Racial Equity - Funders for LGBTQ Issues
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Everyone learns along the way

For the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan, launching an initiative to better support local LGBTQ people of color organizations sparked learning among everyone involved: staff members, trustees and ultimately, the entire community. Senior Program Officer Katie Brisson discusses this initiative.

Tell me about the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan. What does it fund? What is its vision for the community?

The Community Foundation, now 25 years old, is a permanent community endowment working to improve the quality of life in the seven counties of southeast Michigan. Our endowment is essentially a collection of hundreds of individual funds, established by generous donors, corporations and local and national foundations for a wide variety of purposes. By placing these funds together under one roof, these community members are able to leverage their dollars and interests and make significant investments in the region.

Our region is diverse and varied, encompassing thousands of institutions who work on a wide range of issues. Therefore, the Foundation's grantmaking programs generally support collaborative thinking and learning to promote quality, innovation and synergy among all sectors, from environmental to entrepreneurism to health and human services.

When did the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan begin funding LGBT issues? Why was The HOPE Fund established?

The first LGBT grant from a competitive fund at the Foundation can be traced back to 1993. Affirmations Community Center applied for and received a grant for a leadership development program for young people in the LGBT community.

It was about a year later that The HOPE Fund was formed, thanks to a matching grant opportunity from Funders for LGBTQ Issues (then known as the National Gay and Lesbian Community Funding Partnership.) A terrific team of local LGBT leaders came together to help the Community Foundation raise the match. These leaders then helped to put the HOPE Fund Development and Grant committees in place to help build and oversee The HOPE Fund once it was established.

Is there a specific success story from this time period that foundation leaders still reference?

The thing that seemed to please people most about this period was the willingness of the Community Foundation trustees to include HOPE in its family of funds. Keep in mind that our foundation has a powerful group of roughly 50 Trustees from a number of key institutions in the region. No one knew 15 years ago how they would feel about starting a fund for the LGBT community. The delightful twist was that there was no disagreement among the board members. They recognized immediately that if the Community Foundation is designed to serve the whole community, then that must—and should—include the LGBT community.

Please describe your role at the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan.

As a member of our Community Investment team, I help to manage the grantmaking processes of a number of different funds housed at the Foundation. Each fund has its own unique characteristics, based on how the donor wanted it structured. For example, I have worked with a team of doctors who review applications to our J.P. McCarthy Fund for blood disorder research... and with local auto dealers who review proposals to the Detroit Auto Dealers Charitable Fund for youth just to name a couple. I also continually work proactively with new donors, including individuals, businesses and national foundations, to create new funds at the Foundation, which expand key areas of our work and bring additional dollars to our region.

So, The HOPE Fund is one of many funds here that I work with, which is nice, because then it is put in the context of the greater community, not just the LGBT community. I must say, though, of all my responsibilities, HOPE is a particular joy to help manage—mainly because HOPE has two extraordinary committees: one to oversee grantmaking and one to oversee development. I have the pleasure of working with these committees, reviewing grant applications and helping to inform their decision-making. I also work with nonprofit organizations who want to apply for funds from HOPE in developing their applications. The nice thing about having the responsibility of HOPE as part of a larger profile is that we have been able to leverage additional funds at the foundation for projects in the LGBT community.

In 2007, your foundation was one of eight community foundations nationwide that received funding from Funders for LGBTQ Issues to better support LGBTQ people of color organizations. Why did the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan apply for this funding?

The Community Foundation has had a long-time interest in building the capacity of LGBT organizations of color yet has encountered many barriers in being able to offer support; most of these organizations have significant capacity issues and have been unfortunately declined for grants from The HOPE Fund because of these struggles.

We had reported this concern to Funders for LGBTQ Issues when they were undergoing their strategic planning process, and I know many others across the country did as well. And so, we were delighted when this opportunity was offered by Funders for LGBTQ Issues. It has given us the support to do the intense one-on-one work with the organizations to become more competitive for funding. It has also given us the funds to make grants specifically for capacity and leadership building of this important community.

As the Racial Equity Initiative has developed, what specific changes have you seen in the community? How have LGBTQ people of color organizations and individuals been changed?

While I think that the grant funds are nice—and needed!—I think the more powerful piece has been the exposure to the bigger community, and the bridging that this project has helped to create. For example, the Community Foundation trustees and HOPE Fund leaders all see the applications and grants that come through this fund, so they are being educated about the organizations and the community. The LGBT community itself is being educated on the work of these important people of color organizations as we have tried to get some coverage in the local LGBT newspaper. Conversely, LGBT people of color organizations have been exposed to a myriad of training opportunities through the partnership with the Community Foundation.

Is there a grantee organization or POC leader that you believe best embodies the vision of the Racial Equity Initiative?

That is a hard question. There are so many wonderful leaders and organizations that we have been able to work with because of this project. I guess, though, I would like to mention Karibu House, and their Board Chair Reynaldo Magdaleno, as good examples. Technically, Karibu House is not yet a grantee of the Racial Equity Initiative, but they have been a full partner. In the first year of the project, we did not make grants. Rather, we encouraged the organizations to go through an intense capacity-building training program for nonprofits, offered by a partner of ours, an organization called New Detroit. The idea was that once the organizations went through the training, they would have a better idea of what to apply to us for.

In the case of Karibu House, which aims to be a community center for all LGBT people of color, several of their leaders attended the series of New Detroit trainings. They even received a special grant from New Detroit to recognize their stellar participation. As they have sought to explore ideas of building bridges between the different LGBT POC organizations, whether that is sharing space or ideas, the Community Foundation has offered them additional resources, trainings and introductions to other local nonprofit leaders who have tried similar ideas with different kinds of organizations. Rey and his fellow board members have soaked it all up, and the organization decided to wait a year to apply to the Racial Equity Initiative so that they could be more thoughtful about their proposal, which shows such responsibility as a board. Rey is the first one to tell you that they have already greatly benefited from this project whether or not they receive a grant or not. It's about making the connection and having an umbrella under which everyone is charged with getting to know each other better and figuring out how to help each other. That is the most important point to this whole project. It has given the foundation three years to build these relationships. The grant resources will now be important to build so we can continue to help these organizations in the future as they are ready and eager to grow.

How has your foundation's outlook changed since it began this initiative?

Mainly, this has served as a clear reminder of what we have to keep learning again and again. And that is, that there are lessons to be learned from across the nonprofit sector. People like to put themselves in boxes of "LGBT organization" or "advocacy organization" or "arts organization" and often feel that they can only learn from organizations with similar missions. But in fact, there are huge lessons to be learned from organizations that have been a similar size and grown successfully, regardless of the focus of their work. I think housing this initiative at the Community Foundation, which is "mainstream" or not specific to the LGBT community, has provided a great richness of partnerships and connections, which are good for everybody involved. Seeing the rich outcomes of this gives us at the Foundation more pressure to keep doing this kind of bridging work.

Finally, what advice would you give to a grantmaker who's interested in exploring funding to LGBTQ communities of color?

I would say that what we have learned here is an important reminder of what we have learned in other projects. Whatever community you are seeking to serve, it is imperative to first include the leaders of that community from day one in your planning process. In our case, we brought together five or six key LGBT leaders of color when we were first writing our proposal for this project. That initial meeting was an imperative step to show that the Foundation wanted to work together with community leaders to serve the interests of everyone involved.

Second, there is no easy route to building relationships. True relationships take a significant investment of time and energy. But, once they are built, the outcomes can be very exciting. Finally, in the role of a funder it is, of course, essential to build a corpus and be able to make grants as a "carrot" to the work. But, money should just be a piece. I really believe we have as much to offer in connecting people and interests and ideas as much as giving out cash.

Katie Brisson, Senior Program Officer, Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan (Detroit, MI)

Katie Brisson is the Senior Program Officer for the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan (based in Detroit, Michigan), where she manages a number of grantmaking programs that focus on a wide range of issues, including the HOPE Fund, which has existed since 1994 to strengthen southeast Michigan’s LGBT community.

Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan

Watch a video about the foundation's initiative