Building Trust and Following the Field
By Andrea Fionda, Director of Programs, The Jacob & Valeria Langeloth Foundation. This article was originally published by The Center for Effective Philanthropy on January 30, 2020.
One of the primary ways the staff at the Jacob & Valeria Langeloth Foundation would describe ourselves and how we work is that we “follow the field.” We pride ourselves on the fact that we are non-directive funders — we would never dictate to a grantee what they should do or how they should do it. While we like to think of ourselves as immersed in the work that we fund and knowledgeable about the fields in which we operate, we understand that our knowledge only goes so far, and that those who are working on the ground will always have a greater depth and understanding of what their work — and the movements in which it’s situated — needs to thrive.
While the Foundation has always operated with this premise of following the field as our guide, our approach to what that should look like has changed over the last few years. As a national funder that does not support local efforts except through funder collaboratives, we have had to be deliberate in our grantmaking as to what will have the most impact. Despite our two focus areas both disproportionately impacting communities of color (Justice Reform, which focuses on ending the use of solitary confinement, and Safe and Healthy Communities, which focuses on urban gun violence prevention), we looked at the organizations that we had been funding and realized that they were, almost without exception, led by white people.
The work of these white-led organizations is contributing to meaningful change. Yet, there is no substitute for the nuance, passion, and insight that comes from when the work is personal. After we came to this realization, we intentionally sought out organizations that are led by and serving people of color. This shift supports the work of those who are closest to the problem in identifying and implementing the solutions they believe have the greatest potential for change.
This intentional shift has deepened our grantmaking by lifting up voices with lived experience, supporting field-building opportunities for people who are directly impacted, and working to change the often dangerous and misguided narratives that permeate thinking on both the justice system and urban gun violence. It has also led us to support organizations that have historically been passed over by some funders.
Following the field also means putting complete trust in the organizations we fund to know what they need in terms of staff, strategy, and direction — and understanding that the direction sometimes needs to change. Just like anything else in life, things don’t always go according to plan. We have always understood that paths can radically change along the way, and that budget modifications are often necessary, whether due to delays in hiring, different travel requirements, or any other number of operational considerations. Our position has been that if everything turns out exactly how you stated it would from the beginning, you’re probably not being honest.
But if we truly understood that things can change drastically between the application and implementation phase of the grant, why were we putting any restrictions within particular line items on the funds?
The Foundation’s response to realizing this contradiction has been to make more general operating support grants. After all, if we’ve done our due diligence on a particular applicant, why would we nickel and dime them on particular line items, or be at all prescriptive about what the funds could and could not be used for, as long as it falls within our 501(c)(3) restrictions? Having supported so much work that is operating on a shoestring, if we truly believe in our grantees and the work they do, we should have enough trust that they are going to use the funds in the best way possible. And if we don’t trust them to do that, then we probably shouldn’t be funding them in the first place.
The grantees in the Langeloth Foundation’s portfolio do extremely difficult work in emotionally taxing areas. In order to honor this, we try to create as few administrative hurdles as possible. Once a grant has been given, we are largely hands off and let the organizations do their work.
Working at a Foundation with multi-millions in funds to give out every year comes with tremendous responsibility and privilege. While we might have the upper hand on knowing what might be a good fit for the Foundation at any given time, that is about where our expertise begins and ends. By putting trust and confidence in those we fund, we give them space to do the hard and crucial work.