Leaders across our sector discuss disruption to transformation in philanthropy

By Soon-Young Oh

In January, hundreds of MCF members convened for the annual MCF conference, with the theme “disruption to transformation” in mind. Kicking off the conference, the State of Philanthropy panel brought into focus what disruption looks like and discussed how our sector turns disruption into transformation. Panelists, which included Jen Ford Reedy of the Bush Foundation, Matt Varilek of the Initiative Foundation, MayKao Y. Hang of the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation, and Suzanne Koepplinger of the Minneapolis Foundation, all brought up fantastic examples and strategies for contending with both positive and negative disruptions.

Each panelist had some insights, advice and perspectives on turning disruption into transformation. In 40 minutes, a lot was packed in - certainly more than what will be listed here - but by panelist, here are some highlights:

Jen Ford Reedy, President of the Bush Foundation:
Parsing out when philanthropy causes disruption that makes a positive difference versus a negative one was well said by Reedy. “I do think disruption is a pretty core part of life for I suspect almost all of us who are working in philanthropy. I don’t think there are many of us here who got into this field because we really wanted to work hard to keep the status quo.” Within the Bush Foundation, Reedy said they ask whether they are causing disruptions and stirring things up where people can proactively and productively handle such disruptions, or she poses the question, “Are you bomb throwing and causing chaos?” As an example, Bush is thinking differently on education. They’re working toward individualizing education around students. They’re trying to intentionally disrupt the system but only move as fast as change can be supported within the system. Reedy stressed that there needs to be capacity for people to do well with any given disruption. “Have you really done your homework to learn from past experiences? Seen what else works in the world? Is there ownership within that community where disruption is taking place?” Reedy asks. In a world where there is disruption all around us, the responsibility of foundations to their communities can feel overwhelming. There are far more issues to work on than any one of us can handle. “That’s a reality of our life. How do you process that? One must be aware of all the needs and all we are not doing, but still find a strategy they can feel great about to make an impact in the world.”

MayKao Y. Hang, President of the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation:
People often think it takes a lot of money to create systems change. It does take some money, but often it’s more important to understand how a particular community works and use our social and reputational capital to help lead the change process. Hang cited the success of the Coalition of Asian American Leaders (CAAL), which was a grassroots process that was designed to engage with the Asian Pacific Islander (API) community in Minnesota. CAAL went from two people to 2,000 in less than four years. CAAL is changing educational policy and economic policy. Hang stressed that sometimes a little bit of money, mobilizing people at a grassroots level, and convening experts can create massive change. Additionally, Hang values passing the work onto the next generation, providing the example that Margie Andreason of the Northwest Area Foundation is now the Board Chair of CAAL. Getting out of the way and letting the next generation take on leadership is critical to moving a community in the right direction. Specific to the work being done at Wilder, Hang talked about how she approaches the many grand ideas that come her way. She asks people, “Is it grounded in research? Is it grounded in practice? Who else is doing it? And how will the community be better because this idea was implemented? If people can’t answer all of these questions, they need to go back and re-design.”

Matt Varilek, President of the Initiative Foundation:
Helping private sector businesses work to fulfill the American dream is part of what the Initiative Foundation does in the greater St. Cloud area. East African entrepreneurs with great ambition and entrepreneurial experience, but perhaps not in the context of Minnesota, is an example of what Varilek’s team at the Initiative Foundation is doing with their Enterprise Academy Program. Varilek emphasized that they could have “…sat back and hatched a program that we thought would be just what that community needed, but we’re not of that community.” Varilek fully admits it involved going to meetings, asking questions, making mistakes, having awkward moments, and sometimes getting talked to on the side to realize they were on the wrong track, but showing up repeatedly and establishing relationships. Varilek commented that establishing trust meant that with time, open conversations took place and they agreed to use the Neighborhood Development Center’s model. Varilek reflected, “Ultimately we settled on something folks were excited about, and then it was a question of executing. Through that messy process of consultation and listening, we knew we were on the right track.”

Suzanne Koepplinger, Director of the Catalyst Initiative at The Minneapolis Foundation:
Suzanne brought up how resilience means that to be effective, we have to invest in the ability to take care of our people. “This idea that 72 hour work weeks are the norm, and hey — I’m on call 24/7 — that’s not a healthy work environment for anybody. We’ve somehow standardized it and normalized it.” The Catalyst Initiative is working on shifting these social norms so that teams and staff are prioritized so they can be more reflective and better problem solvers. Being constantly in the reactive zone does nobody any good. Additionally, Koepplinger emphasized that philanthropic work means using a qualitative approach in addition to numeric measurements. “Hear their stories. The need to understand impact requires a bigger and broader lens,” she said. A huge example that many funders are aware of is the Wall of Forgotten Natives, a mostly Native homeless camp in Minneapolis. Many of those people are now at the Navigation Center – a place designed for 120 people but 150 people are living there. On May 31, 2019, they are supposed to leave this space. Getting to the deeper issue, Koepplinger has talked to the elders in the Native community and they have said, “This is about our historic trauma - the trauma in our people that has not been allowed to heal fully. Until we can get to that space, we’re going to continue to have these symptoms of the trauma keep showing up.” Koepplinger commented that these elders need support to do healing work. But who is funding them to do this work both inside and outside of the 501(c)(3) organizational box? “We have to think about the urgency of now and the next 7 generations,” Koepplinger summarized.

MCF Board Chair — Kim Borton of the InFaith Community Foundation, reflected on the State of Philanthropy panel and commented, “I’m inspired by the reminder from MayKao Hang that philanthropy is the ‘market of love.’ It’s in this sector of love where our productive work of disruption leads to a more just society and productive economy. The notion of disruption focused on conditions endemic to the root causes of the problem is grounded in the work that each of us do every day in areas of education, human services, homelessness, and the like. By asking ourselves how our community investments productively disrupt the root cause of the problem, and following through on that promise, we can create a more equitable Minnesota.”

MCF members know that there is often frustration in moving the needle forward. Minnesota has work to do to reduce disparities and move toward a more thriving state where every neighborhood and community experiences positive transformation. Hopefully the panelists’ examples and words of advice and wisdom can inspire us to continue to work toward the common good each and every day.

Soon-Young is a senior communication and media specialist for MCF. She credits long walks, sufficient vitamin D, and matcha for fueling her creativity and energy as a nonprofit employee in the Minneapolis area.