Tough Questions We Asked Ourselves and Where it Took Us

For many of us working in philanthropy, 2020 was a wake-up call for overdue reflection.

The toll of the pandemic and then the rallying cries following the murder of George Floyd called for philanthropy to ask some tough but important questions. Are we being bold enough given this moment? Are we using our own power effectively and to the best benefit of the communities we work with as funders? How are we amplifying community power and agency of the people most impacted? We had to examine if we were walking our talk, and we realized we needed to step up our game. Reflecting on such questions of accountability and power led the Convergence Partnership in bold, new directions, and I’d like to share a bit about our journey here.

At the heart of the Convergence Partnership, a national funder collaborative to advance racial justice and health equity, is the knowledge that we can achieve greater impact when listening, learning, adapting, and aligning our work together. We test ideas and take on issues that individual institutions wouldn't or couldn't, and the partnership model allows for institutions to go above and beyond their organizational priorities to achieve greater and more expansive impact. Convergence has always been about showing that the sum can be greater than its individual parts. Over the last fourteen years, we have created a space where people from foundations with different priorities, practices, and funding approaches come together to reexamine individual ways of operating to push ourselves to break away from the comfortable and move into the necessary.

When the Partnership was established in 2007 and began exploring its on-the-ground approach, we decided to focus on “field building” as a central strategy for creating and leveraging connections across various fields and sectors to advance health equity, policy, and environmental change. The goals of field building included generating greater philanthropic investment in local and state policy advocacy to advance equity outcomes. We also operated under conventional norms by centralizing all grantmaking decisions and power with the funders.

2020 pushed us to act and fund differently. We knew we could no longer be in the driver's seat as a national partnership, deciding what local issues or work gets funded. Instead, we leaned into community-determined, trust-based funding by ceding control and working with frontline grassroots organizations to determine where dollars were most needed.

For example, through our COVID rapid response grants, each of the regional funding partners reached out to their local grassroots and community partners and deferred to them to define their priority issues, scope of work, grantmaking needs. Grant applications were streamlined to simply include a letter of support from the regional funder on behalf of the grassroots organization(s) they identified to receive funding. We also streamlined approaches to reporting and put the onus of due diligence on the funders to understand the work of grantees without burdensome paperwork or vetting processes for the grantees themselves. The grants concluded with the Partnership offering to produce an optional podcast in partnership with each grassroots grantees in lieu of a final written report. We also hosted a virtual forum where grassroots partners could share what was helpful during the grantmaking process and more importantly what we could do better as funders next time.

We heard our grassroots partners loud and clear when they asked us to disrupt conventional grantmaking that perpetuates power imbalances. These investments showed us that it is possible and necessary to share and shift power to local and state grassroots leaders to drive policy and structural change. And that we must also do the critical internal work to transform our own relationships and approaches with grantees.

Philanthropy needs to put into practice the same principles and values that we have been asking nonprofits and communities to follow: to be more sophisticated and nuanced in our understanding of anti-racism, power, privilege, and organize ourselves accordingly; and to make our work accountable and effective for our constituents.

That was a huge impetus for the New Vision to Amplify People Power for Racial Justice and Health Equity we announced in January of this year.

Though Convergence has worked on equity issues since its inception, our commitment to do better by our communities is driving us to expand our definition and root racial justice more deeply in our work. Understanding that the primary driver of health inequities is structural racism and power, our new strategy holds us accountable to make our contributions meaningful and additive toward racial justice and health equity by:

  • Amplifying Community Power: Investing in the power and agency of people of color and low-income people to fully engage in democratic processes for transforming racist policies and systems. We will do this by making investments that strengthen and expand grassroots, power-building infrastructure for local, state, and national policy change.
  • Transforming Narratives: Elevating narratives and stories that shift public attitudes toward inclusion, belonging, and the dignity of all people. We will do this by using our positioning and platforms to advance a national narrative driven by local experiences and successes of people of color and low-income people that shifts the paradigm toward racial justice and health equity.
  • Shifting Funder Practices: Mobilizing and influencing funders, including ourselves, to embrace transformative practices and relationships that dismantle systemic racism and power imbalances in philanthropy. We have seven new partners, and all are committed to this fundamental shift and to bringing more of our sector into equitable practices.

We cannot go back to business as usual—the health of our communities and our nation's democracy is on the line. We will continue to do the necessary self-reflection work in the Convergence Partnership and ask others to test their threshold and willingness to be adaptable. We can be accountable and walk the walk together.