This Moment Shows Us Why Philanthropy Should Reinvent Itself

By: Dr. Gislaine N. Ngounou, Vice President of Strategy and Programs, Nellie Mae Education Foundation

Brooklyn Museum / CC BY

Much of the philanthropic community is earning praise for its response to COVID-19. To date, funders across the country have provided over $10 billion in grants, prompting some to even dub the pandemic as philanthropy’s “shining moment.

While it is encouraging to see many stepping up, foundations should use this experience to reflect on the strengths and shortfalls of our work, and how we can better wield our power and privilege to support communities in the future. COVID-19 is exacerbating inequities and rapidly harming people of color — especially Black people — who for centuries have been failed by our economic, education, and healthcare systems. As painful as the realities and data are, they are neither new nor shocking. We have seen this play out time and time again in the murder of Black people living in this country. Our systems are not broken; they are merely functioning as they were designed to operate — that is, privileging some while perpetually oppressing many. Racism has been the pandemic that Black people in America have endured for over 400 years.

Read the full article in Nonprofit Quarterly


This Moment Shows Us Why Philanthropy Should Reinvent Itself was originally published in Nellie Mae Education Foundation on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Communications for Good and COVID-19

To communicate is to be human — to share conversation over a pot of coffee with a coworker, embrace a loved one in a hug, share a meal with a group of friends. As I keep the news on in the background while I’m quarantined like so many in my home, the commercial breaks seem like a surreal trip into another lifetime — where people are dancing together at parties, picking kids up at school, listening to a presentation in an office. Now, more than ever, we are seeing how effective communications practices can keep us connected, even when we are physically apart.

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the lessons I have learned about effective communications through a racial equity lens at the Nellie Mae Education Foundation remain even more relevant today. How we respond to this pandemic as funders is critical — not only in how we choose to use our resources, but in the ways we choose to communicate.

This is About All of Us, Not Just Some of Us
Americans tend to default to an individualism cultural model — meaning that we think that what happens to us is the result of our individual actions, not larger systems and historical systems of oppression. We see this playing out through the hoarding of food, toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and baby formula, or politicians putting big business in front of the needs of those suffering the most in this crisis. When President Trump incites vitriol like using language such as the “China Virus” he is buying into racism, xenophobia, and Sinophobia that divide us. He is also reinforcing this idea of individuals from a community of color being the root of this virus, instead of tapping into the idea that our own health and wellbeing depends upon the health of others.

The Message Matters, But So Does The Messenger
There are a multitude of reasons why a group of community organizers might hear a message differently if it were to come from a young person of color versus me, a white woman working at a philanthropic organization. These reasons may include lived experiences, proximity to challenges at hand, relationships and credibility in communities, and many more. The same principle remains for communicating in the wake of this pandemic. Now is not the time for funders to insert their agendas into every news story, or distribute press releases as normal. It’s time to lend our support to the messengers and our grantees — credible sources on what we can do as a society to diminish the effects of this virus. At Nellie Mae, we have been organizing resource and support opportunities for communities throughout the region, and also working internally to shift our practices to provide more support to response efforts. For those interested in sharing the facts, the CDC, NIH and local departments of health are good places to start.

Listening More, Saying Less
Effective communication is not a one-way street. We all know that this crisis will have profound impacts on the sustainability and viability of many schools, districts and nonprofit organizations in our region. As funders, we have to figure out how we can support our grantee partners during this time by listening more, asking them how we can be of support, and following their guidance. Additionally, we need to take it upon ourselves to be proactive, bold and decisive in our communications around flexibility surrounding grant requirements, lightening the burdens that so many of our grantee partners are feeling at this time. We’ve already seen powerful examples of this from funders like the Barr Foundation and the Heinz Endowments.

Funders, this is our chance to use the many resources we have at hand — our money, our networks, and our communications — to support the communities we seek to support. After all, we’re all in this together.

A Letter to Our Grantees and Vendors on COVID-19

Dear Friends:

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are committed to extending care to our grantee partners, the communities we serve, and ourselves. We wanted to send a short note to you in this time of uncertainty:

· We understand that the spread of COVID-19 is likely causing disruption in your work environment, and may also affect your ability to hold in person meetings, gatherings or attend convenings you have planned as a part of your funding from us. We want to extend flexibility during this uncertain time. If grant activity or reports will be significantly delayed during this time, we welcome a conversation with you about making alternative arrangements. Please contact your program officer to discuss how to proceed. If you are unsure of who to contact, please email Jessica Spohn, Director of Grantmaking, jspohn@nmefoundation.org.

· Effective today, through March 31st at least, Nellie Mae staff will be working remotely. During this time, we will be holding all our meetings virtually.

· We have plans in place to ensure grant payments are made with minimal disruption.

· Today, we released one of our first steps in supporting Asian-American and Pacific Islander communities affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. We invite you to learn more about that here, and remain committed to figuring out how to best serve our grantee partners and communities during this time.

· We will also continue to strategize internally and in partnership with grantees, community partners, and other funders as we gain a clearer assessment of the situation across the region. We hope to remain part of the solution alongside many as we all work together to address the immediate and long-lasting impact of COVID-19 in communities and schools.

If you have any immediate concerns about your grant with us, please don’t hesitate to contact your program officer. We are keeping you in our hearts in this uncertain time and will keep you updated on any changes on our end. Thank you for the work you do every day.

Nick Donohue
President & CEO
Nellie Mae Education Foundation

The Nellie Mae Education Foundation Welcomes Betty Francisco to Board of Directors, and Jessica…

We are pleased to welcome Betty Francisco to our Board of Directors

Today we are pleased to announce the appointments of Betty Francisco to our Board of Directors, and Jessica Jones and Juliette Menga as advisory members of the Board’s Investment Committee. Together, these three powerful community and business leaders will bring tremendous expertise and guidance to the Nellie Mae Education Foundation as we launch our new organizational strategy to advance racial equity in public education.

“We are delighted to welcome these three talented leaders as part of this exciting new chapter for our organization,” said Nick Donohue, President & CEO of Nellie Mae. “Their perspectives and insights will be incredibly valuable as we reshape our grantmaking through a race equity lens to ensure that all students across New England have access to an excellent public education.”

Betty Francisco is an entrepreneur, community leader, business executive and attorney. She is known as a powerful convener and collaborator, passionate about creating visibility for the growing Latinx business and civic community in Massachusetts. In 2018, Boston Magazine named her one of the 100 most Influential People in Boston. She was also honored by GetKonnected as part of the GK100: Greater Boston’s Most Influential People of Color list.

Betty is the co-founder of Latina Circle, a Boston-based network that is advancing Latina leaders into positions of power and influence across industries. She was also instrumental in launching Latina Circle’s Amplify Latinx initiative to increase Latinx civic engagement and political representation. Currently, Betty is the General Counsel at Compass Working Capital, where she serves as chief legal advisor. She has over 17 years of experience advising health clubs, life sciences, and technology companies in the areas of legal, compliance, risk management, operations, and human resources. Previously, Betty served as the CEO and Founder of FitNation Ventures, a business and legal consulting practice focused on advising health and fitness companies.

Betty obtained her JD and MBA from Northeastern University, and her BA in History from Bard College. She is fluent in Spanish and resides in Boston with her husband and two daughters. “It is so exciting to join the Foundation at a pivotal time as it implements its racial equity strategy,” she says. “I am looking forward to advancing the mission and elevating the voices of youth, families and grassroots leaders who are best positioned to shape innovative solutions for improving public education.”

We are pleased to welcome Jessica Jones as an Investment Advisor to our Board

Jessica Jones is Managing Director for Hedge Funds at Dartmouth College’s Investment Office. Before joining DCIO in 2018, she worked for almost a decade at HighVista Strategies, where she was a principal focusing on the firm’s external manager portfolio across public and private strategies. Previously, she held positions at Grove Street and Battery Ventures.

Jessica graduated summa cum laude with an AB degree from Princeton University in 2001. She is chair of the Princeton admissions office alumni schools committee for the western suburbs of Boston. Jessica co-founded and currently runs NextGen LPs, an industry networking association. She is also on the investment committee for the Squam Lakes Natural Science Center. “I am thrilled to be joining an organization that I know is truly committed to advancing racial equity in public education,” she says.

We are pleased to welcome Juliette Menga as an Investment Advisor to our Board

Juliette Menga, CFA is a Director and Associate Portfolio Manager at Alternative Investment Group, an independent investment firm based in Southport, CT. She has responsibility for manager sourcing and monitoring for all funds at the firm, and works closely with its head of investment strategy to define its strategic investment direction. Juliette is a member of the firm’s Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) and Sustainable Investing Committee, and has been with the firm since April 2007. Prior to joining Alternative Investment Group, Juliette was an Analyst at New York Live Investment Management. She has also worked as a Research Analyst for Excalibur Advisors LLC, a hedge fund advisory firm.

Juliette holds a dual BS, cum laude, from Kennesaw State University in Mathematics and Computer Science, and a MS in Financial Mathematics from Florida State University. She is also a Chartered Financial Analyst. “I look forward to partnering with the Nellie Mae team to think strategically about how we can best align the organization’s investments with its focus on equity,” says Juliette.

“As part of our new strategy, we are working to ensure all aspects of our organizational culture and practice promote equity — not only in our grantmaking, but also in how we invest our endowment in ways aligned with our values,” said Greg Gunn, Board Chair of the Nellie Mae Education Foundation. “Betty, Jessica and Juliette will be instrumental in helping us achieve that goal.”

Learning and Improving at Nellie Mae

Learning and improving comes naturally to us as humans. Healthy babies learning to walk get up after each tumble as they figure out how to steady themselves and move ahead. Our job in Nellie Mae’s Learning and Evaluation initiative is to lean into our inclinations to learn as individuals, and encourage learning to improve as a communal endeavor.

To that end, the Foundation has developed a framework for learning and evaluation. We’re seeking to become clearer and more intentional about what we want our grantmaking to accomplish and what we learn along the way about ourselves. We’re increasingly capturing the thinking behind our values and efforts, the specifics of what we are doing and what we’re figuring out. We owe this to the students in the region, and what we know from a range of reports, including the recent 50-year update of the Kerner Commission Report that finds equity of access and outcomes is not making the strides needed for all students to experience progress and success in school. It’s taking way too long.

Through our grantmaking, we are seeking to be more intentional, track and evaluate how we are doing, unpack the reasons for our progress and missteps, and apply our learning to our next efforts. We believe this will help us do better work internally, as well as with our grantees and partners who with us, work to increase college and career readiness, particularly for traditionally marginalized students and communities. Our grantees are critical partners in helping us reflect on how we are supporting them to do such important work. As we analyze our progress internally, we employ three levels of analysis:

· Monitoring: Across grant funds, we monitor progress through program officers engaging with grantees, grantee reports, and ongoing contact with intermediaries. These are regular components of grantmaking practices.

· Evaluation of Impact: Some grant funds are examined through project evaluations, synthesis of grantee reports, and evaluations of clusters of grants or overall strategy. A set of Principles of Evaluation guide our evaluation practices.

· Learning and Reflection About our Strategy: At this level, we examine the external environment and related data sources, systems change frameworks, and some broader evaluations that can inform our overall strategy or related clusters of investments.

These three levels named in the framework are essential, and data collection isn’t enough. We give meaning to our data collection through:

Practices that Build a Learning Organization: We know our efforts can only improve when we regularly track and measure progress, stop to reflect, and then do better (see Marilyn Darling’s piece on “emergent learning”). The Learning and Evaluation team, with colleagues within and beyond the foundation, is working to make learning an organizational priority — something that’s embedded in everything we do. We are developing practices and tools to support our analysis, reflection, learning, and continuous improvement of programs and broader strategy. Over time, we want to learn increasingly alongside grantees and partners.

Communications About Findings and Learning: As findings emerge, we are poising ourselves to support communicating about lessons learned, progress, and challenges both within NMEF and grantees, as well as audiences we seek to reach strategically. We are looking at how to share progress and lessons with different stakeholders and audiences, so that lessons we learn together can be applied broadly. We want to be more transparent and communicate more — this new blog series is a case in point.

Together, these practices poise us to be more thoughtful and reflective as a Foundation as one organization among many working on similar issues that advance college and career readiness. The findings of an equity assessment and a current strategy review process are helping us consider what it means for us to be rededicated to equity and more explicit about race, and we’re examining our organizational strategy through an equity lens. We’re eager to increasingly engage in applying learning to our work with you on behalf of New England youth. And we want to be ready for the next generation of young people as they learn to walk towards fruitful college and career experiences.

In this new Learning and Evaluation series, we will shed light on how different program officers see what we’re accomplishing, what we’re learning, and what insights inform future work.

Because we believe that data is power to learn and do better, NMEF is evaluating and tracking progress more than ever before.