Joining a Values-Driven Organization: My First Year at Philanthropy Northwest

Joining a Values-Driven Organization: My First Year at Philanthropy Northwest

Kiran Ahuja

Our pledge to place communities “at the center,” and our commitment to equity resonates deeply with me. At Philanthropy Northwest, I’ve felt at home from the start because this organization leads with a values-driven agenda. During my first year as CEO, I immersed myself in the rich and diverse histories and landscapes of our region. I joke with our members that over the past year there have been many firsts for me – first time in Oregon, first time in Idaho, first time in Montana, first time in Alaska, and the list goes on. Each visit with our members inspired and amazed me because I witnessed how our member organizations support and strive for prosperous and inclusive communities.  

From my first board retreat last July in Alaska, “shared values” took center stage, especially among our Alaska board members. They brought to life the history, institutions, significant assets and resilience of Alaska Natives. Alaska board members discussed how Alaska-based philanthropic organizations and government entities improve the lives of Alaskan people. I recently visited Alaska once more. Even with the benefit of time and experience, my first trip’s reflections were only reconfirmed: Alaska presents unique challenges AND immense knowledge, commitment and opportunity. By amplifying the work of Philanthropy Northwest members and connecting the dots among our members and the larger philanthropic sector, we expand collaboration and opportunity within our region.  

We recently held this year’s board retreat in Ashland, Oregon. Like Alaska, we connected with funders and leaders to learn about the local landscape, and how challenges in rural parts of our region are both different and much the same. We engaged in a thought-provoking conversation on how a strong commitment to equity shaped programming at the nationally recognized Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and on college campuses in southern Oregon that experienced a significant increase in the diversity among their student population. Participants also discussed how rural philanthropists are training local leaders – to the tune of 6,000 of them – to build capacity within their communities. My trips to Alaska, Oregon, parts of Washington, and elsewhere – like attending the Walla Walla Valley Funders Tour – speak to rural resiliency. Every one of our members in our 6-state region are deeply committed to creating opportunity and improving socioeconomic outcomes for their communities. Each trip left me with a sense of awe and pride. 

As I’ve sought to understand and support “my new community” this past year, I’m excited how our organization has leaned into our dedication to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. This year, we made public our DEI commitment, and launched our Equity Speaker Series with a powerful conversation about antiracism with Dr. Ibram Kendi, an award-winning writer. Dr. Kendi made it clear that antiracism is a state of being. By each belief and action, we define at that moment whether we are a racist or antiracist. This eye-opening idea, that what we thought was static, is quite fluid, powerfully impacted the over 400 attendees at our inaugural event. Stay tuned for the next equity speaker this Fall! 

Our organization prioritizes investing in DEI efforts. From leadership training to building professional pipelines, to operations and grant making: we infuse equity at all philanthropic levels because philanthropic leadership and investment should reflect the diverse communities we serve. Throughout my career, I’ve seen that diverse, equitable and inclusive organizations also tend to be the most relevant, responsive and successful in serving their communities’ specific needs. That’s why we will continue to offer programs like Grantmaking with an Equity Lens Trainings, Bias/Power and Privilege Training, Grantmakers of Color Network, Momentum Fellowship, DEI CEO cohorts, trustee cohorts and the Equity Speaker Series. Continuing to offer and expand our DEI programs not only responds to increasing demand, it’s the right thing to do.  

While we strive to live our equity values, we know that many people feel sidelined by polarizing political rhetoric. As a regional philanthropic organization, we create space to model uncomfortable conversations. Last year’s “Philanthropy Interrupted Talks” at our conference opened up a very important conversation we have been having as an organization ever since. We realized that we can pursue our strong commitment to equity AND hold a “big tent” for all our members to express their viewpoints, engage in difficult conversations, be willing to learn from each other, and ultimately work together when mission, ideas and strategies align. With the launch of our Reflective Practices guide, we have even more tools to hold these challenging conversations. This year’s conference keynote speaker, Anand Giridharadas, will further add to our toolbox, and challenge philanthropy to model the kind of discourse and civil society we envision. 

The door stands open for the philanthropy sector to lead through the difficult changes facing our country. Working alongside communities we can create better futures together for all. That’s why our organization launched a major public policy initiative to ensure the success of Census 2020 in our region. We’ve hosted multiple events, webinars and conversations on ensuring an accurate and robust count of the region’s population. Because of our deep commitment to this important policy issue, the Funders Census Initiative asked us to join the national leadership team of funders and philanthropic serving organizations. 

As I complete my first year at Philanthropy Northwest, I feel revitalized, renewed and energized by our membership’s potential to catalyze transformative change across our region. Together, we can create truly equitable systems. We can contribute to a national movement and conversation. My team and I are proud to partner with all of you to achieve this dream. The next opportunity for our members to gather as a collective force for good is our 2018 Annual Conference in Boise in October. I hope to see you there. 

Let’s do more…together!