Phillip Henderson | President | Surdna Foundation
The preparation for any board meeting is considerable, but the payback for all the time and effort is that these meetings help us sharpen our focus on the work, and they provide us a moment in time to reflect on the challenges and questions we wrestle with. Stepping back from the day-to-day work every few months is healthy, reinvigorating, and essential to maintaining our momentum. This is particularly true for Surdna’s annual November board meeting, where we take a look back on the previous year’s work and ask ourselves what stood out, what really worked, or failed, and what exciting work is ahead of us.
What animated our discussion at the November meeting were three concepts: risk, failure, and learning. Their centrality to our grantmaking is made especially apparent during these moments of reflection, as is their interdependence. While risk, failure, and learning show up independently and in a number of different ways in our work, we have seen that their net effect is to get us closer to the right questions. They have emerged as core elements of how we do our work, and have become important touchstones in our board-staff dialogue.
As we adopted our strategic framework several years ago—a document we call our Roadmap—we named learning as a core element of how we wanted to work. There was some initial internal skepticism about calling ourselves a “learning organization,” but we believed that learning had to be central to the way we did our work. The systems, strategies, and work habits necessary to promote strategic learning and knowledge-sharing, both internally and externally, have become an important focal point for much of our efforts to travel along the Roadmap. We understand that effective learning is founded to a great degree on strong systems for capturing and generating information, curating and packaging that information, then disseminating it and engaging in the resulting conversation. While our efforts have begun to bear some fruit, the complex work of figuring out how to build an institution that uses ongoing learning as a tool continues, and is fundamental to making progress toward our mission.
Our work has evolved, particularly in the past year: our program strategies are reaching maturity; our expanded program teams are working more effectively and with greater innovation; our communications is becoming more adept and effective; and our behind-the-scenes grants management system is being redesigned. I believe we are starting to live up to our ambition to learn as we go. Doing this well requires us to live by the principle that we can’t know everything at the outset of the work, and that we need to continue to be nimble and flexible so that we can make course corrections that allow us to evolve as we go. It means that we might have to do what does not feel entirely comfortable: invite criticism, own our errors, and contend with truths that we might not like. It also requires us to be curious, to be creative in our approaches, and to seek partnerships where mutual learning can happen.
With strong board leadership building on a deep reservoir of trust among the board and staff, it has become increasingly normal at Surdna to talk about failure—what’s not working, not just what is. These conversations are made easier due in part to our arrival at—or approach toward—a shared understanding of what failure actually is. When people use the word failure, they naturally conjure images of clear and unmitigated disaster. In many contexts, “failure” suggests winners and losers, and that a definitive end point has somehow been reached. But failure in philanthropy is rarely black-and-white. And when it happens, failure usually has many bedfellows and it is more often the starting point for new work, not its conclusion. Sometimes failure is the result of a changing political or policy environment. Sometimes it’s due to a change in the leadership or stability of the grantee organization. And sometimes failure is the result of a strategic miscalculation. But, in philanthropy, failure is really best understood as a learning opportunity, or an opportunity to make adjustments in strategy. Talking candidly about failure though, is not the same as learning from it. To do that we have to demonstrate that we have clearly changed our behavior as a result of incorporating lessons learned.
Failure is almost never a dead-end. And now that we are more comfortable discussing it, we are determined to link it to learning, and even communicate about it externally.
Philanthropic risk has multiple meanings. Many define it in investment terms—as in the tolerance for losing money. For some, risk means the vulnerabilities—known and unknown—to an institution’s reputation. At a family foundation, some may define risk in terms of how we ensure that new board members embrace the mission and can be counted on to carry it forward. At Surdna, we approach risk not as something pejorative to be avoided. Instead we characterize it as a series of calculated trade-offs we make in our grantmaking that weigh the probability of success against the potential for impact.
Various aspects of philanthropic risk are always with us, in our decisions on grants, on the management of our brand and image, in the approach to our financial investments. As we move through our work, we are becoming more adept at talking about how risk shows up in Surdna’s work, and getting clearer about what our appetite is for risk.
Decisions about risk are deeply imbedded in the ongoing development and recalibration of strategy. They are not made in isolation nor are they approached as a yes or no proposition. Like the social change we are seeking, assessing risk is not a linear process. It’s messy, subjective and by definition inexact. In this way, our embrace of risk—made in expectation of transformational change—is intertwined with our abiding respect for iteration, learning, and failure. Our approach to risk is best understood as a system of decisions and choices that are about building momentum in the work, starting with assumptions, testing those assumptions, taking in feedback, and adjusting to move forward.
Risk. Failure. Learning. Each demands commitment to a process that is not exactly tidy or predictable, often contentious and divisive, sometimes inconclusive, but absolutely necessary. In our business of giving away money, there are no shareholders, customers, or bottom lines. So, every day we must fight against the very real and chronic hazard of taking the safe route, feasting on compliments, and believing that we are destined to succeed.
We are well aware that we do not have the answers. But by embracing risk, failure and learning, we hope to get to the right questions.
As always, let me know your thoughts and suggestions as we continue our work of fostering just and sustainable communities.
Please join me in congratulating Amy Morris for having been named the new Program Director at the Fund for Global Human Rights in Washington, DC, a newly-created position at the organization dedicated to securing basic freedoms worldwide. The departure of any staff member is bittersweet, and Amy’s is especially so given her many achievements at the Surdna Foundation.
During the past nearly five years, and most recently as lead program officer on our Job Quality and Career Pathways grantmaking, Amy has supported federal and state efforts to raise the minimum wage and ensure that paid sick leave for low-wage workers becomes the norm, not the rare exception. She has focused our investments around advancing the conversation on quality jobs to include activating the voice of business to promote fair wages, benefits, and career training as well as building capacity in states and among national networks to advance not only individual transactional policy wins, but longer term improvements in economic opportunity and job quality.
Amy has emphasized the importance of partnerships in all of her work and has been especially excited about helping to foster them through her work directly in states like Minnesota. Through the many partnerships she's helped to create or sustain, Amy exemplifies the type of collaborative, multi-partner approach to grantmaking that is in Surdna’s DNA.
At heart, Amy is a committed activist whose dedication to achieving a more just and equitable society is evident in all that she does. She’s been an educator, policy monitor, and grantmaker, and in each role her focus has been on improving the lives and livelihoods of low-income people, communities of color, women, and immigrants.
Thanks in large part to Amy’s work and the superb portfolio of grantees she has assembled, Surdna is well-positioned to build upon local and state advances to increase the minimum wage, paid sick leave, and expand worker rights. We have already initiated our search for a new program officer for the Strong Local Economies program (feel free to share the position description with your networks). In the meantime, if you have any questions, please feel free to contact Shawn Escoffery, Program Director, Strong Local Economies, or me.
Amy’s generosity of spirit, tenacity, and seemingly endless energy has benefitted all of us. So, on behalf of the staff and board of directors, I'd like to congratulate Amy as she set off in a new direction and offer a big THANKS for her service to the Foundation and for her commitment to fostering just and sustainable communities.
The Surdna Foundation seeks a Program Officer to join Strong Local Economies team. The Program Officer would be part of a four-person team led by the Program Director and staffed by two Program Officers and a Program Associate. The Program Officer works closely with the team on all aspects of the program, including day-to-day operations, broader program strategy development, and the implementation of a learning agenda.
Edie Thorpe, one of the remarkable people in the Surdna Foundation’s last 25 years and someone who was the creative force that helped establish the Andrus Family Fund and the building of the Andrus family's philanthropic identity, has passed. We who had the privilege of knowing Edie are so much the better for it.
President, The Surdna Foundation
Star Tribune Obituary
A selection of remembrances from current and former Surdna Staff
Her trademark humor and irreverence will certainly stay with all of us, as will her warmth and her passion for the work that we do. – Beth Herz
I'm glad I got to know Edie, and I'm glad that I get to continue the legacy of the Andrus family through my work here at Surdna. She will be missed. – Shawn Escoffery
Edie will always be a shining example to me of what a difference a strong, fun, compassionate, and visionary woman can make on people and the world. – Sharon Alpert
Edie was an incredible asset to the foundation, and to the Andrus family. She was also one of the funniest people I knew. – Jon Goldberg
Edie welcomed me into the foundation like family and taught me the importance of leading with family "heart." -- Kim Burnett
By Jose Garcia | Program Officer | The Surdna Foundation
We all know Black Friday—we start dreading it or dreaming about it as we’re putting the leftover turkey into the refrigerator. And there's Cyber Monday—when bargain-hungry online consumers can avoid crushing crowds. But did you know that November 29 is Small Business Saturday?
Small Business Saturday is a day for all of us to show our support—with the dollars we spend—for small businesses that line the streets of many of our towns, and the service providers, contractors and others who form the backbone of our economy.
Over the past two decades, small and new businesses have been responsible for creating two out of every three net new jobs in the U.S., and today over half of all working Americans own or work for a small business.
When we shop small, we not only get great products and services, but we support our neighbors and strengthen our local economies.
So, starting and running a small business really is part of the great American Dream—we’re all on equal footing and with enough hard work anyone can succeed.
Hold the music…
As many entrepreneurs in communities of color have learned, starting and running a small business demands more—much more—than a good business plan and countless hours of hard work. For these women and men, the road to a successful small business includes the same hurdles, but so many more.
Some challenges like getting loans, consulting advice, and accessing networks to connect to contracts and customers are even greater when these businesses are minority- or women-owned, and work in low-income communities.
Often, despite solid work records, due to low owner net worth, or unestablished credit ratings, minority entrepreneurs encounter far higher borrowing costs, or are unable to get loans at all. And sometimes it is just latent racism.
Access to capital remains one of the most important factors limiting the success of minority-owned businesses, inhibiting their ability to grow and create new jobs, according to the U.S. Commerce Department’s Minority Business Development Agency.
But to realize their potential as job creators and building blocks for increased economic activity, these businesses need more than access to loans, they need contracts, networks, and mentoring to expand their scale and improve their operations. Resources like these are vital to the growth of businesses everywhere, but have historically been beyond the reach of entrepreneurs operating in low-income communities.
Surdna’s grantees are working to accelerate the growth of minority-owned businesses by providing their owners management advice, guiding them to better operations and strategies, and helping them access and navigate federal, state, and local procurement programs. Our grantees are really moving the needle, in innovative and effective ways:
Fund Good Jobs / ICA. For Fund Good Jobs, capital alone is not enough to create real growth. That’s why they provide all-in support for each investment with the help of their partner, ICA. ICA has served hundreds of small businesses over the last 17 years throughout the Bay Area. With over $57M of revenues under management, ICA has created more than 2,600 good jobs locally and built a brand that is trusted throughout the small business ecosystem – by business owners, capital providers, service providers, and the workforce development sector.
But for ICA, it is not just about helping to grow successful business that can in turn create jobs, as CEO Jose Corona says “When we speak of good job creation, we aren’t using the word “good” lightly. We believe a good job is one that pays above a living wage, offers full benefits and comes with life ladders that allow employees to move up within their companies.”
Working World. Working World helps entrepreneurs in communities of color create jobs using a model that merges savvy investment with a socially conscious orientation. The businesses, like Brooklyn-based Si Se Puede, are rooted in justice and anchored in local communities. The women of Sí Se Puede, a cleaning cooperative, are undertaking a project through Working World’s debt-free financing model to produce their own all-natural green cleaner. Besides giving the women a non-toxic solution to work with, they plan to produce and sell their product.
Urban Innovation21. Pittsburgh’s Urban Innovation21 provides a variety of incentives to businesses based in the city’s primarily African-American Homewood and Hill neighborhoods to help them grow, create jobs and create wealth for their owners. Nearly 100 businesses in those two neighborhoods – both start-ups and existing concerns – began the “Inclusive Innovation” small business competition by attending workshops on writing business plans, defining their markets, managing credit and finances and much more. Half applied for the program’s grants, and will receive continuing help from entrepreneurship coaches and consultants. They’ll also receive free legal help. Even the top applicants who didn’t get grants will be eligible for zero-percent loans from a $10,000 loan fund.
As small businesses grow to larger ones, our grantees are also working to ensure that the jobs they create pay above industry standards, offer full benefits, and come with opportunities for professional development. When businesses create good jobs, they are not only strengthening the foundations of the local economy, they are offering residents greater dignity, economic mobility, and an ability to provide a better future for their families.
So, show your support for small businesses, especially minority-owned businesses. But don’t just “Shop Small” on Small Business Saturday, or only during the holiday season. Make Small Business Saturday an everyday event.
The Surdna Foundation’s Artists Engaging in Social Change RFP process and application is now closed.
The application process closed as scheduled on Wednesday, November 12.
Thanks to all applicants for their proposals. We will announce selected projects in April 2015.
The Surdna Foundation seeks a Program Associate to join the team of the Vice President of Programs and Strategic Initiatives. The Program Associate plays a critical role in managing the day-to-day priorities of a three-person team, and will also lend additional support to the Office of Communications and the Office of Grants Management and Learning, which report to the VP of Programs and Strategic Initiatives.
This is a question that I’m sure most of us engaged in philanthropy and social justice work ask ourselves regularly – both as individuals and organizations. For us at the Andrus Family Fund, this has meant challenging long-held beliefs around how change happens and what role we can play in this change. (The AFF is a fund of the Surdna Foundation that manages its own grant making program and processes.)
So after an extensive review that included objective evaluation of our work and its impact, consulting with grantees and others in our field, and through deep engagement with our Board members, we are excited to announce our new mission and strategic direction. We believe this will allow us to make a greater impact in the lives of America’s most vulnerable youth.
Andrus Family Fund: Fostering Connections. Unlocking Promise.
Our new approach is straightforward and laser focused. We will:
1. Support organizations whose work directly connects youth to the people and services they need to become self-sustaining and resilient.
2. Commission research that helps identify what works and what doesn’t when it comes to creating sustainable change in young people’s lives.
3. Work closely with our grantees to advance and advocate for programs and policies that are proven to put youth on a path to a successful and sustainable future.
4. Support organizations that utilize community organizing as a tool to remove barriers and create change.
Moving forward, we will begin approaching our grantmaking with this new lens. For some current grantees this will open new exciting opportunities for partnership. For others, whose work is no longer aligned with our approach, sadly we must look to responsibly close down our support. We encourage all to visit our new website, www.affund.org, where you can learn more about our new direction, our grant making criteria and what this means for you.
The Andrus Family Fund is ready to lead by example and by effort. Many of you provided feedback as our new strategic direction was in development. For this we thank you and hope that you see your contribution reflected in a shared future. Thank you for your commitment and partnership.
Executive Director, Andrus Family Fund
Pushing for changes in the policies that govern social services, education, criminal justice, health care, and other big systems that have sweeping impact on society has become the holy grail of strategic grant making.
About a dozen years ago, grant makers large and small began to focus on such long-term and ambitious changes because they were frustrated that so much of what they were trying to do to improve lives wasn’t making enough difference.
Read more in the Chronicle of Philanthropy’s November 3, 2014 issue.
The article was written by Gwen I. Walden is a senior managing director at Arabella Advisors and a member of the boards of trustees at the Surdna Foundation and the East Bay Community Foundation.
The Andrus Family Fund/Andrus Family Philanthropy Program (AFF/AFPP), a fund of the Surdna Foundation, seeks a Program Associate to join a path-breaking fifth- generation family philanthropy. The Program Associate will play an important role in contributing ideas and administrative leadership to the future of the AFF and AFPP.
Fostering sustainable communities in the United States — communities guided by principles of social justice and distinguished by healthy environments, strong local economies, and thriving cultures.