President's Corner

Continuing Reflections about Marguerite Casey Foundation’s First Ten Years

August 8, 2011

Luz Vega-Marquis
By Luz Vega-Marquis
President and CEO

Going forward, we will move aggressively and with intentionality.

In the early days of Marguerite Casey Foundation, the practices that we now consider to be standard were new not only to us, but to most of our colleagues in the philanthropic and nonprofit sectors: providing large multi-year grants; working in close relationships with grantees; making grants without issue silos; creating cross-sector approaches and alignment; infusing the voices of families in our work; and embracing movement building as our framework.

In 2002, large multi-year grants were considered to be avant-garde. Today, they are considered to be a best practice. In the same way, breaking down silos, nurturing alignment among organizations, and engaging in movement building have become commonly accepted and revered strategies. As Marguerite Casey Foundation evolved during the past ten years, we consistently embraced ideas and strategies that had the potential to redefine boundaries and to amplify the impact of the traditional grantmaking role, typically before they became widely accepted practices. Perhaps most notable in recent years is our willingness to invest in communications that are not solely limited to highlighting our own work and our grantees, but that lift up the voice of families, the central focus of our work.

Never satisfied with the status quo, we have taken measured risks that have pushed our work far beyond effective grantmaking, positioning Marguerite Casey Foundation for potentially profound breakthroughs during its next ten years. Such breakthroughs are possible due to the credibility and goodwill that we have earned during our first ten years. The Equal Voice operational planning process revealed that Marguerite Casey Foundation is respected for its willingness to innovate and for its unwillingness to be constrained by old rules. Our persistence, the respect we offer to others, and our results have converted skeptics and piqued the interest of many in how we do our work.

The success of our approach is apparent in the effectiveness of our grantmaking, in the quality of our communications, and in the thriving networks among our grantees. We have learned that if we adhere to our principles and achieve excellence in all that we do, we will earn the respect of our colleagues. This is important because Marguerite Casey Foundation now finds itself in a position to influence the field of philanthropy and the wider field of those who are exploring movement building. We have lessons to share, strategies and tactics that have proven successful, and evidence that our philosophy reflects a viable movement building approach.

We are exiting our start-up years in which we invested in developing our systems, refining our strategies, and building our credibility, and we are positioning ourselves for breakthroughs. Ten years into the life of Marguerite Casey Foundation, I take away three key lessons that will undoubtedly inform our future:

  1. Listen to Families: We set-out to change the systems that perpetuate family poverty, and we did not presume to have the answer about how best to approach the work. Instead, we turned to families for ideas, directions and answers, engaging those who were affected in developing solutions. The Equal Voice framework is evidence that we listened to families, who told us about their desire for opportunities to engage directly in efforts to shape their communities and to address the sources of poverty.
  2. Engage in Building a Movement for the 21st Century: From our first days, we sought to envision what a 21st century movement looks like, and when we did not find a model that could ensure the leadership and voices of families at the center, we endeavored to explore new movement building approaches. In so doing, we are crafting a model in which nonprofit organizations and families make up a movement infrastructure.
  3. Find the Path While Walking: Often I cite the poem, Caminante, by Muchado y Ruiz, which includes the line, ‘Traveler, there is no road; the road is made as you travel.” From its inception, Marguerite Casey Foundation recognized that it would have to find new ways of working to be successful in building a movement that creates positive change for families. This requires comfort with risk and experimentation, and a commitment to gathering feedback and adapting strategies-forging and finding the best path even while we are in the midst of our work.

A great deal of work remains to be done. We will move aggressively and with intentionality to advance our communications and grantmaking strategies to build on our first ten years. As we move forward, the Board will need to make decisions about our priorities for the next five years and how Marguerite Casey Foundation needs to change to meet those priorities.

Our Equal Voice operational planning process, about which you will receive a briefing during the August Board meeting, points to immediate decisions that are needed to allow us to take advantage of key opportunities to advance our work, among them the creation of new positions (a Director of Strategy position and a technology support position; additional Network Weavers), and the possibility of supporting the formation of 501(c)4 organizations. In addition, we will explore how to build stronger connections among grantees, networks at the state level, electoral organizing and voter mobilization processes, and a technology infrastructure that could facilitate each of those priorities. These and other decisions, rooted in our past experiences and in our current planning research, will chart our course for the future.

We have exciting opportunities ahead of us, but responding to opportunities cannot simply result in expansions. We must look at how we can change our current work to create efficiencies that will leverage the maximum impact for our investments. Increasingly, it is apparent that the Home State Fund does not meet this standard, and I am recommending that we consider phasing-out the Home State Fund altogether.

Our geographic focus was designed to target funding to the areas of the United States that had the highest rates of child poverty. While the poverty rate in Washington did not meet this threshold, the Home State Fund was established as a way to demonstrate that Marguerite Casey Foundation, with its headquarters and roots in Washington, is a good neighbor. Grantees in Washington do not receive the same level of funding as other grantmaking regions because the poverty level and needs are not as high. Since we launched the Home State Fund, we have received consistent complaints about the lack of parity with funding in other geographic areas. In response, we increased the size of the grants, but grantees continue to complain that they are not treated the same as other grantees, and many do not engage as full partners in dialogue and network building with us.

Given that the Home State Fund, quite ironically, is a source of ill-will locally for the Foundation, and given that the grantees act as a drag on the energy of our other grantees, it makes sense to refocus this funding to where it can make a greater impact. I recommend that we explore a thoughtful exit strategy from the Home State Fund that will support movement building in Washington in perpetuity, and yet allow us to focus more resources where they have greater potential for creating change. For example, we could establish a fund at The Seattle Foundation to provide grants for movement building, perhaps with a stipulation that The Seattle Foundation match the fund, thereby leveraging more resources and buy-in into movement building concepts at the local level.

A phase-out of the Home State Fund, coinciding with the last year of funding for Casey Family Programs, will free an additional $1.5 million for us to spend starting in 2013. Given the opportunities to consolidate and build on our first ten years of work, I have no doubt that we will put these resources to work in profound ways.

We have numerous decisions ahead of us, incredible opportunities, and a wealth of lessons and experiences to guide our next steps. I look forward to hearing about the key lessons that you take away from our first ten years and your thoughts about our priorities for the future.

Relationship with Casey Family Programs

When we separated from Casey Family Programs last year, we agreed to explore the possibility of collaborative projects to advance our mutual interests. In recent months, we have exchanged ideas, and in the process we learned that Casey Family Programs is interested in mirroring our work. Such a shift will require Casey Family Programs to learn more about our model and what it will take to succeed with it, particularly since its understanding of our model appears to be limited. While we are genuinely committed to working in partnership with Casey Family Programs and to sharing our lessons with them and other colleagues, this could add a layer of complexity to pursuing collaborative work.

Given this context, my intent is to alert you that our relationship with Casey Family Programs is still evolving even as we proceed with the expectation that Marguerite Casey Foundation and Casey Family Programs will work together. I ask for your guidance about the level of engagement we should pursue in our effort to form a collaborative project and about strategies for managing the expectations of each organization, and I look forward to discussing both issues with you during our next meeting.

Questions

  1. What key lessons have you learned from the first ten years of Marguerite Casey Foundation?
  2. As we look ahead, what do you consider to be priorities for the next five years?
  3. What is your reaction to the idea of phasing-out the Home State Fund?

Continuing Reflections about Marguerite Casey Foundation’s First Ten Years

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