How Three New Venture Fund Projects Are Helping to Advance Equity

The events of 2020 fundamentally changed our country and the philanthropic sector, as donors and changemakers raced to respond to challenges including COVID-19, growing threats to democracy at home and abroad, and ongoing racial injustice. In this context, the value of fiscal sponsorship became readily apparent, and New Venture Fund experienced unprecedented growth in our funding and impact, in parallel with the sector itself. 
During this time, New Venture Fund’s projects supported organizations and causes addressing all major issues across philanthropy. We are sharing stories that showcase how they responded to challenges faced over the last two years. 

George Floyd’s murder in May 2020 provoked a national awakening that rippled across the philanthropic sector. Many donors and changemakers felt a new urgency to address racial equity and justice issues, and many leading philanthropic institutions called out the need to better address the ways white supremacy damages communities of color. Nonprofits and projects on the ground that have dealt with these issues for years sought to build on those efforts and to turn donors’ increased interest and investment into productive change and impact—all while dealing with the ongoing pandemic. We spoke with three NVF projects doing work to advance racial equity about how they have responded to date, what they have learned, and where they are headed. Here’s what they told us.   

Increasing Native Peoples’ Visibility and Power 

IllumiNative’s mission is to build power for Native peoples. Despite ongoing challenges such as the COVID pandemic, the project has achieved huge successes over the last two years. According to Leah Salgado, IllumiNative’s Chief Impact Officer, her team saw a big need to become a rapid-response communications organization when the pandemic first began in 2020 to increase the visibility of Native peoples amid the crisis. The organization needed to make sure their narrative about the community was present in all areas of society, including health, media, arts, and politics.  

IllumiNative understands that for people to care about anything, they have to understand it—and to understand something, people have to see it. “When the first round of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding came out, when there were large national conversations happening around the impact of COVID-19 on communities of color, no one was talking about Native communities,” said Leah. “COVID was a perfect example of when invisibility kills.” Consistent with its mission, the organization responded to help ensure that Native peoples would not be excluded from national conversations that can have a profound impact on their communities. 

In 2020, IllumiNative led campaigns advocating for the elimination of Native mascots used by professional sports teams—and got the Washington, D.C., football team to drop its racist name. Along with other organizations, it also successfully led a campaign to help secure the appointment of Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland as the first Native American to serve as a Cabinet member. “Having Indigenous leaders that are very visible has a trickle-down effect. All of a sudden, when you think about leaders in this country, you’re thinking about an Indigenous woman, and that changes the narrative,” said Leah. 

She also credited the fiscal sponsorship model with helping IllumiNative accomplish all that it did. “The only way that we’ve been able to weather the COVID-19 storm and grow during this period is because we’re a fiscally sponsored organization,” said Leah Salgado of IllumiNative. 

Leah said IllumiNative was trusted by funders in a time of urgency and distress because it is a fiscally sponsored organization—which means funders know they operate responsibly and always in compliance. Without having a fiscal sponsor, Leah said, “It would take us a lot of time and money to figure it out by ourselves.” 

Developing Independent Political Power Accountable to Multi-Racial and Multi-Class Bases 

The Partnership Funds supports organizations that are building independent political power and believes that investing in Black, Latinx, Indigenous, undocumented and gender non-conforming leaders and organizations is necessary for democracy to realize its full potential. The project has seen the changes across philanthropy over the last two years reaffirm its theory of change and approach to its work.  

Their guiding question is what do our frontline partners and allies need to be made whole? What would you ask of philanthropy if you knew the answer was yes? In the words of The Partnership Funds executive director Erin Dale McClellan, “Whole people build whole organizations and infrastructure and broken people build broken organizations and infrastructure.”  

We are learning wholeness looks like sustainable general operating funds, resources to pay staff well with benefits, flexible funding that can be shifted to meet changing conditions, and the resources to grow their organizations’ membership and supporters to scale. It also means resources to study and learn new approaches, space to innovate and fail without shame. 

These organizations networked together can build movements that build power. For example, organizations can run policy campaigns and win them, but they may not be able to implement them or keep the legislature from repealing them because they have not be supported with the sustainable and consistent resources to do so. 

Erin said there’s still a lot of studying and learning that needs to happen as our culture is grappling with big, important topics. “We need people to face the things that are preventing us from being effective. And that’s internalized racism, white supremacy, colonized mind, colonized practices—that do not honor us as human beings and our dignity,” said Erin.  

For Erin, long-term change needs to focus on building an infrastructure that allows for healing, reconciliation, and repair. In 2020, The Partnership Funds launched a pilot to expand its work to southern states to support Black-led organizations with a history and legacy of community organizing, policy advocacy, and direct action. It is now working in Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee to build long-term, independent political power. 

“Equity is a practice—it’s not a destination,” said Erin. One way to practice equity is through participatory grantmaking. The Partnership Funds’ grantees decide together with the organization how to invest the money. It’s the type of independent power-building Erin wants to see others in philanthropy practice more. 

Supporting the Dreamers 

TheDream.US has helped more than 7,500 “Dreamers,” undocumented immigrant youth who came to this country at a young age, graduate from college with career-ready degrees. Even as tensions around immigration mounted in 2020, the organization saw great enthusiasm from donors. Since starting in 2013, TheDream.US has grown into a $300 million-plus fund. Most of the enthusiasm the organization saw from donors last year was to help with COVID-19 response and emergency grants for undocumented students. Because federal aid, such as stimulus checks, intentionally excluded undocumented students, donors wanted to make sure Dreamers had financial support they needed during the pandemic. 

Like IllumiNative, TheDream.US reported that being a fiscally sponsored project has brought many benefits. Having a support system for important operations—such as legal and human resources tasks—means they have more time to dedicate to their cause. “Having bandwidth to be able to take care of the most important things, which is our students, is incredibly important,” said Gaby Pacheco, director of advocacy, development, and communications at TheDream.US. 

REDI Lessons for Philanthropy 

As much as the last two years have increased the urgency to support work that’s centered around racial equity, diversity, and inclusion (or “REDI” work as we say at NVF), there are many things philanthropy still needs to change. 

While many funders stepped up in 2020 and 2021 to dedicate more resources for racial justice and related work, they didn’t always get it right. “Even in the most progressive of rooms, there was still a giant blind spot for Native peoples,” said Leah of IllumiNative. Clearly, if philanthropy persists with excluding Native peoples from funding, philanthropy will continue to fall short. 

On a related front, Erin of The Partnership Funds pointed out that millions of dollars were spent by funders on important issues, but she asked, “At the end of the day, who got to decide where that money went?” Too often, grantees and community leaders had little say in how resources were allocated. 

Achieving true racial equity will require changing power dynamics in philanthropic work. Erin noted that “the title of my organization is The Partnership Funds. I took that really seriously as a title. What partnership means to me is that you and I are eye-to-eye, whether I have more money than you or not.” 

Going forward, there’s an opportunity for all funders, and the entire philanthropic sector, to continue to examine the relationships between and among grantors and grantees as we work to build a more equitable future. 

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