Los Angeles, California; Baltimore, Maryland; Mobile, Alabama; Rapid City, South Dakota; El Paso, Texas; and Yakima, Washington. These six cities were chosen to reflect a diversity of regional, generational, cultural, ethnic and socioeconomic perspectives. In 2002, as part of our creation, Marguerite Casey Foundation convened listening circles in these six cities to listen to the voices of more than 600 families. The Foundation posed the same three questions in each listening circle:
- What creates strong families and children?
- What would it take to change the systems that have an impact on the lives of families and children?
- How would you leverage $30 million to ensure the well-being of children, families and communities?
Though these six hundred voices spoke of diverse needs, in many ways we discovered they spoke as one. They called for respecting and valuing families; empowering families and holding them at the center of systems of care; promoting grassroots activism and leadership; collaborating across agencies and systems; changing unresponsive policies; and galvanizing public will to support families that help avoid crises and ultimately lead away from dependence on systems.
We didn’t convene listening circles just to check a box of community involvement. Hearing stories and ideas directly from communities allowed us to build a Foundation that challenged preconceived notions about the “best” way to support families and end poverty. What we heard became the framework for the Foundation’s mission and strategy, grounded in listening to communities’ concerns as articulated by community leaders and taking action informed by families’ voices. We committed to Ask, Listen, Act, making it our brand promise, and one of our forms of philanthropic transparency. The Foundation grounds its decisions in what we’ve heard from our constituencies, both grantees and families, and we make our learnings public so that other groups can learn from the work we’ve already done.
Today, Marguerite Casey Foundation’s grantmaking echoes the sentiments heard seventeen years ago. We provide long-term, sizeable multi-year general operating support grants to grassroots activism and advocacy organizations. We invest in Equal Voice networks, regionally and nationally, facilitated by network weavers, who help grantees collaborate across issues, form alliances and bring about long-term change.
Additionally, the Foundation lifts the voices of low-income families to the national dialogue through our Equal Voice News online platform, harnessing the power of storytelling about families leading change in their communities. Program officers, closest to the grantees, connect the Foundation’s communications team to the families on the ground and elevate their experiences so that others can learn from them. For example, in July, the Foundation chronicled a Black farming community in rural Georgia, once thought to be vanishing, but that remains steadfast in its efforts to fight issues of Black land loss and food-related disparities. This story supports the work of Southwest Georgia Project for Community Education, a grantee of the Foundation, serving as a tool in fundraising and in garnering greater media attention.
Ask, Listen, Act allows us to engage the community for both our benefit and for theirs. Its methodology can be seen across the Foundation, including in how we learn from our grantees. Every few years we commission the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP) to conduct a Grantee Perception Report survey of our grantees to assess our impact and interactions. These reports create genuine opportunity for the Foundation to reflect on our strategies and in the past, based on feedback, we identified two key areas to improve: consistency of communications and assistance beyond grant dollars. We created cross-regional teams of Program Officers to ensure that grantees could always reach someone with questions or concerns and provided several grantees in the South with technical assistance funding to grow their financial and governance infrastructures.
We hold ourselves accountable to the six hundred families that came together from across the country in 2002 to help us with our founding. Their unique circumstances and breadth of perspectives continue to be heard today in the communities we serve, shared with us by our grantees, and so the Foundation’s approach remains steadfast. We hope that the philanthropic community will recognize that the constituencies we serve deserve to be listened to and more than that, deserve to be experts of their own lives.
This story was originally published in Glasspocket.