Once an Arabellan, always an Arabellan.
May 3, 2022
From left to right: Claire, Elyane, Ryan, and Jake
With the world’s climate crisis gaining more urgency by the day, the question of how best to protect our planet is rarely far from our minds. In that spirit, we checked in with some of our alums who are hard at work in varied corners of the environmental field, doing their part to secure a more sustainable future for all.
Arabella’s Jake Wild Crea, an associate director on the Managed Organizations team with a background in environmental justice, moderated the conversation with three Arabella alumni. Elyane Stefanick, a former MO team member, is the California program director at the Conservation Lands Foundation, a national movement working to protect, restore, and expand national conservation lands. Claire Austin, a former senior analyst at Arabella, is a senior associate for asset management at EDP Renewables, an international developer of wind energy. Ryan Strode, a former senior director at Arabella, is a program officer for climate equity at the Builders Initiative, a new foundation in the Midwest committed to social and environmental change.
The conversation was energizing and insightful, ranging from the inequitable history of the modern environmental movement to ways that diverse groups are coming together to make the planet stronger and more sustainable. Below is an edited transcript of the conversation.
JAKE: My own work has mostly been focused on environmental justice, specifically through a participatory grant-making lens, but the environmental field is extremely broad. To start, I’d like each of you to describe your work and where you think it fits within the larger landscape.
ELYANE: At the Conservation Lands Foundation, our work is very intersectional. At the core is protecting public lands for the benefit of people, the environment, ecosystems, and communities. And the way we do that is through supporting grassroots-led organizations. It’s not just about protecting acres; it’s about protecting the benefits those public lands bring with them and helping communities be the best possible advocates for conservation and the issues they care about.
CLAIRE: My career has taken a bit of a pivot since Arabella, and I now work on the corporate side at EDP Renewables, a renewable energy company with its headquarters in Spain and roots in Portugal. I’m based in Houston, and I support the wind and solar facilities that the company operates all over North America. We do intersect with environmental justice and land management, but it happens in different ways. For example, we have conservation easements set aside to promote habitat conservation for wildlife when we set up new infrastructure. And we work with landowners to make sure they and their communities can benefit from renewables.
RYAN: I’m a program officer for climate equity with the Builders Initiative, where I try to promote approaches rooted in trust-based philanthropy that let us better understand the communities we work in. My current work has three focuses. The first is building frontline power for environmental justice, ensuring organizations have the resources they need to do their best work. The second is building an inclusive clean energy economy that works for proactive solutions and addresses historic harms. And the third is supporting a just transition from fossil fuel.
JAKE: It’s interesting to hear how many commonalities come up in such different work. Would you say you are part of one larger movement, or do you feel you’re working in distinct areas?
CLAIRE: Certainly, renewable energy companies benefit from and are driven by the idea of climate justice as Ryan just described it. But I don’t think we’re linked to the idea of pushing for frontline power just yet, though we try to do business from a fairness perspective. Really, the term “just transition” is a new word in the renewable corporate space. You’re starting to hear investors talk about it, but when I was interviewing for jobs, it rarely came up. I think with the racial reckoning of two summers ago, people started thinking, “Oh gosh, we have to figure out how to do this just transition.” But community and frontline organizations have been talking about this for years. It’s not a new concept.
ELYANE: Well said, Claire. For so long, environmental science and environmental justice have been seen as separate, but it seems like that divide is shrinking. People who didn’t see themselves as environmentalists before can see themselves in this space more often. And that’s important, because in the United States, communities of color in particular feel the negative impacts of environmental decisions.
RYAN: I think “racial equity” and “environmental justice” are terms that are very much in vogue, especially in philanthropy and the environmental movement. What’s often missing are shared definitions. We just celebrated the 30-year anniversary of the first National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit, which defined 17 principles of environmental justice. This is a movement with a history, but we aren’t always naming that. It’s critical that the environmental sector centers race and racial equity in its work, and I’m glad it’s happening, but it has to come with sufficient support for organizers of color on the front lines.
ELYANE: There’s a lot of work philanthropy needs to do to resource the organizations and communities that truly understand the issues and challenges we’re facing. A big part of this is moving philanthropy away from metrics-focused “successes” that quantify return on investment. Return on investment can be focused on social impact instead. That’s something the Conservation Lands Foundation focuses on. As a re-granter, we want to build a culture that’s more focused on trust than on numbers. We trust the leaders and organizations we work with because they know what’s best for their communities.
RYAN: Right. There’s no substitute for having lived next to a coal plant or having watched your kid come in from recess with a bloody nose because of a gas well. Those are the people we need to listen to. They’re the people who need to be resourced. And the new tide of focus on environmental justice isn’t necessarily translating to more resources for these people.
CLAIRE: Absolutely. I mean, I’m in Houston: there are still petrochemical plants here.
RYAN: Yeah, wow. In Houston, you’re getting into cancer alley.
CLAIRE: Exactly. The roots of environmental justice are extremely local.
RYAN: And it goes beyond the health effects we’re describing. There are so many communities in the Midwest that are almost solely dependent on fossil fuel extraction for their economy. What happens in those places when we transition away from coal, oil, and gas? Listening to those communities tells us we need economic redevelopment supports, as well as efforts to physically clean up the legacy of these dirty industries.
ELYANE: Ryan mentioned recognizing the movement’s history a moment ago, which reminds me of another challenge I think about. Our movement—conservation in particular—was founded by a handful of white men in the ‘60s and ‘70s. They likely weren’t worrying about their water sources being polluted, or about the air being so filthy their children couldn’t go outside—issues that many poor communities and communities of color faced. The conservation movement is also rooted in Manifest Destiny, under the idea that nature provides a place of solitude meant to be separate from humans, and who was that meant to serve? White-dominant culture. That’s the challenging history conservation has to face. I’m optimistic that we’re on a path to changing the face of what conservation looks like, but that has to happen by funding community groups that know their own needs.
JAKE: Claire, I’m curious what role you think the for-profit sector has to play in these questions of community voice that Elyane and Ryan are wrestling with.
CLAIRE: To be frank, the people who have been most hurt by the impacts of climate change have also been least involved in the development of renewables. If frontline organizations are going to have a voice in this work, and they should, I don’t think it will originate from a corporate place. A lot of the people who work in the corporate environmental space are true believers, but I don’t think everyone is, or even should be. For an actual energy transition to happen, we need a lot of people who don’t really care about the environment to get involved, and that includes corporations. But the renewable energy industry needs to be pushed by community groups as much as any other industry. Still, that’s not to say corporations don’t have a role to play more broadly.
ELYANE: Absolutely, and that’s one place where Claire’s work and mine intersect. Conservation is about what lands are protected, but also about what lands are suitable for development. Keeping certain parts of the world undisturbed means that whatever carbon is in those soils and in those trees remains in the earth. On the other hand, identifying places where renewable energy can be developed will move us closer to a just transition. Conservation groups and corporations need to be thoughtful about those options.
CLAIRE: I think corporations could also have a role in guiding advocacy groups to influence legislation. We’re now at a point where renewable development doesn’t need philanthropic help. It’s often a better investment than coal plants, which is great. But there’s so much potential downstream impact of renewables infrastructure that we don’t understand. How are we going to source the rare earth components of turbines or PV cells sustainably? How can we recycle them? There’s room here for corporations to be good corporate stewards for their investors while also improving the efficiency of their infrastructure.
RYAN: Claire, that’s so core to the problems we’re facing. The environmental and clean energy sector has forever assumed that installing more wind turbines and solar will be inherently good, and it’s not. Reports have shown that as California ramped up its renewables capacity, pollution in communities of color actually increased.
CLAIRE: It’s the same with the term “carbon neutral.” It sounds positive, but it can be split in different ways.
RYAN: “Net zero” or “carbon neutral” literally means you can keep polluting in one place so long as you plant a tree somewhere else. Something I think a lot about is the pressure to decarbonize as fast as possible. That’s critical, but we have to make sure the clean energy policies we put in place have equity baked in, so they don’t do more harm than good. In the Midwest, for example, we spend a lot of time talking about decarbonizing buildings. But the buildings that get electrified first are in more affluent communities that can afford retrofits. Not public housing, not apartments. And as the pool of gas customers shrinks, their bills go up to pay for the cost of maintaining old gas lines. In Illinois, the utility wants to shove a new natural gas pipeline through one of the oldest Black farming communities in the United States. Its argument is, “Well, you wanted low-cost gas.”
CLAIRE: And that’s not what they wanted.
RYAN: No. They want renewables. But the policy scheme isn’t set up in a way that they’ll benefit from it. It’s the same thing with electric vehicle infrastructure. Who’s currently best able to access electric vehicles now? Wealthy people who can buy Teslas.
CLAIRE: Not to mention current policy builds on the idea of the disposable economy. The message shouldn’t be “Go buy a new electric vehicle.” It should be “Run your current car into the ground.” That’s the greener choice.
JAKE: We’ve talked a lot about climate, and it’s obvious that’s one of the biggest challenges facing the field right now. Elyane, what are some of the other challenges you’re facing in your work?
ELYANE: One thing that’s surprised me is how difficult it can be to get the sector to focus on the scientific basis of what we’re doing. I’ve been working on a plan in California called the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan. It’s a siting and land use plan that looks at more than 10 million acres in the California desert, and it took more than eight years to complete. The plan identified places where land needs to be protected and where renewable energy infrastructure can be developed. But there isn’t a lot of science about the California desert’s potential for climate mitigation. There isn’t enough data showing how the soil here could serve as a carbon sink. The Biden administration is thinking about conserving 30 percent of US lands by the year 2030, but we don’t have the science to back which lands to conserve and which to use for development.
JAKE: I’ve seen the consequences of that lack of data in my work, too. To get federal funding, for example, a community has to show that it has experienced negative impacts, and without data, you can’t prove that. A project leader once said to me “We measure what we care about,” and that’s really stuck with me.
ELYANE: Something else that keeps me up at night is how conservation can reconcile its history with Indigenous communities. We’re all on Native land, and the conservation movement has an ugly history with how it has treated Tribal communities. Indigenous communities in California don’t have a lot of trust in the movement—and rightly so. Part of my work is building relationships with Tribes and Indigenous people and listening to what they want and need from land conservation, so I can hold our government responsible for respecting Tribal sovereignty.
JAKE: To close us out, could each of you share something you’ve worked on recently that gives you hope?
CLAIRE: Right now, my company is working with a big Indiana utility that’s committed to decommissioning most of its coal plants by 2023. We’re replacing a lot of that capacity with wind and solar. It hasn’t always been easy, but it’s been a pleasure to work on this project because it’s not just putting up more renewables in an oversaturated area. It’s a visible, actual shift from fossil fuels to renewables, made possible by the changing economics of both.
RYAN: For me, it’s been gratifying to see environmental justice groups start to go on the offensive. On the South Side of Chicago, environmental justice leaders just stopped the city from permitting a highly polluting metal scrapper. They had maybe a week to breathe, and now we’re helping them fight a $500 million contract the city made to purchase asphalt from a plant located next to a school. It’s a constant whack-a-mole fight. But in some places, these groups are finding the space to define what they want, in addition to this constant defensive fighting. I’m a little biased, but I think Illinois has the most equitable climate and energy bill in the country, the Clean Energy Jobs Act (CEJA). And frontline environmental justice groups were a big part of making that a truly equitable bill. We’re a long way from not having to fight bad things every day, but seeing people come to frontline communities for solutions gives me a lot of hope.
ELYANE: Well said, Ryan. Something that gives me hope is thinking about the future of this movement. Environmentalism, sustainability, businesses, environmental justice: they don’t stay in their own corners anymore. They’re all connected, and we intersect with all of them. I’m hopeful that we’re moving in the right direction by paying more attention to these intersectionalities. That’s how we can build a future that’s sustainable and that respects people regardless of their race, color, or background. And it’s how we can bring justice to the people who have been marginalized and discriminated against for so long.
October 12, 2021
From left to right: Tara, Maria, Tia, and Radhika
From the crisis in Afghanistan to Texas’s near-total ban on abortion, gender-related issues have been front-page news for months. What better time to check in with some of our alums working tirelessly to safeguard rights for women and girls across the globe?
Arabella’s Radhika Nayar, a client development director who works on many gender equity-focused projects at Arabella and has a background in the field, moderated the conversation with three Arabella alumnae. Tara Abrahams, a former managing director at Arabella, is the head of impact at The Meteor, a multimedia collective that uses storytelling and journalism to advance gender justice. Maria Rohani, a former MO team member, now works as a public conversation specialist for UN Women. Tia Subramanian, a former editor at Arabella, is the gender-based violence program director at the Criterion Institute, a think tank focused on engaging finance to achieve social change.
The group covered a wide range of thought-provoking topics, from thorny questions of language to the shifting global mindsets that can give us all hope for a brighter, more gender-equal future. Read on for an edited transcript of the conversation.
RADHIKA: As someone who cares deeply about gender equity, my personal mission in my role at Arabella is to guide clients to center women and girls in their philanthropy. Frankly, I’m surprised that more clients do not do that, and I’m puzzled as to why gender or women and girls hasn’t become more mainstream in philanthropy. There are a lot of conversations about the importance of understanding the role of race in the problems we’re trying to solve, but not as much about understanding the role of gender.
So to start, can you each tell me a little about what you’re working on, and also your views on the term “women and girls”? Is that how you define your work, or do you use other labels?
TIA: At Criterion Institute, we call ourselves an activist think tank. We engage systems of finance to shift power, not only in how finance works, but also in how finance can be a tool in broader social and equity movements. We purposefully do not stick within the confines or language of one field. We work with everything from traditional finance, social finance, public equities investors, and small private investors to government agencies and grassroots organizations. The idea is that you can use finance to address gender- and race-based violence and gender inequity, and also that if you use a gender-equity lens across your analysis, you’ll get to better financial and impact outcomes, no matter the investment theme.
RADHIKA: Can you describe how the Criterion Institute defines gender-based violence?
TIA: We define it as violence that arises from power imbalances that are based on gendered norms and expectations. Recently, I’ve been not wanting to use the word “intersectional,” because people are using it as a buzzword rather than doing the actual analysis and there’s a lot of confusion about what it means. But thinking about gender-based violence in terms of power imbalances related to various norms and expectations is an all-encompassing mode of analysis that is necessarily intersectional.
RADHIKA: Can you speak more about the use of the term “gender” as opposed to “women and girls”?
TIA: I actually think it’s incredibly important not to call any of this work “women and girls,” because it’s not inclusive of everyone who’s impacted by gender inequity. Gender inequity is incredibly complex, and it’s rooted in norms and expectations about gender. In any given societal context, there’s a concept of what “normal” is. The more rules you break from that norm, the more vulnerable you are to different kinds of inequities, with violence being the most extreme one. If you are, say, a wealthy white woman in America, you are only breaking a few of the rules. You’re not a man, but pretty much otherwise you’re playing by the rules. If you’re a woman of color in America, you’re breaking a couple more rules. If you’re a trans woman in America, you’re breaking a lot of rules. You’re not doing what you’re supposed to do when it comes to gender. If you’re a Black trans woman, you’re doing even fewer things you’re supposed to. That’s why Black trans women face way more violence. So, if you’re just thinking about this field as “women and girls,” you’re not getting at what is actually going on that leads to inequity and violence, and your solutions are not going to be effective.
TARA: Our perspective at The Meteor is similar to what you described, Tia, around the distinction between the women’s movement and the movement for gender equity or gender justice. We are trying to be the storytelling arm of this community and reflect the new direction of what might previously have been called the women’s movement or the feminist movement. Women who marched in the 60s and 70s are now marching with their daughters and their sons. Husbands are marching with their wives. Partners are marching together. The LGBTQ community is leading a lot of the conversation. The movement has shifted so much, but where is its home? Where do you go for the right stories, information, journalism, and inspiration, if you are part of that movement or aspire to be? We aim to serve the entire community of people—female-identifying, male-identifying, non-gender-conforming—who are interested in building a more gender-equal, race-equal world.
MARIA: As both of you spoke, I was trying to think about how my work fits into this. I work on the Generation Equality Forum team, which is a big global gathering we just closed in Paris and in Mexico. I was brought on to build a virtual space for the public to engage with the UN on setting the agenda and identifying outcomes related to women and girls. UN Women works for member states, and that impacts the way we talk about the work. At UN Women, we say “women and girls”—I personally think because it’s the path of least resistance. The moment you say “gender justice,” we’re having a whole conversation about language, which matters tremendously, but then we risk getting caught up in that conversation and not in the work.
RADHIKA: Can you share a little more about how UN Women engages with member states, in terms of shaping their women and girls agenda?
MARIA: We engage with member states at all levels. Generation Equality Forum was co-hosted by Mexico and France, which was really interesting, because Mexico’s agenda around women and girls is different than France’s agenda. The needs in any two countries look very different. So the work that I did with the public conversation was basically getting a temperature check from the public—through virtual conversations, polls, surveys, webinars—to see if there was alignment between what we were saying within the official UN Forum, and what I was seeing when I asked the public for their opinion.
RADHIKA: And what did you discover from that?
MARIA: A lot. That there’s a huge gap in the language. And also that it was like two ends of a spectrum in terms of the things we heard from the public. One end was focused on direct, immediate needs. These folks would say, “I don’t really want to talk about all the bigger things until you tell me how I can get access to books, send my kids to school, have sanitation in my community.” And then there’s the other end of the conversation focused on the bigger picture that’s saying, “You all are spending a lot of time talking about access to technology or about land rights or any other issue, and that doesn’t matter to me. Your bigger strategic agenda does not align with my community’s agenda.” So we learned that there are two different asks being made from the public.
RADHIKA: Could you all share a recent example of a “win” in the work you do?
TARA: One of the first things I did when I started in this role at The Meteor was to pull together what we called a coalition call, engaging organizations ranging from those working on gender-based violence to organizations working on paid family and medical leave and the care economy. That call felt like a win, to have people so engaged, to have them follow up with me to say, “I have an idea.” It felt like we were meeting a need in the community we are trying to serve. I think people are hungry for more collaboration, clamoring to be in community with one another.
TIA: This has been really fascinating. There are already lots of overlaps between our work. A win for me had to do with our annual conference, Convergence, which I led this year. It brings together people from widely different sectors to work together on specific solutions. We’ve been exploring why gender norms are relevant to investment decision making. I was facilitating a session to come up with new indicators for assessing what a good company looks like when it comes to preventing gender-based violence, because some of the things people have been looking at are complete nonsense. Having a sexual harassment policy posted on your website has essentially zero correlation with what’s happening at the company. So, what are the policies and practices that an investor could ask about as part of the investment process, and that public companies could report on, and that could be informed by people who understand the dynamics of gender-based violence?
Some people brought up how workplaces can be dangerous for survivors of violence because they don’t have digital privacy. And then other people came up with very concrete indicators for how to measure that. We came up with this huge list. It was really exciting to see people think about the systems that create these inequities and this violence. So that was a win. Within the social sector, there’s a lot of skepticism about finance—and for good reason—but there are also people in all these different industries who are aligned on where we want to get. It’s hard to bridge the cultures of different sectors, but when you can, there are a lot of exciting possibilities.
RADHIKA: I wonder, Tia, do you work with FreeFrom? It’s an organization focused on reframing intimate partner violence as a structural economic issue, because the number-one obstacle to safety for survivors is financial security.
TIA: I can’t say enough about how great FreeFrom is. FreeFrom is about survivor wealth. They illuminate the extent to which violence has economic impacts.
RADHIKA: They’re opening the door to so many other people to enter this movement for ending gender-based violence or intimate partner violence—people who may not understand it, but understand financial inclusion or economic mobility.
TIA: I completely agree. FreeFrom has very much informed these company-level indicators we’re working on. Because if you think about violence in the workplace, most people think about a boss sexually harassing an employee. But people who are being financially abused often don’t have access to a safe and secure banking system, because someone else is controlling or depleting their bank account. Or their abuser will show up in the workplace and harass them, putting their employment status—and therefore economic security—in jeopardy. So things like a company making sure they’re only communicating with their employee, and only sending money to the place the employee tells you to send it, are important.
TARA: This is a fascinating conversation to have around how language actually does matter. How if you reframe the way that you talk about some of these issues, it’s not inclusive language for inclusion’s sake—it’s getting closer to the right solutions.
MARIA: This conversation is so interesting because especially in the funding space, we often talk about women and girls as one issue. The pandemic has shown us that it is everywhere. We get so caught up in defining the work, but every single issue has a gender lens. I think Tia’s point about intersectionality is a really solid one, because we’re often like, “Oh, we’ve done it, we’re being intersectional.” But if you go into a different meeting with investors and gender never comes up, have we done the work? What would it look like to hone that lens for folks across sectors, across society?
For example, we hosted a webinar on climate justice with four panelists. They all logged on, and I was like, “Oh, they’re all youth activists.” We never said we’re going to have youth activists talk to us about climate justice. We just found leaders in the space, and they happened to all be young people. That was a personal win, because it was one of the first times that intersectionality was just part of my and my team’s lens. So the question is, how do we build intersectionality into how we make choices, rather than just how we talk about the work?
RADHIKA: Thanks, Maria. I have so many other questions, but let’s end with this: what are you optimistic about? What gives you hope?
TARA: What gives me hope is that people are angry. They’re energized and mobilized. Putting the US aside when it comes to access to reproductive health care, look at Mexico. That’s a big deal in terms of access to abortion. Just when you think things are never going to change, they do. it’s about channeling that anger into dismantling power structures that seem like they can never be toppled. It’s like that one person who gets on top of a massive human pyramid. If they can climb their way up, we could basically push over the Eiffel Tower.
MARIA: I love that answer. One thing that is really interesting about this moment is that people have a real awareness of their individual impact. Every time we leave the house, we do a risk assessment. We know that if you go out and you contract COVID or get ill in other ways, you might be harming your health care system, because they’re under so much pressure. I’ve never seen such large-scale awareness of our individual self within systems. It’s something that folks who do movement-building work should capitalize on. Also, I think I underestimated the power of what one policy change can do. For example, when Mexico announced what it was doing [with abortion], I saw that ripple effect. I saw how it changed the conversation within multi-stakeholder, multi-lateral spaces. So that makes me very optimistic.
TIA: Maria, that might be the most hopeful thing I’ve heard in a while. I have a hard time being optimistic about this, but I do think there’s hope if you think about it from a movements point of view. The most underinvested part of getting to gender equity is movements and culture. And I think that shift is starting to happen, half-inch by half-inch in philanthropy, with greater awareness that you need to fund movements. Research shows one of the indicators of a successful movement is backlash, so looking at something like abortion access in America, I feel like the only way to be optimistic is to hope that because there’s backlash, that means we’re heading toward a sustained better place.
June 3, 2021
From left to right: Katie, Jerusa, Aditi, and Kelly
While many of us are decompressing from an unprecedented election and its tumultuous aftermath—which all took place during a devastating pandemic—there are many others who continue to work tirelessly to preserve and strengthen our democracy. We gathered some intrepid alums to talk about their work shoring up our civic institutions, the role philanthropy can play, and how people from all walks of life can contribute in ways that go beyond casting a ballot.
Aditi Naik, a former director on the Managed Organizations (MO) team and a former member of the Client Services Acceleration team, facilitated the conversation. Aditi currently works as the director of culture and talent at Supermajority. She was joined by Jerusa McCullock, former senior director on MO and current managing director at Impactual; Katie Dolan, former program associate on MO and current program manager at Impactual; and Kelly Reed, former director on MO and current COO of the Democracy Fund. The conversation has been condensed and edited.
ADITI: We’ve seen a lot happen in our democracy over the past months and years. What’s it like to be working in this field right now on a personal and professional level?
KELLY: Over the past year in particular, I feel really grateful to have been at Democracy Fund. We were able to anticipate a lot of things that happened. It’s sad that some of this planning had to happen, but I also feel grateful that there were many advocates across different issue areas thinking about the challenges to our democracy, and planning for a lot of the scenarios that we ultimately saw play out. The fact that we played a role in making sure Americans could have their voices heard and their votes counted is just critically important. So it’s really been an exciting thing to be a part of.
JERUSA: Last year was really an opportunity for me to get more steeped in and deeply engaged with civic engagement and supporting a lot of the work that Kelly mentioned. I think it was really inspiring to see real collaboration happen within the philanthropic space, as it tried to meet the challenge of administering an election during a pandemic, in the face of threats to democracy, and during waves of racial violence.
I think there is a sense of some exhaustion in this moment. The last year was a lot—the past four years were a lot. And I think there is a tendency after election cycles, in general, for folks to pause and step away and feel like the job is done. We are trying to figure out how to not lose the momentum that was built over the past year. How do we recognize that this is really a lifelong commitment to democracy and to what it means to be a citizen? What can we take as real lessons, as real moments of hope and inspiration, to get people excited about what will soon be the next election cycle?
KATIE: Right now, as Jerusa said, we’re all able to take a breath. So I’m feeling a little bit lighter. But the past year was really hard, both on a personal level and professionally. On the personal level, we’re dealing with a pandemic, and we can’t see our families. We are trying to work through this incredibly unprecedented time and stay really committed to the work. For my organization, it was just super challenging. But amid all of the challenges and the uncertainty, what kept me going, and I think what kept a lot of other people going, was seeing the sheer resilience that people showed in a pandemic. Folks were still turning out at the polls, and they were still interested in getting involved and volunteering to be poll workers, helping folks register to vote, sending texts, and making calls.
ADITI: You all talked about the insurrection and scenario planning for what the various outcomes of the election could have looked like. What do you think some of the biggest threats to our democracy in the future might be?
JERUSA: What we were most concerned about was the undermining of the legitimacy of election results, the questioning of the integrity of the election and the electoral process and not allowing votes to be counted or the election to be certified. We saw that. I think we are grateful for what felt like a measured and patient response from the media, and from the country, and from the majority of our legislators. But this election really left the door open for these threats to continue. There is more to be done to combat misinformation and disinformation, and to continue to make the election process more transparent.
KELLY: When we look back over the past four years, [we’ll see] the amount of damage that was done to our democracy by an authoritarian president who was consistently focused on tearing down its institutions. Through his rhetoric and actions, he was also responsible for emboldening the forces of white nationalism in our society. So we have to focus on that as well.
I can’t imagine that four years ago we would have said, “I don’t know if there will be a peaceful transfer of power in the United States.” But that is where we were this year. How do we hold those people accountable for their actions? What kind of reforms do we want to pursue to make sure that our democracy is never at that precipice again? What does it look like for us to reimagine, transform, and reform our democracy so that it’s more open and just, that it’s more representative of all Americans? How can we build a system that Americans also trust in, but not at a cost of continuing to exclude those who have been most marginalized? That’s going to be the challenge of a lifetime for us.
ADITI: Is that something Democracy Fund is actually working toward? And if so, what does the next iteration of your work look like?
KELLY: Yeah, it really is. We came off a year where we felt incredibly inspired by the way so many people showed up and participated in historic numbers. At the same time, we continue to see efforts to disenfranchise voters. You can look at the slew of proposed state legislation that attempts to limit people’s ability to participate in the process. For us, it’s thinking about how we reorient our work and ground it in equity and full participation for all Americans.
ADITI: Katie, what about you? How do you see your work at Impactual moving forward, and how is Impactual thinking about addressing these threats in the next two, four, 10 years?
KATIE: When you said threats, the first issue that came to mind, like Kelly said, was all of the state legislatures in multiple states that are introducing bills that would suppress voters effectively and reduce their ability to participate, whether it’s in person or by mail. And that’s really, really concerning. Something we’re thinking about at Impactual is how brands and companies can use their voice and their influence to participate and spread information about what is happening. Brands and companies are really trusted resources for information from consumers, and they were that way in the 2020 election. A lot of philanthropists and folks in the political space are really fired up to keep this going.
ADITI: What are some ways that philanthropy can support work to strengthen democracy?
KELLY: There was this fierce urgency last year, and it was really easy to make a case for short-term giving. One of the big challenges we’ll have is how to sustain that interest in reforms that may take years or decades to come to fruition, and how to start to resource organizations in a way that’s going to allow them to create long-term impact and change.
JERUSA: I think part of our work is helping philanthropists understand that their engagement in 2020 was not just about an electoral win, and not just about getting people to the polls. Civic engagement is much more than showing up on Election Day. Having an engaged electorate and an engaged country helps improve the day-to-day lives of communities.
We want to empower folks to think about real policy changes and changes to their communities at the local level, not just at the national level. If we want to build real equity, you don’t just have people voting and showing up on Election Day. Instead, they’re showing up to town halls, they’re showing up to their state legislatures, they’re showing up to community meetings, and they’re doing the work between election cycles. Philanthropy has a real role to play in ensuring that the momentum that was built in the last year is not lost. To do that, the field will need to take a long-term view toward its own funding strategies.
ADITI: Is there hope for our democracy? And if they’re not steeped in this field on a day-to-day basis, what can the average person do to support democracy?
KATIE: Yes, there is hope. Civic engagement isn’t just voting. There are so many things you can do to participate in your community. You can go to community clean-ups, you can go to community meetings, you can participate on community messaging boards and have those conversations. There are so many small ways to get involved that aren’t just voting.
It really starts with building social capital, and getting to know your neighbors and the people who live near you, and understanding why having a collective sense of community is really important. Folks who aren’t steeped in democracy every single day can take those really small steps to get involved, and I think it’s the culmination of those small steps that builds into something greater.
KELLY: We saw more than 150 million people turn out to vote this year. Seeing what an impact the individual can have in our democracy really rang true this year; people saw that their voices mattered. People also saw that the system was fragile, that it requires all of us to actively participate to make sure that it’s resilient, that people needed to stand up and demand that their votes be counted.
JERUSA: The question of whether there is hope is an easy one for all of us to answer. None of us would still be getting up and working every day if that wasn’t what we felt. I am incredibly hopeful for the potential change that collective engagement can bring toward improving our democracy.
October 9, 2020
From left to right: Ginger, Lauren, and Shilpi
While many Arabellans depart for new adventures at new employers, some opt to become their own bosses. Shilpi Shah, who was at Arabella from 2011 to 2015, started SKS Consulting in Chicago a few months after sailing away, while Lauren Marra, who was an Arabellan from 2011 to 2016, recently started a practice called Groundwork Partners after a stint at Community Wealth Partners (CWP). To help us catch up with Lauren and Shilpi, who better to facilitate the conversation than Ginger Elsea? Ginger also joined Arabella in 2011 and departed in 2017. Now based in Bogotá, Colombia, she often contracts with us as a writer and recruiter. Read on for a condensed version of their conversation.
Ginger: Why did you decide to start your own practice?
Lauren: I love building things from the ground up. That was one of my favorite things at Arabella—helping to build the firm from about 35 people to 150. When I was ready to leave my last position at CWP, I was exploring a handful of options. I had a lot of personal things going on, from expecting my second daughter to tending to my ailing mom, who passed away last June. Meanwhile, many of my former clients and several friends were asking me to consult for them. I took on a few gigs, and eventually decided to start a practice.
Shilpi: For me, I didn’t really decide to start my own practice. It just sort of happened. I was taking time to figure out what I wanted to do next. Some friends asked me to help them with various projects, and it snowballed. I really enjoyed it—I had lots of flexibility and was working on super interesting things.
Lauren: I partnered with folks like Shilpi early in my practice, which gave me the confidence that I could do this. I love working in and leading teams, and when I launched Groundwork, I was nervous about not being in an office environment. But, in fact, I actually do have a virtual office that uniquely prepared me for this moment [of social distancing due to COVID-19]. I get on the phone with people I love every day—like Shilpi, [former Arabellan] Pam [Fischer], and my other partners and clients. I am blessed that what I’m good at and what brings me joy are very frequently in alignment with who I work with and what I work on.
Ginger: What’s the hardest part about being an independent consultant?
Shilpi: There’s not much I don’t like about it, honestly. But the hardest part is the hustle of business development. I’m not a natural extrovert, so it forces me to put myself out there. But a lot of my business comes from word of mouth. I also work a lot with partners, such as Lauren.
Lauren: I am grateful that I was taught how to run a consulting business while at Arabella, though I need to learn more about how to run a one-person business that is subcontracting to seven subcontractors, managing about five client engagements, and doing all the operations and marketing at the same time. I like learning behind-the-scenes operational skills, but it takes time.
Shilpi: That’s interesting, because the operations side, for me, is so much easier because I worked on MO for so many years. Everything I know about operations I learned from MO, and a lot of my practice is helping organizations with those types of things.
Lauren: Can I hire you?
Shilpi: See, this is how BD works in the small consulting world!
Ginger: I love that you two have had opportunities to partner. Can you tell me about a favorite client or project you worked on together?
Lauren: We worked with Jobs For The Future, which is a national nonprofit that works to optimize and align the workforce development and education systems so they better serve all students, particularly those in under-resourced areas. What I really loved was getting to work with folks with complementary skills and knowledge. When I was in theory of change world, Shilpi and our other partner, Amy, would be like, ‘OK, let’s bring it down. What are the activities? What’s the business model behind that?’ It was very cool. It was also fun facilitating with each other. Sometimes when you’re facilitating you think, ‘I have to pivot because this isn’t working.’ So it was nice to huddle and ask one another, ‘What techniques do you have? What are you hearing?’
Ginger: What trends are you seeing in the operations work you’re doing, Shilpi?
Shilpi: My practice is primarily centered on finance and strategy, and how the two intersect, such as long-term financial sustainability and financial planning. Operations is actually a smaller portion of my work. But I am working a lot on acquisitions and mergers, which requires a lot of financial analysis. It involves thinking about how your operations fit together, the technology components you need, the human resources needs, that kind of thing. A specific set of funders here in Chicago have spent a lot of money investing in mergers and acquisitions, and I’m one of the consultants that does that work.
Ginger: These are acquisitions and mergers among nonprofits?
Shilpi: Yes, or strategic partnerships. I’m working on a strategic partnership among three organizations serving different Asian populations that are figuring out how they can work together to operationalize and launch a center to serve all of these communities. I’m also working with a very big national reproductive justice entity that is growing like crazy, similar to how MO was growing like crazy. I’m helping that client think through all the things they need to do to build the infrastructure to support that kind of scale.
Ginger: What do you think is driving these strategic partnerships?
Shilpi: It varies. I’ve been working on mergers in the nonprofit space since before my time at Arabella, and I feel like it has not come that far since then. But the main motivations are usually financial. One of the organizations is generally struggling and trying to figure out how to stay alive. But that’s not the best time to think about a merger. The best time is when both organizations are doing well financially and want to look at programmatic and strategic alignment and how to have a stronger impact.
Ginger: What’s your client mix, Lauren?
Lauren: Rather than focusing on a specific client segment, I tend to focus on client psychographics. I look for clients who share my values and commitment to racial and gender justice, and when possible, I aim to partner with directly impacted folks and support their leadership. Furthermore, I take on work for clients who not only aspire to achieve a more just and equitable world, but who also embody that vision in their interactions. My partners and I agree to lead with respect, kindness, and curiosity; think about power, who’s at the decision-making table, and how they got there; embrace complexity; and practice accountability and grace. Right now, I am working with several partners who are aiming to be led by directly impacted people and communities. I know Arabella is doing some work in participatory grant making, which is part of my work, too.
Ginger: Any lessons or challenges from your participatory grant-making work?
Lauren: I’m working with a social justice funder right now to design and launch a fund to strengthen collaboration in and across movements for women and girls of color, including trans and gender non-binary people. Some of the questions I posed in our initial conversations concerned the depth and breadth of the foundation’s current relationships with its grantees and their communities, its current grant-making practice, where power and decision-making power currently lie, and what the foundation is ready for in terms of power building, wielding, and sharing. I’ve learned it’s really important for foundations to have honest conversations among staff and boards about power and to recognize that, often, solutions already exist in communities. Creating trusting relationships that honor that expertise is key. Considering these questions early on has helped us create a fund shaped by activists’ and movement leaders’ expertise and administered on trust-based philanthropy principles.
On the contrary, a few years ago, I briefly worked with a group of funders who wanted to strengthen the child care system in their city by engaging residents. They had good intentions, but they lacked an articulated set of shared values, common language and analysis, and agreement on how they’d make decisions. They did not have the trust and infrastructure to comfortably talk about race and racial disparities. Unfortunately, that led to community engagement practices that were obtuse and harmful.
Shilpi: I see those same things. But it’s not just a racial equity lens. For example, I’m working with a network of infant mental health providers. As they’re developing their strategic plan, they’re trying to make sure the network is accessible to everyone, not just people who live in Chicago and can easily access their events. How do we make sure we’re reaching workers who live in and serve the underprivileged communities of Illinois, or those in the more rural parts of Illinois? So they’re thinking about equity in terms of how to be inclusive of all these different parts of the community that we’ve been ignoring for a long time.
Ginger: What are some of the biggest concerns you have as you think about philanthropy, and what gives you hope?
Lauren: I just facilitated a two-day training for nonprofits at Georgetown (New Strategies) focused on various approaches to revenue generation. I got exposure to what nonprofits are thinking and doing, and it highlighted for me the challenges posed by DAFs. They allow individuals to stow away money that could go to taxes or giving; ownership is not transparent; and nonprofits have a difficult time accessing the money and people behind them. Why make nonprofits spend time, that could be going toward people and programs, searching for money hidden behind closed doors? There’s an opportunity for companies that offer DAFs (or for those who advise DAF holders) to play a role in making connections between funders and nonprofits and enabling more transparency.
Shilpi: I feel like foundations are very much still coming from a top-down approach, whereas nonprofits are coming from a bottom-up approach and getting input from stakeholders about what the needs are on the ground. So, there’s a disconnect that still happens. Some foundations are shifting to a data-driven approach, where they use data to make decisions. But there are a lot of challenges for nonprofits to be able to collect that data, especially when a funder makes a rapid shift that requires the nonprofit to create new databases and things like that. Nonprofits are trying to use qualitative data in addition to quantitative data, but funders are saying, either do it this way or you don’t get the funding. So that’s still a concern—that nonprofits are trying to tailor their programming to get funding as opposed to using a ground-up approach to address needs more holistically. With DAFs, it’s a little different. DAFs, in general, don’t really tell nonprofits what to do with their money as much.
Lauren: Yeah, the sector is moving toward championing and centering community needs, at least on paper, but the way the money flows and where the power is doesn’t always match that philosophy.
Ginger: Interesting. Last question: What Arabella tool, phrase, or practice lives on in your work?
Lauren: I would say “lead with the point” is the thing I think of most.
Shilpi: Oh, yeah—plus one on that.
October 1, 2019
Katrina (left) and Whitney during one of Hershey’s employee volunteer events.
Known for its sweet treats, Hershey also has a rich philanthropic history. One hundred and twenty-five years in, the company is evolving its corporate social responsibility (CSR) and giving programs to focus on broader sustainability initiatives across its entire business. Arabella editor Alissa Gulin sat down with Katrina and Whitney, who left Arabella three and four years ago, respectively, and are now both managers of global sustainability and social impact at Hershey, to catch up and chat about how their roles have changed, whether Hershey plans to take more public stands on social issues, and—of course—their favorite candy.
Alissa: How do you spend most of your time, and how has that changed?
Whitney: I was hired to build our signature program related to kids and nutrition. I spent the first few years working with our teams and business partners around the world to bring that vision to life. But as Hershey’s CSR function has evolved to focus on sustainability as a whole, we saw a need for more focused work on human rights. We recently released our first company-wide human rights policy. So, for the past year and a half, I’ve been spending 90 percent of my day thinking about how Hershey conducts due diligence on human rights, how we prevent human rights violations from happening in our value chain, and how we would remediate any problems we find. It involves thinking about the workers in our own facilities, at our suppliers’ factories and manufacturing facilities, all the way down to the origin or farm level.
Katrina: I was hired to support Hershey’s community philanthropy programs, which were heavily concentrated in Hershey, Pennsylvania, and the central Pennsylvania region. I then started looking at all of our corporate philanthropy and making it more strategic and at expanding our work beyond central Pennsylvania. Now I manage a signature program that Whitney and I developed over the last year to support kids in cultivating meaningful connections and in social-emotional learning and development, called the Heartwarming Project.
Alissa: Tell me a little about that.
Katrina: We’ve been really alarmed by suicide rates and other mental health issues among children. Kids say they feel like they have hundreds of friends on social media but no one to talk to. So, we thought there was an opportunity for Hershey to support work in those areas. It centers on making sure young people have the tools they need to make meaningful connections in their lives, to practice self-awareness, self-regulation, healthy decision making, and communication skills. We created the Heartwarming Project because of Gen Z’s need, but also because almost everybody has a Hershey memory, and nine times out of 10, it has to do with a connection, whether it’s a grandmother or a first boyfriend giving you a Hershey’s Kiss, things along those lines. That’s the deeper impact we were trying to play off of—that heartwarming sense of connection that you’re seeing in recent Hershey ads actually has great potential for impact when taken deeper.
Alissa: What else has excited you recently?
Katrina: I’ve been establishing a much broader strategy that better aligns our giving with our business goals and operations, as well as helping the company better articulate our corporate purpose and using that to guide decision making company-wide. It’s asking, why do we exist in the world beyond simply making chocolate and creating shareholder value? And explaining to our employees and other stakeholders what that purpose is. We’re rolling that out right now.
Alissa: In 2018, Hershey launched the Shared Goodness Promise, which ties the company’s business success to initiatives that positively impact people, communities, and the environment. What does that mean exactly?
Katrina: On the business tie, that’s part of how Hershey was founded. Milton Hershey didn’t have heirs, so he created a trust that became the primary shareholder of the company and was used to support a school for orphaned children, the Milton Hershey School, which now has about 2,000 students. So, when the company does well, that trust does well. The Shared Goodness Promise takes that to a deeper level. It’s a more integrated approach to all of those efforts with the community, the planet, our commitment to children, and how we operate as a business.
Whitney: It’s exciting because this wasn’t something that was always explicitly considered. It’s always been part of Hershey’s DNA to do the right thing, but I think there’s increasing pressure on businesses to be really explicit about how your work impacts the planet, how you’re factoring human rights into sourcing decisions, or how you’re supporting your community. Those all have an impact on your business success and hopefully on your business strategy. The Shared Goodness promise was our first shot at articulating that. We view this strategy as our 1.0, but it’s something we’re proud of.
Alissa: What do you think precipitated this new enthusiasm at Hershey, and are you seeing similar emphasis at other larger corporations?
Whitney: Sustainability is now table stakes. Any company in the consumer packaged goods space, particularly those with an agricultural value chain, has to be thinking about these issues. Consumers want to know what’s in their food, how it was made, whether it was sourced ethically, if it’s good for the planet, if the wrapper is recyclable, etc. And our investors look at our sustainability reports and factor that into their investment decisions. Then we have all sorts of other stakeholders, from journalists to nonprofits, raising questions about things happening deep in our value chain; whether in cocoa or sugar or palm oil. We have to be both proactive about preventing any of those risks from occurring, and also transparent about how we’re trying to improve the situation on the ground for people and communities.
Katrina: Beyond that, we have a new CEO—our first female CEO—who has taken a new approach to how the entire business operates. The leadership team she has put in place has been very receptive to many of the sustainability conversations happening internally as well as externally.
Alissa: Does Hershey also do traditional corporate grant making?
Katrina: Yes, but we don’t have a corporate foundation. I had the fun job of leading us through the big question of whether or not to create a foundation. We decided not to, which I think is the right choice based on our budget and needs right now. It’s largely place-based giving in communities where we operate, as well as what we call Shared Futures, which is our focus on helping children succeed.
Whitney: I have a new appreciation for what strategic giving means for a company without a foundation. We’re strategic when we need to be, but other elements are more about providing good will for the community, making sure our employees and community stakeholders feel engaged—and that’s strategic in its own right. The other thing is, sustainability has to drive the business, and that’s partially through our brand reputation.
Alissa: I’ve been reading about how CSR at some companies is taking a more activist form these days. One example is Dick’s Sporting Goods opting to stop selling assault rifles. Does Hershey feel it would be strategic for it to take stances like that?
Whitney: I do think research shows that consumers expect companies to have a position on an issue. At this point, choosing to have no position is potentially worse than isolating some consumers who may not agree with your position. I do think it’s increasingly important for companies to take a stand and have an opinion that stems from their values. The work to define our corporate purpose that Katrina is doing is really critical in guiding which issues we would take a stand on. Recently, under our new CEO, we did some public work on pay equity [when the US Women’s National Team was in the news], but we haven’t been as active as others in putting ourselves out there.
Katrina: A few years ago, we would never have taken a stand on a major issue. As an example, when students went back to Marjory Stoneman Douglas [High School] for the first time [since the shooting that occurred there], the faculty passed out Hershey’s Kisses. At the time, there was a big question in the company of how we wanted to show up for that organic movement. Do we want to pass out Kisses at the March For Our Lives? How do we want to talk about this? Our CEO was new at the time, but I feel like we missed an opportunity to take a stand. That’s why it’s so important to have a clearly articulated purpose and know exactly where our lines are and what we’re comfortable with so we can show up authentically. My hope is that with the Heartwarming Project, we will be more willing to take a stand on issues related to school violence or other serious youth issues.
Alissa: What else weighs on your mind? What keeps you up at night?
Whitney: For me, it’s whether I’m doing enough, fast enough. The human rights space is evolving so quickly. It’s incredibly complex to understand what’s happening many, many layers down our supply chain. The do-gooder in me really wants to ensure we are doing everything we can to prevent abuses and promote human rights opportunities. At the same time, I have a responsibility to manage risk for the business. Moving a ship the size of Hershey to implement systems that are global in scale is a lot. We have to work with so many different teams. So, I feel both a privilege and a big responsibility to make sure that every day we’re doing something that is a step closer to where we want to be.
Katrina: What weighs on my mind is making sure we are serving as a solid resource to help the rest of the company understand the incredible opportunities to make a difference using the resources that we have. If I can do that, it’s worth being here.
Whitney: I think people who work at Hershey are drawn to the legacy of the company. It’s rare that anybody is philosophically against what we’re trying to do. It’s usually about resources. I think we also are in a unique position in that our team really works with every function in the business. We work with sales. We work with our marketers. We work with R&D. We work with supply chain. We work with our manufacturing teams. As Katrina said, it is actually really cool to have that visibility across all these different teams and what they do but…
Katrina: …it’s also overwhelming.
Alissa: Have you read anything interesting lately about the corporate philanthropy world or the social sector more broadly?
Katrina: We actually have our own little book club to keep us up to date. I’ve been thinking about the role diversity, equity, and inclusion plays in social impact programs and community giving, and how approaches that seem baked into how we work at Hershey could change with a shift in perspective.
Whitney: We both read Winners Take All [by Anand Giridharadas].
Katrina: Yeah, we’ve been talking about that for a few months now. We also read Decolonizing Wealth by Edgar Villanueva, which really pushed me to think about how to get different voices around the table.
Alissa: How might Hershey do something like that?
Katrina: I think taking more of a community approach is really important. A lot of what we did in prior years was very much corporate-led. I think we still have a lot of work to do, whether it’s getting employees from different backgrounds around the table or going broader in a community.
Whitney: I also read a lot about circular economy models. I’m very intrigued by that. For example, REI has built a pretty interesting business on used gear and equipment sharing. We could make Hershey the most sustainable company ever, but we are still producing more stuff. Granted, it is food, so that’s a little bit different than producing more and more clothes. But as some of these regenerative models come into the mainstream, how do we think about that in a food business, and what would that mean for the future of our work? I have no answer to that.
Alissa: Me either! Last question: What is your favorite Hershey product?
Katrina: Mine is definitely Take 5.
Whitney: I’m a huge fan of any of the Reese’s holiday shapes: the heart at Valentine’s Day, the giant pumpkin, the Santa—because it’s basically all peanut butter. The peanut butter-to-chocolate ratio is just better.
March 22, 2019
Jennifer (left) and Pooja pose with a portrait of the Hewlett Foundation’s founders, William and Flora.
After learning the ins and outs of nonprofit law while at Arabella, Pooja and Jennifer went on to join the Hewlett Foundation’s legal team. As senior counsel, Jennifer supports the foundation’s Global Development and Population program, as well as the internal IT and grants-management teams. As counsel, Pooja supports three grant-making programs—Education, Effective Philanthropy, and Performing Arts—as well as two administrative departments, facilities and communications.
Arabella editor Alissa Gulin sat down with the pair as they shared tales of structuring flexible financing arrangements and discussed why Hewlett prefers to take the long view on strategic grant making. Below is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Alissa: What’s the most interesting aspect of your work?
Jennifer: I really enjoy watching the grant-making process and how program officers interact with grantees. It’s also a joy to go with program officers to meet grantees and see their work. For my program, which works in places with interesting challenges, it really makes the legal work more meaningful.
Alissa: What is your role on these site visits?
Jennifer: A lot of the work for my program is in Africa. My role is usually to highlight any legal missteps we should avoid, particularly in countries where we aren’t familiar with the laws. For example, my program wanted to support a foreign youth movement. But it wasn’t an organization, so how could we get them money? I provided options for how we could support them. We also spend a lot of time talking to grantees, particularly our foreign grantees, about the US rules and limitations on lobbying and advocacy and electioneering.
Alissa: What’s been going on recently with your programs, Pooja?
Pooja: At Hewlett, each grant-making program has its own culture and way of doing things. The performing arts team, for example, is our only grant-making program focused on Northern California. Artists and art organizations are struggling with things other organizations in the Bay Area are struggling with, like the cost of living and displacement. So we’re thinking about what Hewlett’s role is in trying to keep artists here as part of a vibrant arts ecosystem. As for the Education program, they’ve just refreshed their strategy, so it’ll be interesting to see how that plays out.
Alissa: As your teams refresh their strategies, does that bring you back to your Arabella work?
Jennifer: Our Arabella experience has been helpful in understanding what kind of capacity an organization needs to be able to receive our funding. You need to be able to manage the funds and manage employees, for example.
Pooja: And in our roles now, we can flag concerns for program officers. Especially when you read something in a grantee proposal and it doesn’t line up.
Alissa: How does that play out, when you bring up concerns like that?
Pooja: Well, we can pause a proposal or grant if it’s not compliant and provide options to move forward. Staff members are happy to take our suggestions, and we try, when we can, not to reshape the activities of the grant.
Jennifer: We don’t want to get in the way of the program officers and grantees achieving the impact they seek, but there are rules the foundation has to live by.
Alissa: Let’s talk about a few trends in the philanthropy world and how you approach them from a legal standpoint. We hear many funders talking about investing in “big bets.” Are those initiatives more complex from a legal standpoint, and what does that look like for you?
Jennifer: Well, it depends. What vehicles are people using to fund these big bets? If someone is using their personal wealth, it’s not as complicated. If you’ve got five private foundations that want to do something big like that, it’s more complicated. A single private foundation could be somewhere in the middle. So it depends on who the donors are and where the money’s coming from.
Pooja: Hewlett talks less about big bets, though there are several initiatives like climate within our Environment Program or our Cyber Initiative. Our approach is to take a much more long-term view. Our program areas have been around for a long time, and I think the intent is for us to keep funding in these sectors.
Jennifer: I think the foundation’s board tries to be true to the values of the founders in that way. While there are new living donors who are funding big, innovative projects, Hewlett is an example of an older way of engaging in private philanthropy. Today’s philanthropists often employ new approaches. Their giving may not be through a formal charitable organization or through a private foundation.
Pooja: Which means they don’t have the same rules to follow. Hewlett’s toolbox is different.
Jennifer: Right. They can make some big bets in a way an organization like Hewlett can’t.
Pooja: I think it may also come from the culture of how the philanthropist earned the money. Hewlett-Packard came up in a different era than Facebook or Salesforce. It’s a very different ethos, and it trickles down into the philanthropy.
Alissa: How do these trends affect the way a traditional foundation like Hewlett operates now and in the future?
Jennifer: I don’t think Hewlett’s going to significantly change the way it does business. It’s worked for 50 years. But it may be that processes get streamlined. And that’s helpful for everybody.
Pooja: Or it might be that when we work in conjunction with some of these newer funders, we might come back with lessons or ideas about doing things a little differently.
Alissa: What about small or family foundations that aren’t as entrenched—might they look at how the Chan Zuckerberg Initiatives of the world are doing things, and either want to, or feel pressured to, adapt their practices?
Pooja: If I were to come upon a whole lot of money and become a philanthropist today, I’m not sure a private foundation is the way I would set it up. You might put some of it in a private foundation, part of it in an LLC, and part of it in a DAF. So, I think a family looking to get into philanthropy these days is setting themselves up to explore those options.
Jennifer: Another interesting thing is that it’s not just a Bay Area tech thing anymore. There are incredibly wealthy people all over the country interested in philanthropy, which is opening up opportunities for new people to do different things.
Alissa: I’m hearing a lot about flexible financing vehicles that enable funders to give different types of capital to both nonprofit and for-profit enterprises. What have you been seeing there, and what’s it like to advise on these structures?
Pooja: We’re seeing more of an interest in giving money to for-profits. I think that will continue. [Hewlett] can do that through expenditure responsibility. If you’re not a private foundation, it’s easier to do. You don’t have to follow those expenditure responsibility rules, but we do. Sometimes program officers think, “Oh, it’ll be easy to make this grant to this for-profit that’s based abroad.” And we have to tell them it’s not that easy. We’ll talk through the options.
Alissa: What about fiscal sponsorship? There have been lots of articles written about how it will continue to heavily shape the field. Does that ring true for you?
Jennifer: It varies from program officer to program officer. If you have a program officer who’s being more creative and finding unique pockets of people and ideas, then a fiscal sponsor makes sense. Or if they’re doing some sort of a collaborative. In the foreign context, it can be harder.
Alissa: Why is that?
Pooja: It’s hard to bring in money, set it up to do work solely for foreign purposes, and hire a staff. I think people have looked to see if there’s a way to set up something like NVF but for international [grant making]. But it’s hard, because there’s no single jurisdiction to do it in that makes a lot of sense.
Jennifer: We do have trouble with that. Sometimes we’ll want to support grantees with certain types of funding, but we’re limited because they’re abroad. The idea of a fiscal sponsor always pops up, but then it’s back to the capacity question: do they have the capacity and understand and care enough about compliance for this project?
Pooja: Hewlett sometimes takes an idea from scratch and may seed it at a fiscal sponsor, but Hewlett is also interested in funding well-run organizations. In that instance, we look for organizations that are established, can take on general operating support, and are doing good work. We’ve been giving to some anchor grantees for a long time and will continue to do so.
Alissa: Does prioritizing well-established, well-resourced organizations ever raise issues about equity?
Jennifer: It certainly comes up. Some programs are engaging in LOI processes to identify and refresh portfolios with new grantees.
Alissa: So despite wanting to maintain relationships with well-established organizations, program officers are trying to see if there’s any wiggle room within those confines?
Jennifer: Well, they might consider if we have to give established grantees the same amount of funding, or the same type, for the same amount of time.
Alissa: Anything else you’d like to discuss?
Pooja: We’re just thankful our teams keep us employed. They keep coming up with lots of questions that keep us busy.
Jennifer: They keep us on our toes. Nonprofit law is a sliver of the tax code, but it’s quite dynamic. The rules don’t change but the fact patterns certainly do.
Pooja: And our role isn’t to just say no. Our role is to figure out how to get to yes.
October 16, 2018
There’s no telling when you might cross paths with a former colleague. Just ask Whitney, Arianna, and Caroline (pictured above from left to right). The three Arabella alums, each from a different team, found themselves working at the McCormick Foundation at the same time.
As a program officer, Caroline—who was a member of Arabella’s Philanthropy Management team—focuses on health and wellness, and on the foundation’s place-based grant making in Englewood, a neighborhood in Chicago. Arianna—a former member of the Consulting team—also served as a program officer at McCormick, concentrating on education, as well as place-based work in the Chicago neighborhood of Little Village. Whitney—a former Culture and Talent team member—is a talent acquisition specialist, recruiting candidates for positions at the foundation and at Cantigny Park, a public park owned by the foundation.
While Arianna has since left McCormick to pursue other opportunities, Alissa Gulin, an Arabella editor, spoke to the three women over the summer while they were still working together. The group sat down to a virtual lunch to discuss how their experience at a consulting firm influenced their perspectives, why it’s challenging to achieve diverse leadership in the social sector—and how the Greater Good Times Band might expand its playlist. Below is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Alissa: It’s so nice to reconnect with each of you. What has been keeping you busy these days?
Arianna: Lately, we’ve been updating our grant-making strategy. For the last few years, we’ve been doing a lot of research, talking to folks in the field, and creating strategies to address the root causes of poverty and the racial disparities among Chicagoland residents. That’s our area of focus now. Then there’s all the work that goes with that, like creating guidelines and communicating to our partners and other funders what we’re going to be funding moving forward. It’s very similar to the strategy development we did for clients at Arabella: we’re thinking about the opportunities in the field, what other folks are doing, where we fit in, where we can have the most impact with our resources.
Caroline: A lot of the skills we learned working with clients at Arabella have transferred to our work here. One big difference for me is that now, in our place-based work, we’re completely embedded in our communities. We’re focused on supporting quality-of-life plans, which focus on the big issues the community wants to address. Community residents, stakeholders, and nonprofit leaders usually draft the plans. In Englewood, they picked five issue areas ranging from youth to jobs and economic development to public safety. Our role at the foundation is to help funnel resources to the community as they work through those plans.
We also have capacity-building initiatives in both communities, where we build the leadership capacity of some of the nonprofit leaders who have been connected to the quality-of-life plans. And in Englewood, we’re doing participatory grant making with the community. So, the community raises funds, and the McCormick Foundation is matching donations 50 cents on the dollar. We’re then using those pooled funds to support community projects that the residents have chosen to support. It’s a nice way to be at a traditional grant-making institution while being able focus on community voice and doing what residents think is best for their own community.
Alissa: What are the issues your colleagues are talking about? What are the biggest challenges in your field right now?
Caroline: Race equity has been a huge theme. In Chicago, we see the impacts of those racial inequities through things like black and brown students not having well-resourced schools or quality educations, or people not having access to affordable housing. More recently, we’ve seen funders across the city making a really explicit stance to address race equity in their grant making. It’s something that’s really buzzing in Chicago, and, I would imagine, elsewhere in the nation. It’s something we’re exploring explicitly in the work Arianna and I do in the neighborhoods, but also across the foundation. We’re also doing more Illinois- and Chicagoland-focused funding.
Alissa: How do race equity issues affect the recruiting side and some of the other internal teams at the foundation?
Whitney: Throughout the philanthropy field, everyone is talking about race equity and diversity, equity, and inclusion and trying to figure out how they can integrate that into the fabric of their workplace cultures, and they are all at different points in that journey. But there’s a ton of conversation in the sector about having more people of color at senior levels, which I think will happen over a long time frame, especially at foundations where people tend to stay for a really long time. You’re talking about possibly not even having a position open up until 15 years down the line when somebody decides to retire. You have to deal with the frustration of putting out all these lofty goals [for diversity in recruitment] and thinking, “Well, I might not see this happen for another 30 years.” It’s tricky to figure out what to prioritize if you’re not going to get any wins any time soon.
Alissa: What do you wish current Arabellans and those in the wider field knew that could help you with your work or the work of the field more broadly?
Whitney: I want people to know that nobody else has figured out this race equity piece either. People are at different places on a continuum, and a lot of people don’t even realize that they’re on a continuum. They think they should be heading toward some fixed solution, and that could not be farther from the truth.
Arianna: Arabella reflects philanthropy as much as it serves it. So, Arabella needs to grasp how important it is to model the things we struggle with in this sector in terms of diversifying leadership and foundation boards. If you’re going to be an advisor talking about race equity, you yourself have to figure out how to model that.
Caroline: At a foundation, we’re very much woven into the fabric of philanthropy and the social sector here in Chicago, and I felt like a lot of times, at Arabella…
Whitney: We weren’t as connected.
Caroline: Right. And I think there’s value in being more connected to what’s happening on the ground.
Alissa: What advice would you give to those who want to connect more closely with their communities?
Caroline: There’s a variety of affinity groups in each local community that people can be more involved in, which will give them ideas of where they can plug in. The funding community’s pretty robust in Chicago, and it’s always helpful to know other people in this space who can help connect you. We can be a resource here—we know a lot about different funder circles or funder tables, and we’re happy to share that information.
Alissa: What has surprised you the most about your post-Arabella roles?
Arianna: I went to the Illinois Children’s Healthcare Foundation for a year and a half before I came to McCormick, and I was surprised by how much I learned that I hadn’t realized I had learned. Things that just were part of my day-to-day work at Arabella, like how to write an effective email, how to structure effective agendas, even taking good notes—I took those things for granted because it was just part of the job there. And then when I went other places and we didn’t have those processes, I was like, “Oh, this was actually incredibly valuable and efficient.”
Caroline: Right, I would agree. The other thing is that the pace is so different here. Our work is very cyclical, so that creates more time to do more learning.
Whitney: The pace is significantly slower. Nobody Skypes me.
Caroline: I want to Skype you all the time, but we sit next to each other. I think it’s weird.
Whitney: No one here uses Skype at all. We have it, but I have not gotten a single message. People will walk up and talk to you. This is the first time I’ve worked at a foundation, so I don’t know if it’s the case everywhere, but like Caroline said, they’re on their own schedule. They’re not beholden to clients or even grantees. The relationship is kind of the inverse.
Caroline: There’s a power dynamic.
Alissa: What should others in the sector have in mind when navigating or thinking about that power dynamic?
Caroline: I don’t know that I thought about the power dynamic as much when I was at Arabella, other than knowing it exists. But I think it’s different when you are a funder. I’m constantly aware of the dynamic that I bring to the table, and I try to mitigate that as much as possible in my relationships with grantees. But however much you try to mitigate it, you still represent the institution that grants millions of dollars each year. So, it’s just the way you approach the work and the relationships you try to create.
Whitney: It depends on your personality. I can tell there are people who enjoy having that type of power and leverage and there are other people who go out of their way to not come across that way.
Caroline: Maybe that’s why people stay in these places for so long.
Whitney: I’m sure that’s part of it.
Alissa: Do you think there’s there anything those outside of foundations can do to mitigate those power dynamics?
Arianna: There probably could be. When I was at Arabella, we primarily approached the work from the funder’s perspective. Now that I’m on the foundation side, I think about the grantees’ perspective a lot.
Caroline: Our grant process is one of the things Arianna has been really good about getting our team to think about: Is it burdensome to grantees? Are there ways we can create more equity in our grant applications? But we also could assess whether there’s any bias in terms of the types of organizations we’re funding. Are we putting more dollars behind white-led organizations? Are organizations led by people of color getting less money? Bringing that lens is really important.
Whitney: And there are a lot of smaller, newer organizations that don’t get any attention from foundations. Foundations may be locking out organizations that are doing great work but don’t have the social capital or the board connections or even the size or the budget to be considered. There’s been a lot of work happening in Chicago on getting smaller organizations an audience with funders that normally wouldn’t even take a look at them.
Alissa: Let’s wrap up with one last question: If you were a guest at an Arabella party, what song would you request the Greater Good Times Band to play?
Caroline: Well, for those who know me—Beyoncé, obviously. And if that’s not possible, maybe a good 90s R&B ballad. That would make me happy.
Whitney: I would want something with a lot of profanity.
Arianna: Yes, Cardi B!
Caroline: Or some trap music.
Whitney: I want people to have to rap. And I remember Ryan [Strode, a former Arabellan who was the band’s leader] telling me he listened to a lot of rap when he was growing up. So I know he has the skill set.
Arianna: We want Ryan to rap Cardi B.
Whitney: That’d be great.
Caroline: That would be amazing.