NWAF Program Director Karla Miller: Why We’re Refocusing Our Grantmaking on Justice

NWAF Program Director Karla Miller: Why We’re Refocusing Our Grantmaking on Justice

 Smiling Native American man in ball cap with smiling Native American child wearing a necklace
Karla Miller | Guest Contributor, Northwest Area Foundation

This article was originally published by the Northwest Area Foundation on December 15, 2021; Philanthropy Northwest has cross-posted it here with their permission. See the original piece on NWAF's website.

Supporting equity is an important goal, but it doesn’t reach far enough. We need to cultivate justice.

In the past couple of years equity has taken a large role in our national conversation. And for painful, vital reasons.

The social and economic results of inequity disproportionately affect our priority communities: Native Americans, communities of color, immigrants and refugees, and people in rural areas. So for years Northwest Area Foundation has been invested — literally — in moving toward equity for all.

In conversation with grantees — and reflecting our ongoing DEI journey — we’ve learned that we can have more impact when we think of equity in terms of racial, economic and social justice.

NWAF is thinking about justice in a holistic way, and we’ve refocused our grantmaking approach to reflect that.

Here’s what it boils down to: We have a responsibility to address inequities and systemic racism by fostering justice, and to engage and to share power with the communities we serve.

We’ve been thinking deeply about our strategic grantmaking approach.

Over the past three years, our program team has immersed itself in learning from our grantees through conversations, reports and spending time in their communities.

In fact, at the core of our grantmaking practice is learning from the resourceful, change-making organizations we fund and then continually refining our approach.

Grantee insights in recent years helped us realize we need to work even harder to center our priority communities. They’re the only ones who can decide what sustainable prosperity looks like for them. This is what self-determination is. So we need to recalibrate our approach to meet grantees where they are and then commit to helping them move forward.

NWAF's current four-portfolio model doesn’t leave enough room for the array of complexities our grantees face.

In 2013, we defined activities we would fund within four portfolios of grantmaking — Access to Capital, Work Opportunity, Enterprise Development, and Financial Inclusion. These portfolios have guided our grantmaking decisions for the past eight years.

We’ve found that the portfolio model — while it articulates the NWAF's focus — is too prescriptive. By creating boundaries that describe what we fund and what we don’t fund, we were unintentionally guiding approaches rather than best supporting organizations’ self-determined solutions.

Moving forward, we’re aiming to be less prescriptive in our grantmaking, focusing instead on helping organizations implement their own strategies for changing systems that pose barriers to shared prosperity. That’s how NWAF can be a meaningful participant in achieving justice.

NWAF's updated approach expands what prosperity means.

The refreshed approach brings into even sharper focus NWAF’s strategy to support organizations that serve our priority communities and build more equitable economies within our region of eight states and 76 Native nations that share the same geography.

Our grantees, each in their own way, illustrate the importance of shared prosperity and building power locally. These are key elements of how they help their communities thrive on their own terms and make progress repairing the damage of centuries of inequity and injustice.

And for purposes of our future grantmaking, prosperity needs to reflect a more holistic understanding of well-being, for both people and places. So we’ll prioritize grantee partners who are reimagining and restructuring systems that stand in the way of economic, social, and racial justice for our priority communities.

In practice, that will mean a renewed focus on funding our grantees’ self-determined solutions, amplifying the ways they’re articulating and working toward healing, and supporting how they’re folding cultural wisdom into addressing systemic injustice in their communities.

Many of our current grantees reflect the updated approach.

For example, Four Bands Community Fund on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation in Eagle Butte, SD, has been working for more than two decades to create a more just economy for Native people on its rural reservation. Four Bands is living out its mission by reducing barriers through business loans and training and coaching for entrepreneurs, loans and asset-building programs for consumers, and internship and financial education opportunities for youth.

The Ethnic Minorities of Burma Advocacy and Resource Center (EMBARC), a grassroots, community-based nonprofit in Des Moines, serves refugees in its community through advocacy, education, and community development. EMBARC’s constellation of programs — language classes, a multilingual helpline, a legal navigator, youth services, and more — support refugees’ efforts to build more inclusive communities that better meet their needs. Its vision is for a united refugee organization that is a leader in creating solutions.

And Native American Youth and Family Center (NAYA) works on fair urban housing and other programs for Native families in Portland, OR. NAYA offers culturally specific wraparound services designed to support individual and community prosperity. From elder services to foster care support, from health equity to homeownership initiatives, and so many other vital programs, NAYA’s holistic approach addresses barriers to racial and social justice for its community.

All three are working to achieve justice — economic, social and racial — with solutions tailored to the particular challenges faced by the resilient communities they serve.

We’ll be living into this updated approach in 2022.

The updated approach reflects the need to address the root causes of historical inequity and injustice, acknowledges that grantee partners are best positioned to determine how to do that, and gives us a road map to be useful partners in their work.

In practical terms, the updated approach will mean budgeting for longer-term grants, including flexible funding that allows grantees to adapt and pivot as necessary to respond to local challenges and opportunities.

Through longer-term funding relationships, we’ll support the many ways organizations are reimagining how to bring about justice in their communities and restructure their approaches to community and their economy.

As we move forward, we’ll continue discussing exactly how this refreshed approach will live out in our actions. We’ll keep talking to our grantees. We’ll aim to be flexible and responsive to emerging needs. And we’ll keep learning and staying open to fresh perspectives.

Karla discusses more about NWAF's updated grantmaking approach in a new video.