Increasing Mobility from Poverty
The Durfee Foundation held a board meeting at A Place Called Home, a nonprofit youth agency in Los Angeles run by an alum of the foundation’s sabbatical program, which recognizes and rewards accomplished nonprofit leaders. The meeting included a tour of the organization, meeting staff and community members, and a singing exercise with a Durfee grantee, Urban Voices Project.
Staffing: Hire interns, employees, and consultants with relevant lived experience
The Ford Foundation created a professional development program for graduates of the Bard Prison Initiative, a program Ford had long supported that gives incarcerated people an opportunity to earn a degree from Bard College while serving their sentences. Participants spend a paid year exploring career paths at the foundation and getting other supports, such as opportunities for networking and building technical skills.
For a landscape scan of a potential new grantmaking area, the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, hired a consultant who had lived experience in the foster care and juvenile justice systems. And in its initiative on homelessness, a consulting group contracted through a sub-grant includes a person who has experienced homelessness and is engaging a steering committee of stakeholders, in which half the participants have experienced homelessness.
When the Community Foundation of Greater Flint was looking for a new CEO in 2017, its retiring head knew the funder, as she told The Chronicle of Philanthropy, “needed to involve community members who before had not been involved in our grantmaking decisions.” The board selected as the new CEO Isaiah Oliver, who had joined the foundation as a vice president three years earlier and had stood out for his leadership style, which included listening, consensus-building, and connecting with the people and communities the foundation serves. Oliver is the first Flint native to hold the post, telling The Chronicle of Philanthropy that he grew up poor not far from a church-housed community outreach center that the community foundation supports.
The Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo says it is “very committed to ensuring we have people with lived experience at the decision-making table…If we are working on re-entry, we want people who have experienced re-entry at the table leading the effort.” As new initiatives are developing, the funder says that natural leaders emerge from the community who are then invited to lead, monitor, and oversee the implementation of programming. 1
The Conrad N. Hilton Foundation has piloted an internship program for young people who have experience in the foster care system, and it is developing a fellowship program to provide leadership and professional development opportunities for people with lived expertise in other issues areas where the foundation works.
Governance: Bring people with relevant lived experience onto your board
and/or advisory boards
The Blagrave Trust, a UK-based foundation supporting young people experiencing disadvantage, now has a predominately youth-led executive board. Having more youth involvement has informed, among other things, a shift in the trust’s policy analysis to new areas that are of particular interest to young people, such as climate change. 2
The California Endowment engages young people living in California to serve on its President’s Youth Council, intended to center youth voices and help shape the foundation’s investments and culture. During three-year terms, council members provide community perspective and also get leadership, professional-development, and networking opportunities.
To include young people in its decision-making processes, the Global Fund for Children works with an active Youth Leadership Council composed of seven youth leaders between the ages of 18-29, representing different facets of the social sector around the world. The council’s chair was once a participant in a grantee partner’s programming, and now sits on both the foundation’s board and grantmaking committee. Council members are considered “vital sources” when the foundation is designing strategies, programs, or selecting new community-based grantee partners.
Read about Global Fund for Children’s Youth Leadership Council
Through a community-based research process that tapped the wisdom of local movement leaders and grantee partners, the Tzedek Social Justice Fund recognized that it needed board members with direct experience doing the kind of work that Tzedek funds. Founder and donor Amy Mandel stepped down from the board, and Tzedek is now governed by an eight-member board of community leaders, seven of whom are people of color.
The Samuel S. Fels Fund committed to recruiting board members more representative of its Philadelphia community, evolving its board over a three-year period to be 75 percent BIPOC, with more than a third of members born outside the United States. Fels also adopted a set of values that include: Trust that those most directly harmed by injustice are in the best position to know what is needed to address harms and to build well-being.
As part of a 2022 strategic plan that included a commitment to sharing power with grantees and the community, Silicon Valley Social Venture Fund (SV2) appointed three nonprofit leaders to its governing board that had always been comprised only of donors who fund the organization. SV2 is also including for the first time community leaders on the panels making the grants recommendations that go to the board for final determination. And an initiative that will represent SV2’s largest-ever funding commitment will be identified and approved by a committee with an equal number of fully voting members representing donors, staff, and the community.
Silicon Valley Community Foundation (SVCF) created a Community Advisory Council of 24 local leaders of color to advise the community foundation on grantmaking strategies, identify emerging leaders, and provide frank feedback on whether the funder is authentically there for the community and following its lead. The group, which had a hand in SVCF’s latest strategic plan, convenes four times a year following agendas members set and carry out. “We went from a transactional listening practice — where we asked members to come to our meetings and tell us what they think we should do — to relational practices where conversation is dynamic, fluid, and not predetermined, and where learning is made within the engagement,” says Mauricio Palma, SVCF’s director of community building.
Amid the racial reckoning of 2020, the Libra Foundation joined with 11 philanthropy partners to launch the Democracy Frontlines Fund (DFF). With now 15 participating funders and $45-million in pooled funds thus far, DFF has committed to “listening to the will and self-determined priorities of Black communities, supporting them, and getting out of the way.” Grantees are selected not by the funders, but by DFF’s Brain Trust of seven Black women and women of color who together have decades of expertise in funding frontline social-justice organizers. The group identifies and vets Black-led regrantors and national organizations working for systems change, which are then confirmed as grantees after additional due diligence by a special DFF team at Libra.
As part of an emergent approach that includes leaning into values around supporting individuals and community empowerment, in 2021, the Elmina B. Sewall Foundation held its first open call for board members. Six new people joined the board in this bid to attract more diversity and broader community representation.
1Valerie Threlfall and Rebecca Klein. Bridging the Gap: A Review of Foundation Listening Practices. October 2019. Pg. 34
2Ibid. pg. 33.
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Explore Funder Action Menu
1. Talk about feedback in the application and reporting processes
2. Convene nonprofits and funders to listen and learn together
3. Make capacity-building grants to improve nonprofit feedback practice
4. Use listening and feedback to inform grantmaking
5. Use listening and feedback to inform strategy development
6. Use listening and feedback to inform measurement, learning, and evaluation
7. Employ a variety of tactics to listen directly to people and communities
8. Incorporate listening into other areas of foundation operations