A Shift in Orientation to Our Community: Perspective from a Place-Based Foundation
by Diana Sieger
A decade ago, a Midwest community foundation colleague invited me to make a presentation to his board of directors. He was looking to inspire them to be more open to new ideas and to consider a more active role in the community. He thought that given the fact that the Grand Rapids Community Foundation had long taken a leadership stance in our area by not shying away from critical issues, that the board would be inspired to be more proactive. Therefore, I was prepared to wow them with a dynamic and informative Power Point with exceptional handouts!
Nothing prepared me for the reaction I received at the end of my presentation. One of the key strategies I noted was “lead significant social change.” After about 30 seconds of uncomfortable silence, a board member piped up and said, “That is so arrogant!” I was speechless. On the plane home, I asked myself, “If not us, then who?” I thought that the Community Foundation was in a perfect position to further social change and didn’t quite understand why that was “arrogant.”
Years later, I realize that there was some truth to what that particular board member stated. Grand Rapids Community Foundation needs to work in collaboration with other organizations and people to affect positive change and create the conditions for change. I have come to the understanding that people dealing with difficult social conditions need to be engaged in how to address the issues.
Taking a Different Path
Grand Rapids Community Foundation has taken a different path in the past two years in terms of how we approach our role and our work in the community. We realized that as the community continued to evolve and change, we needed to seek alignment around who we are, what donors and stakeholders expect of us, and how we can best serve and be in partnership with the community. In addition, we needed to ensure that we were and are making the best use of our resources. We wanted to preserve all the quality and accountability of past and current processes, while creating room for greater responsiveness to change going forward.
The motivation was to shape our foundation into one that is more nimble, more adaptable and more permeable in our relationship to all in the community. We have moved from a traditional strategic planning process to one that yields both a new design and new processes for adapting to change, leadership, allocating resources, and contributing to collective impact in our community.
Working with FSG, a highly regarded mission-driven consulting firm, the Community Foundation embarked on a fascinating journey that has resulted in reimagining how we are distributing our resources and opening up to new audiences. As a place-based foundation, we are operating from the following premise: “Adaptive strategy is a fundamentally different way of thinking that requires shifting from driving change to supporting the conditions for change.”
This is a shift. We are not leading the change solely! Our process is rooted in testing and learning; a static strategic plan does not provide the requisite flexibility. An overarching narrative and various learning agendas offer a roadmap for strategy and priority development to guide our work.
Our North Star
We developed our North Star statement and guiding principles, while also articulating our key roles. As we often note, like any star in the sky, our North Star sits alongside our other stars — our values, our mission and our vision.
Our North Star statement is a powerful guide, and it is “For West Michigan to grow and prosper, we must make sure that everyone can apply their talents and creativity to fuel our future. It is only by connecting across perspectives and overcoming inequities that we can build and sustain an inclusive economy and thriving community.”
We have reoriented the Community Foundation to relate to our community through a lens of equity. We took our North Star statement on the road and sought feedback from many people. One of our guiding principles is to listen to and magnify community voices, ensuring that multiple perspectives are represented. The Community Foundation is fueled by a desire to engage the community in a way we have not before. One way we have done this is by reimagining how we allocate all of our resources, bringing to life our principles and the intention behind the North Star. We have other resources beyond traditional grantmaking that might support the work of achieving equitable outcomes.
Listening to Community
In the spirit of learning from and alongside our community, we partnered with Public Agency, a social impact design studio of the West Michigan Center for Arts and Technology. With them we explored the question, “What essential conditions can the Grand Rapids Community Foundation create that would most effectively support communities facing inequity?” Following various community listening sessions and multiple interviews, we developed a deeper understanding of the tensions that exist in our community.
The five recommendations that Public Agency and our staff team identified to help in assuring that our resource allocation process is in-line with our North Star are:
- Create new ways of listening and co-creating with those closest to the problem.
- Foster honest dialogue about power and systems with all stakeholder groups.
- Balance programming that builds both relationship and data informed impact.
- Help all stakeholders transition from a lens of charity to justice.
- Look to push decisions to those as close to the issue with a full view of the problem.
This is a new approach to how we do our work. We are more intentional than ever before about building strong relationships and working in true partnership with all in our community. It has stretched and challenged us in new, exciting and positive ways!
It truly embodies the mindset shift our organization is undertaking. A shift toward becoming a convener, a bridge, a community connector!
We sought the perspectives of community members who gave us an alternative way of positioning our role in addressing needs. The North Star requires us to build connections and collaborate in ways we have not in the past. Therefore, instead of jumping into the development of a single project or designing a program with little or no input from community, we took a Design Thinking approach that garnered several prototypes around “how might we” questions.
“How might we be in better relationship with community?” and “How might we help grassroots organizations multiply their impact?”
The key thing was identifying individuals that would offer the most insight into the frictions and hurdles of prior processes, outside perspectives, and opportunities to create new connections. Six tensions were identified as a result of interviews and meetings with our community advisors. A bias towards larger organizations and a lack of resources for grassroots efforts are two of the tensions identified. A number of approaches and prototypes to address these tensions have been developed for testing.
Our First Prototype
Currently we are testing one of the prototypes, which was determined to be the most effective in the short-term for impact and feasibility. A group of Challenge Scholars students, parents, school staff, and community members were convened to talk about student success. We listened, and through a co-creation process, the Challenge Scholars Dream Fund launched. It offers financial support to individuals, groups or organizations bringing to life new ideas and projects in schools and in the community that will accelerate student success. More on this effort is found at challengescholars.org/dream-fund.
Grand Rapids Community Foundation is shifting. We are moving from an arrogant approach to one where we are collaborating and listening to community voices to help create positive and sustainable change. We are excited to journey toward new prototypes, understanding that these iterative processes allow us to better engage with community. Our North Star guides us in our adaptive search for new ways to build an inclusive economy and thriving community for all in West Michigan.
Diana Sieger is the President of the Grand Rapids Community Foundation in Grand Rapids, Mich. She is responsible for the Community Foundation’s leadership, management, strategic planning and development. In her 30+ years as President of Foundation, Diana has actively engaged in efforts to significantly grow the Foundation’s resources and she has fearlessly moved forward to address key issues. She is an effective community, statewide and national leader in community problem solving, policy development and advocacy. Diana has been honored with numerous awards, including the 2014 Athena Award and the Tribute Award. She was named one of the 100 Most Influential Women in Michigan by Crain’s Detroit.