How do funders and nonprofits work together effectively to achieve shared goals in education? The speakers who participated in our Nonprofit Leaders Panel at the 2021 Thoma Foundation New Mexico Education Funders had a lot to say on this subject, and we are grateful for their candor in sharing their perspectives. As one panelist noted, it can be intimidating as a nonprofit leader to address a room full of funders, and many of these conversations are difficult to have in any setting.
The opinions the panelists expressed were frequently aligned with what our team has heard at recent national convenings with fellow philanthropists but are also a reflection of the unique nonprofit and educational ecosystem of Doña Ana County, one characterized by sustained collaboration, capable leadership, and deep community engagement.
Throughout this post, we’ll be referring to the panelists who presented at the 2021 Carl & Marilynn Thoma New Mexico Education Funders Southern Summit. To learn more about this convening, please refer to the introductory post for this blog series. To find out about our panelists and facilitators, reference the bios presented here.
It All Boils Down to Trust
The biggest theme that united our panelists’ reflections on both collaboration between nonprofits and working with funders was the idea of trust.
Many of our nonprofit leaders found themselves facing entrenched distrust of schools and other institutions within the communities they serve. Panel facilitator André Gonzales spoke at the beginning of our session at his work on the national level with Weave: The Social Fabric Project at the Aspen Institute: “We’ve seen in the last five years that indicators for social distrust and disconnection are skyrocketing, in terms of addiction, opioid deaths, children not going to school, parents not showing up for after school programs. We’re looking at how we can support these individuals and these organizations that may not recognized by traditional nonprofit or philanthropy models.” Social trust was on the decline even before the COVID-19 pandemic, and then dipped again in 2021 (after a modest initial surge around the start of pandemic in 2020).
Especially in the realm of education, many communities and families in Southern New Mexico have legitimate reasons to mistrust institutions, often stemming from generations of disenfranchisement, racism, and structural poverty. Our panelists also reported that families who have been in the area a long time are frequently wary of putting their faith in programs or organizations because they have seen too many services appear and then disappear. Daisy Maldonado, Director of the Empowerment Congress of Doña Ana County, explained, “When Empowerment Congress goes into these communities to work with young people, they show up with suspicion, asking, ‘How long are you going to be here? How long is this going to last? We’ve seen this before: people knock on our door; they ask us for this and that and then they’re gone.’” To mend these patterns of skepticism and suspicion, panelists told us that communities need stability, empathy, and sustained engagement from service providers.
The other major component of trust that the panelists addressed is that which exists between funders and grantees. Building on the growing prominence of trust-based philanthropy over the last few years, accelerated by the unique conditions of the pandemic, panelists reiterated that nonprofit leaders are subject-matter experts and funders should work to build structures that allow them to effectively deploy their experience and expertise in the field. Dr. Katherine Ortega Courtney, the co-founder and director of the Anna, Age Eight Institute, said, “I think we need to trust that nonprofits are not in it for the lucrative careers! They’re doing this out of passion for their communities… We need to develop that relationship, that trust, and really empower our nonprofits who are out there doing the most important work in a community and let them do their thing. They’re the experts in what needs to be done, they’re the experts in their own organization on how to spend that money and sustainability, too. I think it’s happening. I’m optimistic that these conversations are even happening.”
Trust can be a bit of a squishy concept to some funders, but there is an economic benefit to building trust with nonprofits: it saves time and resources on burdensome processes and allows nonprofits to do what they do best—serve the community.Following on Dr. Courtney’s statement, Lori Martinez, Executive Director of Ngage New Mexico, added, “The buzzword is trust-based philanthropy and I think that should be the norm: multiyear general operating grants. This is a question for you funders: how do you want us spending your time? Do you want us able to focus on our mission or do we need to spend a quarter more of our time just focusing on keeping the lights on and the doors open?” In her closing remarks, Martinez hammered this point home once again, stating, “Things don’t always work as fast as we want them to [in Southern New Mexico], but what works sustainably here is that we have all learned to move at the speed of trust. Relationship building is central to everything we do.” It’s not always easy to build trust, and Foundations may struggle with anxieties and doubts when working with new organizations with different working styles. Nor should trust be blindly given. But if funders are hoping to use their dollars effectively, trust can stretch grant dollars further.
While our team has talked about trust-based philanthropy in abstract terms with other funders, hearing from the nonprofit leader panelists about how grantee-funder trust plays out on the ground, creating deeper and more effective relationships, added a new perspective and urgency to these broader conversations.
Where Trust Meets Sustainability: Multiyear Operating Grants
When it comes to building community trust and working within the model of trust-based philanthropy, all the nonprofit leader panelists echoed Martinez’s call for multiyear general operating grants. These, they told us, are key to preventing situations like the one that Daisy Maldonado described above, of projects starting and then disappearing or not being continued to fruition. From the funder side, stable funding enables more productive programs and allows more dollars to reach the people they are intended to serve. If a funder already believes in their nonprofit partner.There is a real economic cost to not providing stable funding.
Tracey Bryan, outgoing Executive Director of The Bridge of Southern New Mexico, framed the problem of short-term funding as one that also plagues state funding, where both funders and legislators are not willing to stick with programs for long enough to see tangible and measurable results: “I think we even see that in state policy where we fund this genius idea for a year and then we don’t fund it the next year. I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had with community [members] where I’ll go, ‘Hey weren’t we doing this thing for young moms?’ ‘Oh yeah, but the funding went away’…That’s up to you all [funders] to decide: do you want to make a little longer-term commitment to ride it out, especially as it relates to evaluation, to see what happens? …Perhaps there’s an opportunity there as you think about your funding if you see a three- or four- or five-year commitment to riding something out so that some wonderful thing that was just starting to show results doesn’t just go away because of funding.”
Maldonado chimed in, “Totally agree with Tracey: long-term commitments in terms of funding and more, to be honest. And it’s not because we’re greedy, money-hungry people. But we are also people who are trying to live and survive in the area.”
Hope Morales, Director of Teach Plus New Mexico, concurred: “You all hit it: multiyear commitment!” Morales explained that multiyear commitments were critical for capacity building: “One of the challenges is capacity. I, Hope Morales, from Roswell, New Mexico, am running the [Teach Plus] Policy Fellowship and Network and Change Agents and [have been] doing all this stuff by myself for several years. It’s hard to not do that because it’s something that needs to be done but it’s also hard to do because I have three children of my own and I’m trying to serve my community in different ways.”
We heard during the evening funder-nonprofit meet-and-greet that many nonprofits in Doña Ana County had experienced more unrestricted funding and general operating grants during the pandemic, and that they were hopeful that this trend would continue. Martinez urged the funders at the Summit to consider funding positions that would lead to better overall organizational sustainability: “Funding a grant writer is not sexy but that’s what’s going to be able to make us last… We’ve been very fortunate with our funders but we still have many of the same struggles any other nonprofit does and we’re trying to get ourselves to the next level where we can apply for state and federal funds.”
Philanthropy Pilots but the State Sustains
Martinez’s desire to attract state and federal funds relates closely to another aspect of program sustainability that our panelists discussed: the need to eventually transition from exclusively philanthropic funding to long-term government funding and ideally, sustained policy outcomes.
As Bryan told funders at the Summit, “Anything you [funders] want to do here [in Southern New Mexico], you will have collaboration. We’re more than happy to come alongside to accomplish your mission. But how can you accomplish your mission while helping us with what goes on down here? I think the model of the Bridge is very representative of something I’ve heard La June Montgomery Tabron [President of W.K. Kellogg Foundation] say, ‘Philanthropy can pilot, but policy is sustainability.’ If you fund a pilot where we can prove something, now we have something to offer from a policy perspective that can get built into somebody’s budget, somebody’s legislation. And that’s really, really important because the legislature is not out pursuing innovative, wild ideas… but y’all are. You’re part of that ecosystem and that’s an important role that you all play. At the Bridge, our job is to partner, to pilot, to prove it, and then to pass it to somebody to sustain it…In a way it’s holding us to account, and in another way it’s [funders] setting the stage for using this as your learning laboratory to test out your own theories.”
New Mexico has seen some success in transforming philanthropic pilots into state policies (e.g. the Inquiry Science Education Consortium at the LANL Foundation), but there is still a lot of a room for growth in this area. Funders and nonprofits working together in sustained collaboration have the potential to drive policy change. Bryan also had some thoughts on the importance of funders working together towards long-term solutions: “Maybe you have the opportunity to introduce other funders to such-and-such a person or program that you really think is doing good work and they can be part of the long-term solution even if you’re not…So maybe part of sustainability is expanding the group of people who care about that issue and are mission-aligned and it doesn’t have to be you only.”
Our other panelists built on this concept, explaining that their most successful relationships with funders where those where their organization and the philanthropy were extremely mission aligned and working toward the same goal. For instance, Hope Morales called attention to a particularly effective funder partnership between Teach Plus New Mexico and the Thornburg Foundation: “I want to shoutout [Education Policy Officer] Michael Weinberg; we have a partnership with the Thornburg Foundation and I say it’s a partnership; it has been a wonderful working relationship where we work towards shared goals. He invites me in for the strategic planning. I’m about to share my five-year plan with them for their feedback. Our communication is pretty open and honest, sometimes it’s informal updates, sometimes it’s him connecting me with other organizations, funders, and foundations. Sometimes it’s inviting him to our events to see in action what your support is doing, and he was able to join us for our kickoff weekend and meet our teachers. I think it’s important for me to understand all the expectations so that I meet those early on and throughout. And I think the introductions, whether it’s to other individuals or foundations or decision makers, helping us to build those relationships.”
Creating Access to Funders and Spaces to Speak Truth to Power
For collaborations like those outlined above to grow and flourish, our panelists told us that there needs the space and time for relationships and networks to grow. Lori Martinez explained, “There are a lot of collaborations, and for any number of reasons. Some of it is the North versus South [dynamic], some if has to do with community values, and the way this region is laid out. But for all of you as funders, I would encourage you to nurture that. And then come join us, come talk to us, come help us create those spaces in the community.”
Martinez also encouraged the funders in the audience to think about which leaders, nonprofits, and community members were invited into this room for the convening, or who are regularly excluded from tables with people in power: “Everyone in this room has a million ideas but… who’s not in the room? We’re the ones making the decisions, we’re the voices at the table, and these innovative solutions come at the local level. I think about what’s going on at the state level and we’re in the middle of a statewide lawsuit because the state has failed to abide by our own constitutional mandate to provide a sufficient and equitable education for every student. The state is fighting that out on that [state] level and probably is going to be for a while… Just as important as thinking about what collaborations are possible is how do we create a context and an environment where collaborations can thrive. When people hear the word collaboration some people think ‘that’s not for me.’ So how do we create a context where when we talk about collaboration people realize ‘oh, they mean me; I need to be at the table’?”…We also need access so that it’s not just the big nonprofits or the more well-known ones that have access to talk to you, it’s the emerging leaders that we need so desperately; it’s the local solutions that are coming to light; they need to be able to talk to you, they need to be able to get a hold of you. That social capital makes all the difference in the world.”
Acknowledge Power Dynamics and Ego in Philanthropy
In thinking about creating open conversations between educators, students, nonprofits, and funders, our panelists also highlighted the often unseen and unspoken embedded power dynamics that so frequently shape these discursive spaces. Fear and power disparities go hand-in-hand, our panelists said, often limiting our desire to take risks or test truly bold and innovative ideas. Dr. Ortega Courtney spoke to her experience working in the child welfare and nonprofit spheres:
“The people in the [child welfare] system and in many systems operate under fear and it is completely understandable because at the end of the day, they need to bring home a paycheck and support their families. And if they speak out, there is a real danger in losing something and their fear of loss prevents a lot of people from speaking up and speaking out. Philanthropists and foundations—people are often afraid to tell you the truth of what you’re doing because of the power dynamics there. It’s important to recognize that and when you see people shut down or step away from an initiative, so very often it is because of fear. It is because they are fearing their own loss: How is this going to impact me? How is this going to hurt my family? How is this going to hurt my paycheck? And that’s really real and we need to acknowledge that. And from a philanthropy point of view; if you’re working in a foundation and you’re a program officer and your boss is telling you: ‘you need to show the impact of this program,’ you’re going to do it because you want to keep your job! There are power dynamics everywhere and we just need to acknowledge that change is hard and it is scary and it is also worth it. Not everybody’s going to be your biggest fan if you’re going to do a big change initiative, but if at the end of the day we have safer and thriving communities, it’s worth it.”
We also heard a degree of frustration with the egos that often creep into philanthropy and the desire to be recognized and receive credit for the work being done. Dr. Courtney underscored the need for truly collective impact over good PR for a single organization or foundation: “What we need to do is set aside the idea of who gets credit for what. We need to be able to say, “this is our community, this is what we need; funders, help us.” Don’t worry about who is funding what, let’s all come together and ensure that 100% of our families can survive and thrive in our county and we’ll all get credit and we’ll all do better for it. I’ve worked in several collective impact projects and what always ends up holding it back and getting it stuck is the question of ‘where is my logo on the flyer?’ It doesn’t matter. At the end of the day, if a kid has access to food that they didn’t have, or if a kid graduates college because of a foundation, isn’t that what we’re here for? Collaborations are entirely possible, let’s set our egos aside and not care who gets credit for it.”
See Grantees as “Social Profits” with Real Economic Impacts
The importance of story also came up in the discussion about how we talk about nonprofits and the role they play in our communities. Panelists pointed out that the words we use to talk about education-related services and work in the community routinely devalues it. What if, they suggested, rather than using the term “nonprofit” we used the term “social profit”?
Lori Martinez and André Gonzales also reiterated that “nonprofit” work is also a major economic sector providing many jobs statewide. Martinez explained, “New Mexico Association of Grantmakers and the Center for Nonprofit Excellence, now Groundworks NM, did a nonprofit economic impact study a couple years ago and when you look at the impact that nonprofits bring to NM not only in dollars but in the number of jobs that nonprofits provide, it’s more than 2 or 3 of these other New Mexico industries combined and people don’t talk about that! There is tremendous value that nonprofits are bringing into New Mexico every day.” Gonzales broke this down in terms of numbers: “Here in New Mexico alone, there are over 9,100 nonprofits with 48,000 employees and $15.7 billion in assets. So nonprofit organizations here in New Mexico and particularly here in Southern New Mexico play a vital role not only in providing these wraparound services to our students but also helping to further spark the economic development and wellbeing of our communities. This panel right here—they are the ones doing the work on the ground. They are the ones moving the needle here in Southern New Mexico.”
For those working in education-related nonprofits, there is an even a more palpable impact. As Tracey Bryan framed it in her closing remarks: “Academic outcomes have economic impact. That is the core of this conversation. You all are having a conversation that could change the economic trajectory of southern New Mexico and New Mexico at large.”
Changing the trajectory of New Mexico’s economic growth and seizing this unique pandemic moment to “build back better” will be the topic of our next Southern Summit blog post.
Sarah Rovang; editing by Christine Dong and Ashlyn Lee