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Fostering a capacity-building ecosystem with an equity lens

Leadership and Infrastructure Funding Team

Last month, The Kresge Foundation hosted the deep-dive workshop, “Creating a Capacity Building Ecosystem,” with capacity-building partners from AchieveMission, Community Wealth Partners, Crossroads Antiracism Organizing and Training and ProInspire at the 2019 Upswell convening in Chicago, Illinois.

caroline_smith_print_2014_copy.pngIn this Q&A, the founder and leader of Kresge’s Leadership and Infrastructure Funding Team (LIFT), Caroline Altman Smith, who also serves as deputy director of Kresge’s Education Program, discusses why it is important for funders to support the capacity-building needs of their grantees and partners, especially in ways that advance racial equity. Altman Smith provides examples from Kresge’s Fostering Urban Equitable Leadership (FUEL) program – LIFT’s talent and leadership development initiative for grantees – the second round of which launched earlier this year.

Kresge: Where did the idea for this Upswell session come from?

Altman Smith: Kresge has been working with Community Wealth Partners (CWP), a mission-driven consulting firm, for the past four years to design, develop and manage LIFT’s Fostering Urban Equitable Leadership (FUEL) program.

In conversations with CWP, we realized we wanted to find more ways to share the story of what’s happening with FUEL – especially how working with a diverse cohort of capacity-building service providers can contribute to a capacity-building ecosystem with equity at the center. So, Community Wealth Partners, Kresge and several FUEL service providers collaboratively developed the Upswell session.

Kresge: Why was it important to talk about capacity building at Upswell of all conferences?

Altman Smith: Upswell is organized by Independent Sector and is one of the largest national convenings for all different types of non-profit professionals. About a third of the [Independent Sector] members are from philanthropy and two-thirds are from a whole range of non-profit organizations. It’s quite a mixed audience with all types of members attending. With our session, we wanted to make the most of the fact that there are not enough spaces where both funders and non-profits can come together and talk about their shared interests and work. We liked the idea of crafting a workshop that would explicitly acknowledge these different audiences and create space for them to hopefully learn from one another—especially since issues of diversity, equity and inclusion are top of mind for both non-profits and foundations.

Kresge: What were some of your takeaways from the session?

Altman Smith: I especially appreciate that we had three different service providers take time to come to the conference and talk about what they were learning about delivering capacity-building supports. I learned a lot from listening to their presentations.

The organizations on the panel – AchieveMission, Community Wealth Partners, Crossroads Antiracism Organizing and Training and ProInspire – shared their perspective about what it takes to be good partners in this space. There was a true sense that “we are all in this together.” Embedding equity in capacity building is a really deep seated, complicated issue. No one service provider is going to be able to tackle it on their own. So, in the interest of exploring how to have more impact collectively, they were willing to double-down on their vulnerability and transparency, becoming more relationally invested in each other. In the process, they realized that they had a lot to offer each other and could in turn help improve each other’s effectiveness. I found it very useful and inspiring to learn from them about what it takes to authentically collaborate.

One of Kresge’s original motivations in developing the FUEL program was to not only provide direct services to a subset of our grantees, but also to strengthen the marketplace of non-profit service providers. To help do this, Kresge convened the service providers as a cohort to ensure they could meet together on a regular basis to learn from each other. The service providers ended up creating new programming ideas together, which was an exciting outcome that we had been hoping for. Their time spent together building trust and relationships and learning about each other’s work was truly generative. No matter how long the FUEL program runs, these new offerings will benefit the entire social sector for years to come.

Kresge: I know you had a chance to circulate during the session breakouts. What kind of learnings did you hear from participants at the session?

Altman Smith: A few folks from non-profits at my table talked about a couple of different challenges related to capacity building. One is that capacity-building opportunities are often only available to the most senior staff at a non-profit. So, the benefits of the trainings and workshops don’t always trickle down to other staff.  This is something that we’ve tried to address in the design of FUEL. We tried to make sure that a lot of the services are targeted at folks who are not senior executives, but also not brand new to their jobs. We instead focused on mid-level talent – those who are managing employees for the first time or preparing themselves for a C-Suite position. Through talking with session participants, I got affirmation that there really is a need for support for this band of professionals.

We also talked about how equity-based capacity building is so formative. People do need help and guidance, and sometimes you need to have the courage to say, “I don’t know what to do necessarily, but I can be very clear about what I stand for, and what my values are.” It can be a powerful moment to discover resources that are out there, and to figure out which type of service providers are the best fit to help lead you and your organization on to the next stage in the equity journey.

Kresge: Is there anything else you would like to share from the Upswell session?

Altman Smith: I would just highlight how grateful I am to the service providers for stepping up and being so honest and open about their history, their challenges in this space, how they work together and how they have had to change and grow as organizations to work together in new ways. I just found it really powerful and inspiring.

I also appreciated that there was such good energy in the room, and we got to have a lot of good conversations with people afterwards about being at different stages in the journey. And it just underscored for me that non-profits need to be bringing up this conversation with their funders. Ideally, funders would be the ones bringing it up with non-profits and soliciting feedback about what type of additional resources are needed for these kinds of capacity-building efforts. However, if the funders don’t raise the issue and ask the question, non-profits should absolutely feel empowered and safe to be able to say, “Here’s what I need, and it is going to take resources above and beyond normal project support grants to do this work.”

If more funders devoted more resources to this type of work, we would see stronger, more resilient, more equitable organizations, which are better able to achieve their missions. We’re grateful to be learning from many other foundations that are investing in this area.