Alliance-Building / Collaborative Funding

Building Equity and Alignment for Impact: Upending Philanthropy’s Power Dynamics

Contributed by Angela Adrar, Programs & Communications Director, Rural Coalition, and BEA for Impact Weaver Co-Chair; and Samantha Harvey, Environment Program Officer, Overbrook Foundation and BEA for Impact Internal Support Team-

Building Equity and Alignment for Impact (BEA for Impact) is a grassroots-led initiative built on equitable and active participation with large and mid-sized “green groups” and the philanthropic sector. The collaboration focuses on shifting resources to the grassroots sector as well as supporting equitable partnerships among grassroots, greens and funders. BEA’s formula is simple: impact is driven by grassroots capacity to expand and base-build in a meaningful way (equity), and the various parts of the movement must be working with a common strategy and purpose (alignment).

What inspired Overbrook to launch Building Equity and Alignment for Impact? What was the process?

Samantha: Overbrook catalyzed BEA for Impact, May2015but it’s been a grassroots-led, collaborative process since launching. In 2010, after the disappointment around climate legislation, Overbrook started thinking about what it would take to get all the groups working together toward common goals, rather than in silos or – worse – in competition with one another.  We saw that the ideas, needs and expertise of the grassroots organizing sector had to be equitably valued and included in order for the environmental and broader progressive movement to reach any kind of significant impact.

We convened a small support team of funders and activists who developed a nomination process for participants to join our first meeting. All were asked to attend not as individuals, but as representatives of their broader networks, coalitions and alliances, maximizing the representation in the room. We also made sure the usual power balance was upended, so the group was majority grassroots and people of color. Out of that meeting, in July 2013, Building Equity and Alignment for Impact was born!

Angela: BEA developed a Strategy Plan at our annual retreat. Implementation is led by our steering committee – the Weaver team – which represents all three sectors – grassroots, “green groups” and philanthropy.  The Weavers include two grassroots co-chairs and seven working group chairs (all resourced for their time), along with a funder and a green group representative and 4 support team members provided by Overbrook. The Weavers work to shift hearts, minds and cultures of practice that will lead to the aggregated resource shift needed to create systemic change for all.

How do you balance the inherent power dynamics when convening donors and grassroots groups?

Angela: Power dynamics are real. Even in the most well-intentioned spaces, we enter with preconceived ideas, stereotypes, fears and, in many cases, myths about funders, as do funders about grassroots groups.  The Overbrook Foundation, Edge Funders Alliance, Kresge Foundation and others have helped break down these barriers. We’ve created a space in BEA where we collectively recognize that power dynamics are crushing our outcomes and work together to find a different, more productive way of organizing within and across sectors to build the impact necessary for the big wins.

Samantha: One of the first and most critical decisions the BEA group made was to base all our interactions and decision-making processes on the Jemez Principles for Democratic Organizing. These principles are well known in grassroots circles, but it has been a learning curve for funders and larger green group representatives to get agreement from their organizations on following Jemez. The principles seem simple – they include letting people speak for themselves, committing to self-transformation, standing together in solidarity and mutuality – but more deeply considered, Jemez really reverses some entrenched power dynamics around how decisions are made and who is brought to the table.

One big challenge has been accountability: often, even if funders are on the same page with BEA and Jemez, they are reporting back (and accountable to) a very small staff or board of trustees. Grassroots groups are accountable to a large base, rooted in community. So it’s been a challenge, I think, for some of the green group and funder representatives involved to communicate not only that leadership of BEA is coming from the grassroots, but that their work will ultimately benefit even if they take a step back.

What has been the most promising lesson from BEA?

Samantha: It really works! This is the most promising development. BEA is tracking a series of case studies that show how supporting the grassroots organizing sector is a winning strategy, both through grantmaking and by looking honestly and equitably at who gets a seat at the table – whether that “table” is focused on policy, direct action, fundraising, or another strategy. A prominent example is the People’s Climate March, a multi-sector collaboration that led to the largest climate action in the U.S. to date. Since working with BEA, Overbrook has started developing thinking around what “movement-building” means for us as a foundation, particularly at the root causes of the problems we’re trying to solve and at the intersections of our Environment and Human Rights work.

What is one piece of advice you’d offer to peer funders looking to strengthen their ties to grassroots groups they support?

Samantha: This is a work in progress, and there are many, many funders out there already doing tremendous work! From my standpoint, I’d say it’s critical to listen to the groups you’re funding – they are on the ground and know best what they need to get their work done. Also, the inequity we see in resources going to grassroots falls pretty clearly along lines of race and class. Looking at potential grantees through a race/equity/inclusion lens, and taking historic inequity into consideration, is also critical.

Angela: I would invite peer funders to begin utilizing the Jemez Principles within their organization and applying it to the way you address priorities.  Listening to the groups you fund is critical because they know what they need and when they need it most.  I would also suggest that you develop more collaborative funding projects where larger groups are encouraged to work with the grassroots in an equitable way that not only brings about greater alignment, but greater impact.

Learn more about BEA for Impact, and contact Samantha Harvey or Angela Adrar to get involved.

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