What’s Your ‘Why’ for Learning?

June 28, 2016

Have you heard the story of the “Last Girl?" According to Mahatma Gandhi's philosophy, in order to create compassionate communities with respect, equity and justice, we should think about the person or child who is valued the least, who suffers the most, who comes last.

I was introduced to this concept a few years ago, when a nonprofit leader I was working with used it to describe a young girl of color who is poor, a survivor of violence without access to education or adequate health care. Ever since hearing that story, when someone asks me "why" I work on building capacity and effectiveness in the nonprofit and philanthropic sector, I share this philosophy. My “why" is the "last girl."

In my new role of developing and implementing learning strategy at Philanthropy Northwest, there are admittedly a few layers between the "last girl" and myself. The purpose of my work remains the same, however: as a trainer, facilitator and strategist, I am helping funders and nonprofits learn to create more effective solutions for those suffering the most from injustice and inequity.

Spectrum of Experience

My philanthropy and nonprofit sector experience spans two decades. During nine of those years, I had the privilege of working as a program officer at the Women’s Foundation of California and then later as a consultant to nonprofits and foundations. Two decades of cross-sector experience has given me valuable perspective and understanding of both what’s happening on the ground and the bird's-eye view. I am hopeful that this broad experience of working along the spectrum of philanthropy positions me well to think about creating opportunities for learning, networking and knowledge-sharing for our members.

Philanthropy Northwest represents funders committed to vibrant, equitable and inclusive communities in six states: Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Washington and Wyoming. While we are all part of one Northwest region, each state is demographically distinct, and within each state, we have significant economic, ethnic and racial diversity. Our members also range from huge international organizations to unstaffed family funds, from decades of grantmaking to new additions in our sector.

As director of learning strategy, I look forward to figuring out ways to strengthen the connections across this diverse network. What are the opportunities for bringing people together who might be working on similar challenges and solutions? How can we create space in the network to share learning and promising practices and to facilitate greater collaboration? These questions are aligned with our 2016 conference theme, Under One Sky, which is an immediate occasion to think about how we move closer to a reality where we really are operating in partnership and community.

Changing Communities

Back when I was pursuing my master’s degree in organizational development at the University of San Francisco, I had a professor who liked to pronounce in a loud booming voice, “You must eat change for breakfast!” What he meant by this is that change is both constant and inevitable — and we must get in the habit of preparing ourselves to be adaptive and nimble.

When I think about how rapidly our ecosystem and communities are changing, in the Northwest and nationwide, I recognize that the opportunities for learning and networking in philanthropy must not only keep pace with that change, but also ideally stay a few steps ahead. As the learning network for philanthropy in this region, we bring value to our members by identifying these trends and incorporating this knowledge into learning opportunities. I am excited about scanning nationally for the most effective strategies being employed in philanthropy and bringing that learning to our membership, while also looking for ways we can further deploy technology to make learning even more accessible across our region and create interactive experiences to span the miles and experiences between us. 

In the next few months, I will be asking our members and partners about what inspires and challenges you, and how we at Philanthropy Northwest can respond to your learning needs. I’m eager to start that conversation right now. Reach out to me and let me know: What are you most interested in learning? What trends in philanthropy are piquing your curiosity? How do you like to learn? And most importantly, what's your “why" for learning?

Maya Thornell-Sandifor is Philanthropy Northwest's director of learning strategy. She can be reached at msandifor@philanthropynw.org.