Reflections on Launching a Philanthropic Fund in Six Months

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Reflections on Launching a Philanthropic Fund in Six Months
By Monica Munn, Senior Director, WES Mariam Assefa Fund

Earlier this month, the WES Mariam Assefa Fund, a $30 million philanthropic initiative of World Education Services (WES), awarded over $1.2 million in funding to five inaugural grantee partners: The Beeck Center for Social Impact and Innovation, Jobs for the Future, Mission Driven Finance, Upwardly Global, and the Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians. All are U.S. organizations working to support immigrant and refugee workers and build a more inclusive economy for all. 

We awarded these grants a short three months after the fund launched, and just six months into my tenure at WES. The process has been fascinating, filled with countless choices on who we want to be, how we want to do our work, and what impact we hope our efforts will have. Along the way, I have captured and codified a few of the lessons I learned since we began our efforts to ensure that immigrants and refugees have access to meaningful work. 
Lesson 1: Get clear on the values that will drive your work and shape your impact.

Our fund was seeded with $30 million, which is both a significant amount of money—and a drop in the proverbial bucket. That’s why one of my first tasks when I joined the fund was to articulate—in partnership with our board of directors, my colleagues, and trusted external consultants at Arabella Advisors—the core values that would drive our efforts, for instance, orienting the work to learning and committing to transparency. These and other values inform the type of funder we aspire to be, shape the funding practices we adopt, and begin to set the parameters for interventions we might fund. 

Lesson 2: Build on what you know.

Since 1974, WES research, programs, products, and tools have helped millions of international professionals and students achieve their academic and professional goals in the U.S. and Canada. The strategies the fund has chosen to explore in the near-term are a direct reflection of WES’ 45 years of experience and countless conversations with our partners. This strong foundation enabled the fund to rapidly identify challenges facing organizations in the field, practices that hold the potential for scale, and broader trends – in workforce development, finance, social innovation, and more – that may accelerate progress in the immigrant integration field. 

Lesson 3: Prioritize learning.

The WES Mariam Assefa Fund adopted a “learning by doing” approach for our first year. We hope that, by orienting our early grantmaking to learning, we will be able to be nimble and allow learning from our initial grants to inform our longer-term goals and theory of change. One trade-off is that a “learning by doing” approach can create ambiguity for those seeking to partner with us. We heard from some of our grant applicants that additional clarity on the fund’s long-term areas of focus would have helped them better understand how their organization’s work aligned with the fund.

Lesson 4: Make space for divergent viewpoints.

Our board members, colleagues, and the team at Arabella Advisors we worked with all played important challenge functions as we developed the fund’s learning agenda and grantmaking approach. We set up frequent touch points with these groups to create space for feedback on our evolving thinking. This embrace of challenge, albeit somewhat time-consuming day-to-day, allowed us to leapfrog ahead in the process of refining our initial priorities.

Lesson 5: Take the good and leave the rest.

To get off the ground quickly, we worked hard to leverage existing equity-driven funding practices and tools while also adapting them to the specific needs of the WES Mariam Assefa Fund and the immigrant and refugee integration field.  To this end, we asked several recurring questions, including:

  • Is this process or tool critical to have in place now, or can it wait?
  • Have we taken into consideration the perspectives and needs of all the fund’s “constituents”? 
  • How will we use the information we’re asking of our applicants and grantees? 

As we go forward, we’ll keep asking questions, finding answers, and seeking input from all corners, especially the Philanthropy New York community. Three questions are top of mind right now:

  • How do we keep the best attributes of our initial approach while expanding our grantmaking? For instance, applicants told us they appreciated one-on-one conversations with the fund team and an office hour call for questions. As we solicit ideas more broadly, how can we maintain a similar level of engagement?
  • How can we set up our grantees for success and ensure that their efforts yield maximal impact? Funders can serve as dot connectors, conveners, knowledge brokers, thought partners, amplifiers, and more. We are asking our grantee partners where we are needed and how we can be most helpful.
  • How can we inclusively develop the fund’s long-term priorities? We’re exploring how to involve our new grantee partners, as well as other trusted advisors, in the process of articulating the fund’s longer-term theory of change. If we see the fund’s role as one of a catalyst in the field, shouldn’t “the field” have an opportunity to weigh in and validate our approach?

WES’ journey to develop its identity as a funder is just beginning. There is much learning ahead as we determine how our fund can best advance the economic integration of immigrants and refugees and what kind of funder we want the WES Mariam Assefa Fund to be. We are committed to sharing what we learn—the good, the bad, and even the ugly—along this journey. 

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