Did You Join the Conversation?

by Beth McCaw, President & CEO, Washington Women’s Foundation

In 2017, Washington Women’s Foundation rebranded our annual educational event formerly known as “Discovery Days.”  We wanted to invite you to go deeper than “discovery,” which is simply becoming aware of something that you did not already know.  We also wanted to disrupt the balance of power between those “who know” and those “who don’t know,” to build a greater sense of shared community between the presenters, members of WA Women’s Foundation and our guests, including grantees and other community partners.

One meaning of the event’s new name – Intersect – is “to share a common area.” If you joined us at Intersect this past November, I hope you felt a greater sense of inclusion and connectedness to our speakers and to each other as we engaged in more conversation throughout the day.

Some of what we heard at Intersect this year challenged our thinking about the way we practice philanthropy at Washington Women’s Foundation.  One of panelists noted, “Philanthropy was not created to be about the redistribution of wealth or access to power or privilege.  It was created to put Band-aids on outcomes downstream and get tax deductions.”

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Equitable Grantmaking panel featuring (from left) Dr. Gary Kinte Perry, Lindsay Hill (Raikes Foundation), Maya Thornell-Sandifor (Philanthropy Northwest), and Ike McCreery (Resource Generation)

When Washington Women’s Foundation was formed 20+ years ago, our founders were challenging the conventions of “traditional philanthropy” at that time dominated by white men of wealth.  They instead created a collective, women-powered model of philanthropy rooted in equality and community.  This willingness to imagine philanthropy as something different than the traditional norms has placed us on the cutting edge for many years – we have been leaders in awarding multi-year grants,  providing general operating support and investing in capacity-building.  However, at Intersect, we heard that we clearly can do more.

Shortly after attending Intersect I read an online article by Vanessa Daniel, Executive Director of the Groundswell Fund.  Entitled “America is Burning” the article referenced many of the themes we heard from speakers at Intersect. Of philanthropy, Ms. Daniel notes:

Large scale social change is not created by philanthropy, but philanthropy does have an impact on who has the resources to engage and at what scale.  It has an impact on the pace at which people can be organized. It influences which strategies and leaders are legitimized in the eyes of those who have money and can thus affect who has the resources to shape narratives and drive approaches to social change.

This struck a particular chord with me as we know that our grant making influences the grant making decisions of other funders in town. Whether it is our intent or not, we are having an impact on how resources, even beyond our own, are being allocated in communities throughout the state.  With this power, comes a duty and an obligation to listen to our community and make our decisions carefully and strategically.

So what did our community of speakers ask of us at Intersect?

  • Listen to learn. Sarah Tran charged us to “listen relentlessly.”  Another speaker noted, “Communities have their own answers; get to know the community.”
  • Continue to provide general operating and capacity-building support.
  • Also invest in advocacy, public policy work, coalition- and power-building among organizations led by people of color.
  • Fund organizations that are focused on systems change. Move funding “upstream” to work on root causes, which mainly arise from a lack of access to resources and a lack of access to power.
  • Think about the balance of power in every step of our grant making process.

They also encouraged us to share the power that we have as a collective.  WA Women’s Foundation member Jodi Green took note of a definition of “power” shared at Intersect that really resonated with her – “Power is the ability to get things done, the ability to change the rules of the game, and the ability to shape what people think is possible.”  How can we allocate our grant making dollars to allow community based organization to get things done, to change the rules of the game, and/or shape what people think is possible?

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Our speakers also encouraged us to think about our collective power beyond grant making.

  • Provide access; bring communities of color to the table with capacity to participate.
  • Create community convenings, and elevate the voices of others.
  • Build authentic relationships. Get out into the community and take the time to hear individuals’ lived experiences.
  • Use our own voices to elevate issues and advocate for change.

These are bold statements and big challenges, not all of which we can achieve through our Pooled Fund grant making process as it is currently structured.  However, Pooled Fund Grant Committee Chair Susan Heikkala and I suggest that if you are serving on the 2018 Pooled Fund Grant Committee, you use that opportunity to model and practice behavior that is consistent with the advice we received at Intersect.

In your work group meetings, try to do the following:

  • Share power. Encourage more voices to come into the conversation. If everyone in your work group participates equally and fully, you will benefit from the collective wisdom of the group.  Also, consider whether the organizations that are moving forward in your group are ones that have traditionally had more resources/power than others.  Is it possible that other organizations, if given resources, would actually have a greater impact on the issue because they are closer to the communities most effected?
  • Listen relentlessly. Listen not only to your fellow members but also reflect on the voices not represented at the table.  The voices of the community can be found in an organization’s LOI.  What is the community telling us about their needs through the organization and its LOI?  More importantly, what solution is community proposing?
  • Commit to having a learning mindset. Notice and be curious about your reactions to the LOIs and proposals. How are your lived experiences and biases influencing your opinions and feelings?  How would different experiences influence your perspective?
  • Practice inclusive philanthropy. Think about where inequity exists and consider elevating the LOIs that “work upstream” on root causes, offer the most promising solutions, the greatest opportunities for reducing disparities and/or reflect the voices of communities not typically heard.  If only LOIs from white-led organizations working with people of color seem to be moving forward in your work group, then your work group may want to pause and discuss this fact.
  • Embrace Your Discomfort. Making decisions about which organizations to fund has never been easy. This year will be no different.  But we have never shied away from the challenge.  These challenges are why we come together to do this work.  Just remember that this process is not about finding perfect solutions.  It’s about being committed to change and building a more equitable society where disparities caused by systems and institutions that do not treat all women, men and children equally do not dictate individual outcomes.

Even if you are not serving on this year’s Pooled Fund Grant Committee, we encourage you to continue this work.  What can you do?  At Discovery Days 2016, C. Davida Ingram, who also gave the opening remarks at Intersect, asked us to continue thinking and reflecting deeply about our privilege.  Davida also urged us to participate in ongoing trainings about implicit bias.  WA Women’s Foundation is offering a three-hour workshop on implicit bias on January 12, 2018, and all members are invited to attend.  Also, when you receive your ballot and voter’s guide later this year, re-read this blog and think about how your vote will reflect the advice given to us by our community.

A woman who was bold enough to run for the highest office in our land once said, “I have always believed that women are agents of change, we are drivers of progress, we are makers of peace.”  At WA Women’s Fdn, we have been investing in change, progress and peace for more than 20 years.  The cause is even more urgent today, and there is more that we must do as a learning community of grant makers.  Help us continue this conversation.

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Discovery Days Recap: Viewing Philanthropy Through A New Lens

Rainier Clubby Beth McCaw, President, WA Women’s Foundation

“A mind that has expanded to the next dimension, can never go back.” C. Davida Ingram closed the first session of Discovery Days this year with this quote from one of her mentors. The quote describes the hallmark of participation at Washington Women’s Foundation – individual members become changed by new ideas and by each other. We push each other to think beyond our current perspectives.

If you are planning to serve on the 2017 Pooled Fund Grant Committee, you are probably wondering how you can take what you learned at Discovery Days 2016 and apply it to our grant making. We believe at Washington Women’s Foundation that the various perspectives that we collectively bring to our grant making makes the process better. Your perspective is the lens through which you view the world. As Sue Sherbrooke, the retired CEO of the YWCA of Seattle-King County-Snohomish County, once told me, “If you only have one lens in your camera bag, then you’re viewing the world in only one way.” If you and five other women have different lenses in your camera bags, then together, you are able to look at the world in several different ways.

As a woman and the mother of a young girl, I have often thought about my philanthropy through a gender lens. How do girls experience certain situations as compared to boys? Which interventions work better for girls? Is an organization tracking outcome data based upon gender? However, this type of thinking is limited – it doesn’t acknowledge the intersectionality of gender, race and class – or any other factors, such as sexual orientation. So, with more lenses in my camera bag after Discovery Days, I instead might ask, “How do working class girls of color experience certain situations as compared to working class white girls?”

Discovery Days gave me these additional lenses through which to evaluate the philanthropic choices I make, and the Work Groups of our Pooled Fund Grant Committee can also choose to do their work with “more lenses in their camera bag.” With different lenses, here are some different questions you might ask:

  • Does the work described in the Letter of Inquiry (LOI) or proposal interrupt or perpetuate privilege? Ralina Joseph defined “privilege” as “a special right, advantage or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group of people.” Ms. Ingram told us that there is a reciprocal relationship between inequity and privilege. “Unless you interrupt privilege, you can’t achieve equity.” So another question to ask might be: does the work described in the LOI or proposal advance equity or increase inequity? 
  • What history, systems, processes and practices are at play in creating the issues described in the LOI or proposal? Is the organization working “upstream” to address systemic or institutional racism? Ralina Joseph defined “institutional racism” as “the policies, practices and procedures that save the very best for white people and exclude people of color.” These policies, practices and procedures operate to my advantage, as a white women, and also give me immunity. Is this pattern being perpetuated or dismantled by the work of the organization?
  • Is the work described in the LOI or proposal addressing symptoms or the root cause of a problem or set of problems? For example, a food pantry addresses hunger but not the root causes of hunger. One is not necessarily better than the other. Just know how to distinguish between the two so you can decide strategically what you would like to fund.
  • Is the “solution” to the “problem” described in the LOI or proposal paternalistic or chauvinistic? Deconstruct what it means to “help” a community. Ingram cautions that if we are uncomfortable with proposals that involve community activism or organizing, then our philanthropic approach will likely be considered questionable from a community level.
  • When on a site visit, are you only speaking with white Board and staff leaders when the organization being visited primarily serves people of color? Are these white leaders defining the issues as well as creating the solutions for people of color? Where are the voices of color within the leadership of the organization? As Dr. Megan Bang asked us, “Are you giving the community the power and opportunity to tell its own story?”
  • What are the power dynamics in the room? Be aware of how you use your privilege – from taking up too much emotional space/airtime to disengaging.
  • What language am I using and does it perpetuate stereotypes, biases or harm? Mary Flowers recently asked a group of funders, “Would you ever call your own child at-risk?” How would it impact your child if every program or activity she participated in was described, repeatedly, as being for “at-risk youth” or “children in need”?
  • Who is part of our conversation? When you enter a room, notice who is not there and think about how we can change who participates next year. When you review LOIs, notice who has not applied and think about how to change that next year.
  • Does our process enable you to create authentic, mutual relationships? If not, what do we need to change? As Valerie Curtis-Newton said, “If we knew more about each other, we’d be better to each other.” The key phrase here is “each other.”

Whether you are serving on the Pooled Fund Grant Committee or not, you may still want to continue this work. What can you do? Ms. Ingram shared these suggestions for those of us just starting the journey:

  • Take this work on with a sense of urgency. Change may be slow but it should be approached with intentionality and rigor.
  • Think and reflect deeply about your privilege – whether is it class, race, education, ability, sexual orientation – and also how you have been acculturated into racism.
  • Don’t assume a universal subjectivity with women of color. A white woman and a Black woman don’t experience things (including sexism) in the same way just because they’re both women.  A Black’s woman’s experience of misogyny is experienced through her race as well as her gender.
  • Use your place at the equity table around gender to bring race into the conversation. If, as a white woman, you are given a “place at the table” to create “gender diversity,” take the opportunity to also bring race into the conversation. As a white woman, I don’t represent all white women and I certainly don’t represent women of color. But if I’m given an opportunity to show up as a woman, then I’m going to ask challenging questions about race as well as gender.
  • Participate in ongoing trainings about implicit bias. WA Women’s Foundation plans to offer more opportunities in the new year, but there are many classes and workshops currently available in the Seattle area. Some of your fellow members are already engaged, so talk to them or contact the office if you need suggestions.

On the second day of Discovery Days, Valerie Curtis-Newton issued a challenge to us that still rings in my head: “The end of racism is in the hands of white people. The end of homophobia is in the hands of straight people. When will conversation end, and the ‘doing’ begin?”

Twenty-one years ago, our founders created a new model of women-powered philanthropy, rooted in equality and community. What if our philanthropy was rooted in equity and our community was expanded to include those not currently in the conversation? We have the power to begin doing right now. The challenge is ours to accept.


Through our groundbreaking model of women-powered, collective philanthropy, Washington Women’s Foundation has awarded $16 million in transformational grants that have enabled not-for-profit organizations to improve lives, protect the environment, advance health and education and increase access to the arts throughout Washington state.

All women are invited to join our strong and inclusive collective of informed women influencing community transformation. The challenges ahead of us are never as great as the power behind us. www.wawomensfdn.org

Discovery Days 2015 Resources

Did you miss Discovery Days, or do you want more information on the topics discussed? You’re in luck! Scroll down to read more!

If you would prefer to hear full audio recordings of Discovery Days presentations, click here.

About Discovery Days: Discovery Days is the Foundation’s largest educational program each year and an opportunity for members and guests to better understand urgent issues facing our community and how philanthropy can make the most impact. Experts informed us in each of our five Pooled Grant funding areas: Arts, Education, Environment, Health, and Human Services. This year, we also held a special session on Philanthropy in honor of WWF’s 20th Anniversary. The event was held on November 4 & 10, 2015.
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