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The Secret Sauce of Building Community Philanthropy

The Secret Sauce of Building Community Philanthropy

February 8, 2016

Over the course of four years, the Building Community Philanthropy (BCP) initiative of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Pacific Northwest team has brought together 20 partners — United Ways, identity-based funds, tribal governments and community foundations — to learn together, challenge each other and shift the way they see their role in their communities. In short, to participate in a peer network that rewards honesty and authenticity while also receiving funding to test new ways of working, and transform their work in positive and meaningful ways.

Ted Lord and I recently facilitated a two-day convening for this learning cohort. When asked how they’ve evolved through this opportunity, we heard comments like “from community problem-solver to asking questions and learning," "from being directive to collaborative" and "from having a set plan and strategy to being more flexible and responsive to community-led needs.”

How did this happen?  We’ve noticed three key shifts that BCP has helped unlock:

Adapting Approaches to the Context and Making Room for Community Self-Determination

Many speak eloquently of shifting their model from a small group of volunteers, leaders and board members determined where the grant funding went to creating the kinds of spaces that allowed them to listen to how their community might determine its own path.

Is this easy? No. Is it quick or efficient? Usually not. Is it worth it? Yes, according to Norma Schuiteman of the Community Foundation of South Puget Sound. “Our grant investments and relationships with our grantees have never been more successful," she said. "We are truly working in partnership in new ways."

Admitting Mistakes and Making Course Corrections

Why is this so painful for us? Philanthropy speaks so highly of accepting failure, “failing forward” and innovation — yet it's still so difficult to share mistakes publicly. The Building Community Philanthropy learning cohort provides an opportunity to use storytelling, reflection and peer consultations to share our challenges and to hear from some funders who have spoken openly with their own stakeholders and grantees about missteps and then asked their constituents for help.

I'm inspired by the efforts of the United Way of Benton & Franklin Counties staff, who knew they could do more to connect with their region's Hispanic/Latino population. They have now invested new resources into staffing, materials and most importantly, showing up to support this community regardless of the benefit to the United Way.

Many Ways Up the Mountain

How we long for simplicity. Or maybe we want to be right. But this learning cohort has demonstrated that it’s more fruitful to accept there are many ways up the mountain. Community philanthropy represents the belief that philanthropy is a tool to help communities become more equitable and engaged; a critical component to developing families, schools and social connectedness. It’s lofty, but the investments of funds and co-learning have resulted in multiple strategies.

It will take many tries to achieve success. As Zeke Smith, of United Way of the Columbia-Willamette said, “We could not have developed such depth and collaboration in our work if we had been singular in our focus. By listening to multiple voices — especially those traditionally left out of the conversation — and co-creating with our communities, we are already seeing shifts on issues that have seemed intransigent.”

What is the “secret sauce” that has unlocked these practices?

  • A learning cohort that over time has been filled with content from the grantees
  • Rewarding the sharing of missteps and what has been learned
  • An environment that encourages people to bring their full, honest, open, creative, curious selves — and their sense of humor
  • Space for celebration
  • A rigorous process and learning evaluation designed by our friends at FSG
  • Valuable, thought-provoking content provided by “experts” from outside the cohort and also from within the group

What did it take? A willingness for all of us to shift the mental model, reflect, try, learn and try again. Easier said than done — but perhaps not so hard after all.

Audrey Haberman is managing partner of The Giving Practice, Philanthropy Northwest's consulting team. She can be reached at