Letter from the President & CEO: Transforming Together 2020

Formal headshot of Beth McCaw of Washington Women's FoundationCan it really be the week before Labor Day? It seems like just yesterday we hosted our 2018 Grant Award Celebration, announcing the recipients of grants from our Pooled Fund as well as our commitment to establish new grant making criteria focused on increasing equity and reducing disparities for 2019. As I mentioned in my July Letter, this summer, we have been drafting and refining new focused criteria with greater specificity and clarity to increase the transparency of our process.

We knew that this process would not be easy and are grateful to our Strategic Planning Grant Leadership Task Force, which met again in July to develop our first set of draft criteria as well as working definitions of “equity” and “disparities.” From a literature review conducted by staff, we discovered that there is no one agreed upon definition of “equity” for the philanthropic community. It’s been an open debate for several years (see Stanford Social Innovation Review’s “What the Heck Does Equity Mean?” from 2016). Most academics and practitioners who write on the topic agree that each organization should have an agreed upon definition of “equity,” but almost none of them share what their own organization’s definition is.

Therefore, in the spirit of helping build an over-arching shared language, we decided that for the purposes of next year’s grant cycle, we would adopt Philanthropy Northwest’s definition of equity:

Equity is the condition that would be achieved if one’s identity no longer predicted how one fared in life.

We also created a definition of “disparities” that is based upon the past work of our own DEI Task Force, now co-chaired by members Ann Kumasaka and Donna Lou:

Disparities are differences in life experiences and outcomes based upon an individual’s race or ethnic group, national origin, immigration status, religion, socio-economic status, gender identity, age, mental health, cognitive, sensory or physical disability, sexual orientation or other characteristics historically linked to discrimination or exclusion.

In addition to sharing these definitions with the members who attended our first Transforming Together 2020 Q&A Session last week, we “workshopped” the definitions and the first draft of our new criteria with nonprofit and Foundation leaders from our community. We convened these community focus groups this week, because our Strategic Framework 2020 includes a commitment to engage community voices in all aspects of our programming and grant making to ensure that community priorities are centered in our work. We are so grateful to the community leaders who spent several hours with us in these focus groups. Participating nonprofits included:

Our Strategic Framework 2020 also includes a goal of partnering in collaborative learning and grant making with the local funder community. For this reason, we also invited a group of local funders to review our draft criteria to see where it might align with the work that they are already doing or are aspiring to do. Participating funders included:

Overall, the feedback was incredibly positive, and Washington Women’s Foundation was applauded by both groups of leaders for embarking on this difficult but important work and doing so in a transparent and authentic way. That is not to say that there wasn’t a fair amount of critique shared – we asked for it and encouraged candor! Now Aviva and I are focused on incorporating the feedback into our next drafts, which will be shared with our 2019 Grant Leadership Team next week.

I wanted to share with you several messages that were uniformly agreed upon by all of the participating nonprofit leaders and funders:

  • An equity-based approach to grant making requires grantee organizations to be accountable to the communities they serve.
  • Always acknowledge the power dynamics in philanthropy and the privilege that philanthropists have.
  • Washington Women’s Foundation must be explicit about a commitment to racial equity.

While I know our drafting committee was attempting to show an understanding of intersectionality, one foundation leader specifically criticized our definition of disparities as being “everything plus the kitchen sink.” A nonprofit leader remarked, “It [equity] cannot happen if we don’t have a conversation about race.” So now we know there is not a specific roadmap toward equity that we can simply adopt and follow, that the philanthropic sector’s concepts and ideas are continuing to evolve, that racial equity is important to call out in our work, and that our legacy of being a learning organization, willing to test, try and adapt, will continue to serve us in good stead as we go forward on this journey. Thank you for being on the journey with us.

6 responses to “Letter from the President & CEO: Transforming Together 2020

  1. Beth, thanks for your thorough and thoughtful update and for leading us on this necessary journey. It’s a gift to receive constructive and frank critique and brave to embrace it.

  2. Wow! It sounds like we have made great progress on this learning journey. Thanks for articulating it so well to the membership, Beth. I look forward to participating in “next steps” this fall.

  3. Beth,
    Thank you for all the work you do.
    It seems to me that another very pressing conversation that is developing around philanthropy is wether tax exemptions for charity donations should exist at all. That argument revolves around the understanding that private philanthropic organizations are in effect appropriating a percentage of their funds from the government to control the way they are spent. This in effect reduces the government budget that addresses the needs of the entire population and not a sector that the philanthropic organizations deem important. Framed this way the equity and inclusion discussions can take on another flavor. Maybe the point could be addressed directly as to how to speak to the needs of the entire society with a portion of the funds recognizing that these are not “our” funds. Even having discussions or presentations on the issue by differing sides could be an important step. We are also part of the elite that is often in the position to decide how to apportion income paying off to itself a much higher proportion than what it passes on to all its subordinates. Income then is paired with power and control not with any kind of “value”. All this has been blamed on market forces. This wealth inequality that is growing every day is one of the deepest most aggressive cancer in our society. Many of us and our relatives are directly involved with this state of affairs and many of us have benefitted directly. Maybe addressing this in conversations, discussions within our organization might be pioneering and forward thinking.
    Thank you for your time

    1. Absolutely these are important conversations, Susan. Thank you so much for raising these issues.
      You might be interested in reading, Winners Take All, which also could be a good book for discussion at the Foundation: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/20/books/review/winners-take-all-anand-giridharadas.html.

      I was fortunate to hear the author, Anand Giridharadas, speak at the Philanthropy Northwest conference earlier this month, and his is a thought-provoking analysis and critique of how philanthropists do so much to alleviate the effects of inequity but stop short of dismantling the systems that create it in the first place, because those very systems create the wealth “needed” to become philanthropists.

  4. I am not a member, but applaud your foundation, its leadership, and its members for having the courage to break through the status quo and on to a path that could lead to real shifts in equity. It is not easy work. But it is exciting, and rewarding. Best of luck!

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