Q&A with Tawanna Black

Tawanna is the executive director for the Northside Funders Group, a collaborative of 19 corporate, community and private foundations and public sector investors committed to aligning investments to catalyze comprehensive, sustainable change in North Minneapolis. Tawanna also lends her expertise to several boards. She serves as the chair of Youthprise Board of Directors, as co-chair of the African American Leadership Forum, president of the Minneapolis-St. Paul Chapter of The Links, Incorporated, and as a trustee of the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota Board of Directors. In 2014, Tawanna was named a 2014 Bush Fellow.

Tawanna talked with the Minnesota Council on Foundations this past summer about the Northside Funders Group and their partnership with Minneapolis


Giving Forum: Can you talk us through where the Northside Funders Group is currently in their partnership with the City of Minneapolis and how you got there?
When Northside Funders Group started and really gelled together as a formal funder collaborative in 2013, the foundation members knew that they couldn't move the needle in North Minneapolis with a place-based strategy without also thinking about how to shift the work and the approach of public sector funders. So, we broke the traditional funder collaborative approach by inviting the city of Minneapolis, Hennepin county, and the state of Minnesota to be members of Northside funders group.

Because our framework is changing the way philanthropy works, we invited them in not just from a policy perspective but invited them to think about how their grantmaking, the contracts they put out, the investments that they make into communities to see change in communities, how those might be thought about differently alongside foundations in philanthropy to produce different results in North Minneapolis.

How significant a factor in building a partnership with the city was the fact that Northside Funders Group brought its own resources to invest?
Our members invest about 15 to 17 million dollars a year into North Minneapolis. The fact that you have that investment and that we're not walking away, we've got foundation members who are saying we're going to stay here but we want to get bigger impact certainly brought some leverage. I think our framework, though, also brought a fresh lens.

We have four levers of our work. Learn, Leverage, Influence, and Invest. All of it with the lens of changing the way philanthropy works. We were able to ask the city of Minneapolis to tell us how we can use the influence of philanthropy to help them move the needle. Whether that is moving the needle inside your department, moving the needle between yourselves and the North Minneapolis community, moving the needle between a department and a city council leader or the mayor and city council. That opened up a completely new set of ideas and possibilities between funders and the city that I don't think any of us envisioned when we started that work.


Can you speak to how you've kept sustainability in mind in this specific work and how you think people do or don't understand how to embed sustainability in the work that they're doing?
I think sustainability is hard for all of us. As much as we talk about it, I don't think there's a sector that has figured it out really well. The average funder collaborative has a sunset date that it establishes up front. If we look at our parallels of other funder groups like the Central Corridor Funders Collaborative or MSPWin, they've typically set either a 7 or 10 year sunset date. As a place-based funder collaborative, we didn't have that. Because we're not issue based. It's not a project, it's a community. The issues that we're addressing didn't happen over 7 or 10 years so we won't work our way out of them in 7 or 10 years. So we don't have that sunset date.

In this case, the promise zone is a 10 year designation. They're saying we're going to give you 10 years of extra points to be able to compete for federal grants in your community. Which means you need to be able to leverage those with local grants and local investment. It causes all of us to take that step back and say 'let's stop thinking about a one year program, a two year strategy, a two year grant that might be renewable. And start thinking about how we build structures for long term impact.

When you're working with the community, I wonder how you’re able to message around people wanting to see something happen right now. How do you keep them invested in these big, longer-term ideas?
I think a big key to all of that is relationship. People believe people they trust. If the messages comes that you can't see change right now but trust me it's happening, well I can only trust you if I've had a relationship that I can believe you.

Every time that we convene community partners we have a set of three rules that we call out each time called Together In Learning. We acknowledge the power dynamic that exists in philanthropy. We call out that I know I got the checkbook so when I call a meeting you show up. And you come both wanting to pitch your newest idea that you need money for and wanting to please me and hear what my objectives are so you can spin it to that. And we suspend that.

We give nonprofits the ability to call us out when we start talking funder speak, when we start zeroing in on our priorities instead of being true co-creators. And we give funders and peer nonprofit leaders the authority to call themselves out to say we'll you're just pitching right now. Let's all get together, hold hands and be true co-creators. I think that space builds partners that has allowed the community to tell us things that I'm told they would never tell philanthropy, typically.

No new program is going to necessarily fall from the sky that is different and unique enough to produce different results. It's got to be us acting differently, us doing our work differently. And that only comes when there's enough trust to call out what we're doing today that isn't working and enough trust to stay at the table and work one on one, work together, to see all of us make some changes that then lead to that sustainability.


That version of accountability sounds really powerful. But it also sounds scary, because you can look foolish and make mistakes. Are there ways that people can try to do that more if they're not used to the discomfort with doing that kind of work? Are there ways that people can pitch that idea to their leadership and frame it as an actual thing that can be implemented?
I think... if funders could think about a small group—who are those core partners, those core community champions and leaders and advocates with whom you've already had some relationship. They know you already. There's a nonprofit blog I read some time ago that said 'foundations, we already know your dirt so stop being scared to be real with us. We already know. We talk about it when you're not in the room.' If you can find that small group who already know your struggles, they've worked with you long enough that you can come in and be a little vulnerable and say 'what would it look like if we did our work differently.' What does it look like when we think we've done it well? Give them some examples of what you think you did well.

We've done that here at Northside Funders Group. We had several of our members give us a list of community partners that they thought they had trusting relationships with. And our racial equity specialist went out and met with those partners and asked questions like, 'here are examples of when philanthropy thought they really got it right concerning racial equity. What did it feel like for you,' with the full ability for them to be completely honest. We heard sometimes when we did get it right. And other times when they said, 'you know that tour that you thought was so great, it actually cost us a weeks worth of work and you sent us a $500 stipend and then you sent us a requirement for some report two weeks later as though we didn't lose a week's worth of work.'

That's the nitty gritty stuff that doesn't come in a grant report. But that's the thing that helps you stop and say wait a minute, this great solution that I came up with that I thought was helping actually hurt. Or this new set of metrics that I developed and asked everybody to report on thinking it would help them get evaluation really hurt them in their evaluation efforts. Getting to that point with a small group, I think every funder has some small group of people that they could get that more authentic, more vulnerable relationship and lean in to. For those who ask how they can convince their leaders to take the risk of we might look bad, we might make mistakes. I would erase the “might” and say we are going to look bad at some point. We are going to make mistakes because we're human, so let's add the humanity back in and not be afraid of that. And say that if we're not getting the results we want right now, isn't it worth it to just try something. worst case scenario we do no better than we are right now. We're all comfortable with that.

We at Northside Funders Group have made mistakes. We've had meetings where a member wasn't fully versed in our way of doing things and came with the traditional privilege of philanthropy and it landed wrong. And we had open conversations with our grantee partners about that. How did that feel? That felt biased. That felt racist, sometimes. That felt very subjective. It felt like a set up.

It's been a tremendous learning journey for our members and the folks in our foundations who are there. And they've then started carrying that back into their foundations. Once you have the lens removed, once the blinders are off, they're off for good.

While our members are here at NFG's table, our members fund all over the state. And they don't just fund our three focus areas. They fund arts and health and other things. But once those blinders are off, it's an opportunity for impact across your entire portfolio.


Can you talk about where you think we are right now, with equity and change, and how you see that going? What is the state of equity in philanthropy?
I moved here six years ago and my first consulting contract was with the Minnesota Council on Foundations to work on a study on diversity and inclusion. It was a five-year study that the council had been doing for some time. That was the first year that we added the qualitative analysis and the focus groups with communities of color and LBGTQ employees at foundations. It was the first time that we did CEO interviews about their thoughts and views on where the field of philanthropy stood in relation to diversity and inclusion. And it was the first time that we asked some tougher questions about actual measurement.

I think back to the conversations we had with foundations back then. The fear that existed within the field about, whoa, those are different questions, why are you asking me those questions. Fast forward six years later and equity is talked about daily within the field of philanthropy. It's a constant, it's a daily with the public sector, within the private sector. I think we've all gotten to the place and said enough is enough, we can't have this.

That said, for the field of philanthropy, that privilege is still carrying a heavy weight around our necks. We're still used to doing things the way that we're used to doing things. Our leadership structures are not much more diverse now than they were fifteen or twenty years ago. So that diversity of thought that comes from racial communities, racially diverse communities, is still missing from our strategy.

So, while I would give us a B+ for intentionality around language. And a B+ for intentionality around research and having a lot more conversation about it. We’re further behind in the area where we get to a point and then say our grant perimeters only fund education, we don’t fund racial equity, we don’t fund racial justice. We're nowhere near having those conversations where we see the intersections of day to day decisions and how they lead to inequities.

We're still searching for the shiny object, for the newest strategy that's going to get us out of decades worth of disinvestment, disenfranchisement and racism. We're still searching for it as if there's some magic puzzle piece that we just haven't found. Instead of realizing that it's the day to day decisions, it's the day to day conversations that we have, it's the day to day investments that we make and those we don't make that really begin to move the needle. It's the day to day ability to see the intersections of our work and how they land in communities, low income communities of color in particular. On that piece I think we're still far off from that B+.

I hope that we have the patience and the endurance as a field to be able to go the distance. I'm encouraged by the national effort that was done to look at hope in our communities and to take racial equity on from a visible stand point. To put an ad out, to start having foundations putting stories on their websites about their grantees and the great work they're doing. But when I look at a handful of foundations in other parts of the country who are really trying to lock arms, a few who have put their traditional portfolio priorities aside and said this issue of inequity is way too big for us not to be all in on it, I'm waiting for that shining light in Minnesota.

I don't think it has to be one big foundation. There are many who could come together and leverage their resources. If not an entire portfolio, half or a third, together would be able to say we want to see drastically different results in low income communities of color. And we want to see those things happen now. Not in 20 years. We don't want to study it for the next five years. We want to see it happen now. Let's lock arms and make that happen. I'm hopeful.

I don't want my critique to sound like I don't think it's possible. I am hopeful. But I feel like the urgency has to get there and it has to get there not just when there's major pain and loss in our communities. Because the loss we've experienced, the pain we've experienced is significant. But it shouldn't take that. The stats alone, the children alone, the adults alone, the families alone, our neighborhoods, our division alone should be enough to prompt us to have that sense of urgency.

Find out more about Northside Funders by going to northsidefunders.org