How NFG is Disrupting Funder-Grantee Dynamics

Helen Chin has just led the Surdna Foundation’s Sustainable Environments Program through a strategy refinement process. “Now,” she says, with satisfaction, “We are able to connect more robustly with what’s bubbling from the ground up in the field, as well as center racial equity in our work!”  The outcome of this effort was a commitment to actively partner directly with the communities most vulnerable and impacted by climate change in order to build their capacity and power to self-determine the ownership, control and stewardship of land and infrastructure. This refinement distills the Program’s previous five lines of work into two integrated grantmaking and investment strategies: Environmental and Climate Justice, and Land Use through Community Power.

As the Program Director, and as someone who comes from a background in urban planning and environmental justice organizing, Helen is delighted by this opportunity to build community resilience and power in partnership with grantees working at the frontlines in communities of color — communities hardest hit by climate change, disinvestment and racist planning practices:

Communities isolated along the lines of race and class have been made vulnerable and are under threat from decades of disinvestment. And while, everyone is under threat from climate change and its impact, some communities are less resilient than others. Here in New York, communities of color and low-wealth communities who are hardest hit by environmental injustice, house all the City’s waste, and are cut off from the infrastructure that would support resiliency. They don’t have access to transit or quality, affordable housing, and are not able to withstand the stresses of environmental conditions that already exist. Add climate change and storms, and the community can be decimated — left without a home to go to nor a means to move around or away from harm. This coupled with living paycheck to paycheck in the best-case scenario or even worse, living financially underwater, creates further challenges. These are the conditions real people are living with that challenge their resilience and ability to prosper. It‘s not just the one-off incident, it’s the culmination of all the things that life is throwing at people.

We need a sustained bottom up approach. How can we help position folks to affect what is happening to them, instead of having solutions rained down on them from external architects that don’t address the complexities of experiences that stem from a tapestry of inequitable policies and practices? How can we support communities as the world around them is evolving, using infrastructure and the development of infrastructure in a way that simultaneously builds economic justice, designs for racial equity and solves environmental problems? We want to put forward an alternative vision, one that positions those communities to be able to take a proactive stand and say, ‘How do I create something that builds resiliency for me?’ We are able now to bring forward a strong lens around how we build power in communities that have been invisible and devalued.

The Surdna Foundation is a long-standing member and collaborator of Neighborhood Funders Group; last year, to mark its centennial with a signature expression of its values, Surdna partnered with NFG, Ford Foundation, Open Society Foundations, Jessie Smith Noyes Foundation, The Kresge Foundation, The Moriah Fund, and The JPB Foundation to seed NFG’s Amplify Fund, a new, multimillion-dollar pooled fund focused on investing in equitable, community-led development. Helen sits on the Advisory Committee that forms criteria and provides oversight for the Fund. Of NFG, she says, “Because racial equity is so squarely centered at NFG, we knew we would have a great partner and home for this work, one that would help us advance the expression of our own values and the legacy of our work in the development and planning arena.”

Sharing her perspective on how Neighborhood Funders Group makes a difference in philanthropy, Helen cites NFG’s role in shifting culture and practice. She lifts up the ways that NFG disrupts traditional funder-grantee dynamics:

NFG is causing funders to re-evaluate what it means to partner. The funder relationship is usually very paternalistic — ‘I have money, I give you money. Because I have money, I have power to set the agenda, and you don’t.’ Funders usually position themselves as experts and foster relationships where the field reacts to funder ideas rather than partnering and co-producing with those touching and experiencing the work.  NFG is changing that dynamic by questioning who is expert in the room, and who has voice and power. The new framing is — community is expert. How do we support a space where community is co-creating with philanthropy for impact? Funder to funder, within the sector, the way that NFG works is causing funders to re-evaluate how they think about being partners.

Helen values how NFG supports her to reach beyond her specific issue area and build broadly with other funders — specifically the ways that NFG connects the dots and creates a vessel to carry cross-cutting racial and economic justice work:

One thing NFG has helped me think about is, ‘How do you authentically create space to co-create with a community of people that is not necessarily from your sector or your genre?’ As an environmental funder, I am surrounded by others that are myopically focused on the environment and climate. NFG fosters a learning culture for a lot of people working on a diversity of issues to think holistically and work on solutions that intentionality lift up people and strive for racial justice outcomes.

We are creating something much greater, in support of the health and vitality of neighborhoods and communities, creating an ecosystem that threads the needle for funders who might not be able to see that. This is valuable, because I am in other spaces where there may be five working groups and one doesn’t know what is going on in the other four. There is a false assumption that they are different issues. NFG has more fluidity between working groups. They holistically organize and hold funders accountable to being in service of communities of color and low-wealth communities.

NFG convenings, she says, do the legwork for her, helping to build relationships and alliances with other funders to move racial and economic justice work in the field.

I already connect with NFG in terms of values, but NFG has helped me in the sense of being able to strategize and co-create. Their frame is not new for me, but they have given me the space. They create the relationships. I used to have to build and broker the relationships myself, but they create the space to do that. It’s easier to do that through their convenings, their learning forums, and the Amplify Fund.

In closing, Helen warmly validates NFG staff, as strategic thought partners and allies in her work:

I get to connect to them all the time and they know how much I admire them for how they work. NFG’s superpower: they are truly strategic partners. They organize around strategy and a sense of purpose — actualizing justice. They are strategic thinkers. One of the few philanthropic groups that are not just about learning and convening, NFG is about strategizing with philanthropy to have meaningful impact.