SECF's Philanthropy Essentials Guides Theory Through Conversation

Last year, fresh off my third board meeting as a program officer for the James Graham Brown Foundation, I jumped on a plane to Durham, North Carolina, for what I hoped would be a comprehensive orientation to the philanthropic sector at SECF's revamped Philanthropy Essentials training. I had already heard great things about the program's predecessor, Essential Skills & Strategies, and was thrilled to mute my email and be immersed in an experience the SECF team built from the ground up.

Upon arriving at the Durham Arts Center, it was clear I was in a for a transformative two days. Along with a beautiful backdrop, I met my Philanthropy Essentials cohort, which included both staff and trustees of foundations from across the region, from Little Rock to Richmond. One of my peers had been on the job for seven weeks -- another had worked in the sector for 13 years.

Together, we ventured into the many complex aspects of philanthropy. Along the way, we collected a wealth of resources, held space for uncomfortable, but necessary, conversations, and set intentions for how we aimed to influence and grow through the work that we are so privileged to do.

"As the South goes, so goes the nation"

James Gore of the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation shared this W.E.B. DuBois quote with us at the start of our learning to frame our first session: Philanthropy & the Southern Landscape. I appreciated the reminder that while the South is often unfairly labeled as "backward," it holds a unique position of power and influence. 

The South accounted for nearly half of U.S. population growth between 1970 and 2016, one of many facts we learned from Philanthropy as the South's Passing Gear: Fulfilling the Promise, a resource with an abundance of data that sheds light on many of the trending topics in the philanthropic sector, including diversity, equity, poverty, access to health care, access to and quality of education, and more. 

This data was eye-opening and led us to a rich conversation around the language used to describe residents living in the communities that we all serve, including the benefits of deficit-based language versus people-first language -- for example, using "youth in high-risk situations" versus "at-risk youth." This small but subtle distinction serves as a reminder that the beneficiaries of our philanthropic capital are not defined by their circumstances. It is our responsibility to support their growth through not just our capital, but also our discourse.

"If it were my money…"

The technical learning continued with sessions on Law, Ethics, Finance, and Due Diligence. Our instructors, Brad Ridlehoover of McGuire Woods LLP and Renee Macon from The Cannon Foundation, made these often overwhelming topics consumable. The case studies they used painted a picture of just how amorphous challenges in the field can be. Each speaker reinforced guidance I received from our president and CEO, Mason Rummel, during my first weeks on the job: Conceptualize our foundation's assets as if they were my own to manage. 

I took away the lesson that I should not expect perfection from grantees. Rather, it was a challenge to be a true partner to them by building an authentic and trusting relationship and then leaning on that connection to work with them over the arc of their proposals and funded projects. This approach leaves an open door for requests that could be fear-inducing otherwise, like "Tell me your biggest fears about moving forward", "Is leadership being paid at market rate", and "How can we (the foundation) make our process better?" 

"Iron sharpens iron, but not without friction"

Day two of the training provided an opportunity for us to focus on the more human-centric elements of our work. 

Tina Markanda (The Foundation for a Healthy High Point) facilitated discussions around the considerations that impact meaningful grantee engagement. Wendi G. Everson (Danville Regional Foundation) led us through the unique ways foundations can apply their abundance of non-financial capital to the communities they serve. Finally, Danielle Breslin (Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina Foundation) guided us in reflecting on our time together and how it would support our future growth in the field. 

Discussions of common challenges led the conversation to how each of us could contribute to advancing equity given our positions. We acknowledged that the conversation, while deep, took us out of our comfort zones and required a level of vulnerability not common when talking to someone you've only known for 48 hours. 

One classmate shared a phrase from their religious practice: "Iron sharpens iron, but not without friction." In other words, the friction we encounter when we experience discomfort and vulnerability ultimately sharpens our philanthropic toolkits and shapes us into more effective practitioners of equitable philanthropy. 

As our experience wrapped up, we all shared one parting thought. Mine was to be known as a person who speaks up. Foundations inherently exist to foster progress alongside their target geographies, issues, or constituencies who are driving toward meaningful outcomes. To me, collaborating to discover and navigate the path toward that progress is the most crucial element of this work, and it will be necessary to opt-in to the conversations that will challenge the status quo and unlock paths toward exponential impact.

While the work to be done is daunting, I am inspired by the vast potential I discovered to help guide me along the way thanks to the experience and connections that Philanthropy Essentials provided!

Philanthropy Essentials will be offered twice this year -- February 12-13 in Atlanta and August 26-27 in Memphis, Tennessee. You can sign up for the February program now! Registration for the August program will open after Memorial Day.

Kelsie Smithson is a program officer at the James Graham Brown Foundation.


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