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Letting Communities Lead: How National Funders Can Advance Equity by Partnering with Local and Regional Foundations

National funders have long sought ways to make positive social change happen in local communities. However, for some of these funders, place-based philanthropy encompasses pre-determined strategies, directive relationships with community “partners,” and strict accountability measures allowing little or no space to accommodate the particularities of local contexts.

The all too frequent outcome of this type of approach? Community change that either does not happen or ceases when national funders move on.

Across the philanthropic community, there is a growing understanding that equity and lasting change will only be achieved when communities lead their own solutions. This insight provides an incentive for national funders to rethink how they approach building trusted partnerships in place.

Over the past two years, TCC Group had an opportunity to explore this topic while working directly with equity-focused local and regional funders that know their communities best. We have found that local and regional foundations focused on advancing equity in particular neighborhoods, cities, states, and/or regions bring assets to the table that complement and, in some instances, surpass their grantmaking function. They can be ideal partners for national foundations seeking to support initiatives happening in place.

At TCC Group, we have identified six guiding principles for national funders to consider as they seek opportunities to partner with local and regional foundations in advancing equity:

  1. Engage local and regional foundations as your guides and partners. Local and regional foundations welcome the opportunity to work with national funders interested in supporting their communities. Critical for the success of these relationships is for national funders to avoid coming into communities with “fully baked” agendas that have not accounted for the specific characteristics of those communities and/or treating local and regional foundations as implementers, rather than as thought partners and allies.
  2. Respect existing relationships. One challenge local and regional foundations identified was the requirement from national funders that organizations in a community collaborate in order to receive funding. While from a distance this strategy may seem productive, these forced relationships are unlikely to yield long-term functional partnership and success. In general, productive relationships among local and regional foundations and with community leaders, government officials, and other stakeholders are formed based on well-established trust and shared priorities.
  3. Allow for the realities of local social and political contexts. Local and regional foundations are committed to racial equity but will approach this goal in ways they consider most likely to gain traction in their communities. For example, several local and regional foundations working in rural areas spoke about how leading with racial equity is a non-starter for engaging community members—including, in some contexts, communities of color.
  4. Understand the local ecosystem and history of relationships among actors. Local and regional foundations highlighted the need for national funders to be ready to enter local communities. They also explicitly cautioned against foundations investing large sums in a single organization without understanding the local context and how this might impact existing relationships in ways that can inadvertently harm communities. For example, this type of investment might stifle community collaboration, as one organization is anointed by an external funder as being somehow more critical to the local ecosystem. Considering the background of a community is key to understanding the impact of targeted investments in place.
  5. Provide complementary assets. National funders hold a variety of assets complementary to local and regional foundations–credibility, national networks, access to data, research knowledge, and more. Local and regional foundations welcome the support of national funders in engaging these assets to benefit the equitable development efforts they are leading and supporting. For instance, while local and regional funders will have access to local data, the increased data national funders can provide from other communities will help both for comparative purposes, and to learn from their successes.
  6. Most importantly, be explicit about intentions, interests, and longevity of commitment. Several local and regional foundations stated that national foundations should not directly fund a local community unless they are ready to be engaged for a sustained period of time – typically at least a decade. Others suggested national staff on the ground are essential to supporting sufficiently textured work. Many recognized that these conditions (however preferable) are unlikely to be feasible. At a minimum, national funders must be clear, direct, and candid about their interests in a locale, the length of time they anticipate engaging, and their aspirations to work with local intermediary partners as they develop their strategy and infuse resources in place. This kind of clarity is not only respectful but essential to advancing work from an equity-centered mindset.

Local and regional foundations function as brokers, connectors, networkers, and mediators across many different types of partners in their local ecosystems. They are continuously adapting to their specific community needs, opportunistic in building relationships that will enable them to achieve their goals, and realistic about which community actors will be reliable, productive partners. And based on TCC Group’s experience, they welcome the engagement of national foundations in developing trusting relationships that support local efforts to advance equity.

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