Riding in a long, yellow school bus, Marguerite Casey Foundation (MCF) board members began their Sunday morning with a tour of Little Haiti, 3.5 square miles comprising the oldest neighborhood of people of Haitian descent in Florida — and one of the largest communities of Haitians in the U.S.
Joining them on this tour was Boukman Mangones, a Haitian-American architect, who spent the tour educating them about the fight to preserve Little Haiti’s heritage and combat the efforts of real estate developers who could displace the community. The group was also accompanied by Marleine Bastien, the founder and executive director of Family Action Network Movement (FANM), a Marguerite Casey Foundation grantee since 2016.
Marleine met the board for the first time that day, opening up her organization to ensure that funders know the struggles low-income Haitian families experience daily. When the bus tour ended, board members spent the afternoon in FANM’s office — joined by four other grantees — grappling with many of the issues troubling the community, including gentrification, climate change, and immigration.
For MCF, an organization that exists to help low-income families strengthen their voice and mobilize their communities to achieve a more just and equitable society for all, meetings like this remove “living in poverty” from the sterility of statistics.
Implemented in 2002 with a visit to Community Coalition in South Los Angeles — a grantee the foundation continues to provide with sizeable, long-term, general operating support — these “on-the-ground” board meetings have become something the MCF board does quarterly. Through opportunities like this, the board has developed a culture that is inquisitive, principled, and clear on priorities. Board members understand that families know what is best for their communities and grantee organizations best know how to empower those families.
“MCF site visits provide board members with an extraordinary level of engagement and interaction with organizers, leaders, and families most directly affected by the issues,” said Rami Nashashibi, a board member for MCF. “I’ve had the honor of working closely with many foundations across the country for over 25 years, and I’ve never witnessed a board as committed to hearing from and responding to its grantees as I have with my dynamic colleagues at the Marguerite Casey Foundation.”
The foundation’s two-day board meetings focus on learning and directly engaging with the communities where families live and grantees do their work.
Sunday is spent with grantees, families, and issue experts in the field. This way, board members learn about grantees and their constituents firsthand, rather than from a report. They can ask directly, “what can we do to help?” and “what do we need to know about the issues facing families right now?”
After Sunday’s activities with grantees, Monday begins with a period of reflection about the educational experience, providing the board with time to discuss how to apply the information they heard directly to the foundation’s strategy.
Over the past five years, 91 different grantees have spoken directly with board members at these meetings. On average, the board interacts with five grantees per meeting, ensuring grantees have time to share individual stories while also discussing their collaborations across “equal voice networks” — strategic, cross-issue networks seeded by the foundation. This practice sets MCF apart from the field and leads to the strong foundation-grantee relationships. Grantees have rated MCF in the 85th percentile of foundations in terms of understanding the challenges organizations are facing.
“It is not often that we get to meet with the board of our funders, and it was very powerful to speak to them all,” Marleine said about her experience. “They were able to see firsthand the million things that are important for low- to moderate-income families but that cannot fit in a grant. And most importantly, they heard it directly from the members themselves. Members welcome them, share their stories and their hopes, and discuss how FANM continues to make an impact on their lives.”
These opportunities aren’t just for new grantees, either. Over the past five years, 29 percent of grantees participating in board meetings have received grants for at least 14 years. For those organizations, there is an additional benefit of participating in these meetings — they can show how campaigns have evolved over time; board members see firsthand the shifts in families’ landscapes and the impact of long-term organizing and policy advocacy.
In addition to the opportunities given to grantees, the board also creates opportunities to learn from issue experts and connect them to grantees, including authors like Ibram Kendi, who recently joined a meeting to speak about the history of racism in America. The board centers equity in its work, openly engaging in challenging conversations about how best to nurture families at the intersection of race, gender, and poverty.
As a board that is 82 percent people of color — funding organizations of which 86 percent are led by people of color — conversations about diversity and equity aren’t philosophical, they’re personal. The board knows that poverty is about money, but it is also about education, child care, health care, housing, climate change, transportation, jobs, and justice, or the lack thereof. Families experience poverty as an ensnaring web of interrelated issues that radiate from a center of financial insecurity.
Engaging MCF's board of directors in strategic learning allows grantees to take the lead in sharing their innovative strategies and lessons learned. The practice demonstrates a commitment by the foundation to asking the hard questions, and more importantly, to actively listening to the answers.
Key Reasons This Approach Supports MCF's Work:
- Board members are thought leaders and influencers in their fields and have a set of qualities that allows them to understand the context of grantees work.
- The movement building strategy is community driven, not board driven, which creates space for board members to be a part of the conversation as opposed to driving it.
- Grantees partner with foundation staff to put together these on-the-ground educational opportunities for the board. This process lifts up learnings that are beneficial to the board, foundation staff, and grantees.