Marjona Jones joined the Unitarian Universalist Veatch Program at Shelter Rock four years ago after working in the field as an organizer for 14 years. She came to Neighborhood Funders Group (NFG) through an existing relationship between Veatch and NFG: Molly Schultz Hafid, former assistant director at Veatch, also served as an NFG board member and co-chair for the Funders for a Just Economy (FJE) working group. “She was outgoing co-chair when I was hired at Veatch — the relationships she had built through that working group were important to me as well because I also worked around economic equity,” says Marjona. Initially, NFG was a space of learning for Marjona as a newcomer to the sector:
I joined [FJE’s] program committee, and then was invited to join the coordinating committee. It was an education! It was really about supporting the working group in order to create opportunities for funders to come together, hear about grantees, and think about how to create more space within philanthropy for this. That takes building relationships within philanthropy. That takes creating more breadth for funders to leverage what we have, and more, for our grantees. We’ve got to do that by educating one another within philanthropy.
NFG was also a space of affirmation and sustenance for Marjona, whose organizing background and perspective from the field anchors her work as a grantmaker and informs her relationships with grantees. At NFG, she found a commitment to racial and economic justice that matched her own. She has gone on to become centrally involved in NFG, joining Funders for Justice (FFJ), participating in Project Phoenix, and now serving on NFG’s board.
An Intersectional Framework
NFG centers people in its work, helping funders understand the meaning of an intersectional analysis and apply it to their grantmaking. Marjona lifts up FJE’s Working at the Intersections program as an example:
Something I really want to share is a report that Working at the Intersections put out [titled Journey Towards Intersectional Grant-making] about best practices for how we want and need to support work at the intersections of identity. “Intersectional” is often just a buzzword, and so we thought it would be good to offer understanding around how that perspective plays out, and how it plays out within philanthropy too.
To me, it was a beautiful convening that we did [with Working at the Intersections]. It really opened up folks to talk about what it is we deal with as women of color within philanthropy. We need to be mindful about how that impacts the field of philanthropy, and how we move our work. There are layers that we have to be very intentional about if we really care about justice liberation and how all those things intersect. If we aren’t mindful of this, we can be really shortsighted then in funding program work because we are so siloed in philanthropy — ‘This week she will show up as a worker, next week she will show up as a woman, the following week as a person of color…’
Because of [Veatch’s’ general support grants], our funding isn’t requiring people to carve up their identities, which I think is a disservice. Requiring people to show up in this way sometimes impacts and distracts from the work.
In speaking about how NFG promotes an intersectional approach in the philanthropic sector, Marjona also highlights her participation in NFG’s Project Phoenix: Connecting Democracy, Economy, and Sustainability, a year-long cohort collective learning program for funders. For Project Phoenix, the term “new economy” means intersectional activities with an intention to support a democracy that works for all, an economy that provides good jobs and promotes local economic prosperity, the growth of ecologically sustainable and non-extractive sectors, and a re-prioritization of the role of capital in society to better serve these goals. Marjona shares how participating in Project Phoenix expanded her understanding about environmental grantmaking:
Project Phoenix really helped me understand my work a great deal, because it was focused on democracy and the environment. It was hard for me as a general support funder to see our role in moving that work because we have an environmental portfolio, but we didn’t have a way of supporting those intersections [of racial and economic justice].
Project Phoenix was helpful for me to understand all the different ways the work that we fund had a place [in the environmental landscape]. It was important for me to understand where we fit in the larger field of philanthropy. And it was also really helpful to understand our current socio-economic moment — capitalism, it extracts not just resources from the ground but it extracts resources from working-class, poor communities; it extracts people, it extracts lives, it extracts health. Prisoners are used as free labor to make goods and then those goods are sold back to us. It extracts our wealth — from the way the banking system works to the way it suppresses wages.
So it helped me understand when you are talking about climate change and environmental protections, you need to be talking about worker protections, and housing, and health, and education. All of these things are connected. You can’t talk about these things in a vacuum. Those organizations that are focused on the environment without thinking about people need to be focused on people as well.
Amplifying Resources and Awareness in Critical Times
Marjona shares an example of how NFG plays a powerful and responsive role in amplifying resources for racial justice through the network of funders with whom the organization has built a shared values framework and provided concrete, immediate avenues for funders to take action. With the organizers in 2014 who were taking a stand on the ground to protest the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, Marjona understood the importance of supporting them with navigating the same criminal justice system that was being used to target and intimidate them. She worked closely with NFG’s Funders for Justice program staff to convene a conference call to mobilize resources and support the organizers’ legal costs:
There were protests happening in St. Louis, and they needed emergency funds for bail support and organizers to work on legal aspects such as defending people, going with them to court, and helping them through the process. I felt that was critical because it is something that gets left out of grant proposals. People are going to put their freedom on the line — what happens to them once they are arrested, charged, and have to go to court? This is a concern especially in St. Louis, where folks are often new or first time offenders.
I remember emailing Lorraine [Ramirez, Senior Program Manager] at Funders for Justice, asking, ‘Can you send this out to the listserv?’ And she said, ‘Why don’t we do a call?’ I helped get folks on the phone, and they ended up getting support. It wasn’t a large call; it was just a handful of funders. But, I feel like if there had not been FFJ, I would have had to do that legwork myself, and to be honest, I don’t know if I would have been able to call funders individually to get that support while I had the work of my docket. I could not have brought people to the table so quickly on the strength of my own relationships.
Because NFG has been organizing within philanthropy over the years with convenings and webinars, they have built up integrity in the field. People know to go to NFG if they have questions about black organizing and police brutality. So when NFG puts a call out asking if we can move resources for something, people will join and pony up.
Supporting Members to Engage Actively
The ways that NFG supports its members to go deeper and develop a broader understanding of their role and potential for impact is important to Marjona in her work:
I think folks [at NFG] understand that we need to organize. They understand that philanthropy has to be as organized as we expect our grantees to be. NFG’s convenings and information sharing help create conditions so that can happen. A lot of [the staff at NFG] are former organizers... I said it before, and I will say it again, I don’t know if I would still be in philanthropy if it had not been for NFG.
Veatch has always had a commitment to racial justice, but we have increased our giving to over a million dollars to racial justice organizing — and part of that was from our work with NFG. We said to ourselves, ‘Yes, we are doing this, but we can do more. So let’s figure out how to be creative, and how to support our colleagues in being creative as well.’
After what happened with the Ferguson uprising, there was so much handwringing on the left. Helping to break through that to take action was important — because this isn’t just about Missouri, and this goes beyond Michael Brown. This is about the nation. It helped people do something, get in the game, and be public about how they were going to support that work. Was it perfect? Hell no! Especially when you have got money and power in the mix. But it did move funders in the right direction, and that’s what we need. Because it’s really easy to sit in our offices and say, ‘I [only] have this much money, and I have to get this docket out the door.’ But we have a greater responsibility. NFG helps you understand that greater responsibility, as well as how you can take that responsibility, hone it, and bring it into the program work.