Tag: Brightest Minds

We Should All Be Better Storytellers

By Rick Moyers, Vice President for Programs and Communications, The Meyer Foundation

As a grantmaker, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve formed an opinion about an organization after reading their proposal, only to change my mind during a site visit.

That’s probably because the language of grant applications can be sterile and bureaucratic. My changes of heart are most often sparked by leaders who are able to present their work as a compelling narrative that holds my attention, appeals to my emotions, and helps me identify with the organization and those it serves.

These conversions — from skeptical acquaintance to enthusiastic ally — have happened to me so often that I’ve become convinced that almost all nonprofits could engage more supporters and have a greater impact if only they were better at telling their stories. Many of my colleagues at Meyer share that conviction, which led us to launch a pilot program with Georgetown University’s Center for Social Impact Communication to build the storytelling capacity of the organizations our foundation supports.

The Meyer Foundation’s “Stories Worth Telling” initiative includes research on the storytelling practices of our grantees, a three-part training series, and a storytelling guide to be produced later this year. This work is part of a growing movement among grantmakers and nonprofits to harness the power of storytelling to drive social change. I believe in the importance of that work, which is why I’m so pleased that WRAG has invited Paul VanDeCarr, author of Storytelling and Social Change: A Strategy Guide for Grantmakers, to speak on May 6 as part of the Brightest Minds series.

Powerful and moving narratives are among the most important tools for advancing a mission or cause. And although I began this post by talking about how nonprofits struggle as storytellers, the same (or worse) could be said about grantmakers. The truth is, we all need to become better storytellers, and I’m grateful for a growing number of opportunities to learn how.

All funders and nonprofit staff in the Greater Washington region interested in advancing their storytelling skills are invited to join us at Brightest Minds: Storytelling for Social Change, on May 6, 9:30am at the AARP Foundation. More information and registration here.

Giving Credit Where Credit is Due: Building a More Inclusive Food Movement

By Lindsay Smith, consultant, Washington Regional Food Funders

“Did you know that collard greens are the new kale? Or that offal is a fancy word for chitlins? This makes all of my grandparents foodies.”

Michael Twitty, at the kickoff of WRAG’s 2014 Brightest Minds series, was commenting on both the popularity of Southern food in contemporary American culture, and the lack of understanding that many of these foods were first brought to America’s table by enslaved people. According to Michael, in many instances these foods were not only the last pieces of African culture which they held on to, but the basis of the meals they made for their families and their white masters. These foods eventually became the foundation of today’s American Southern cuisine.

Into the 20th century, many vegetable purveyors, cooks, restaurant proprietors, and others in the food business were African American. In Michael’s experience much of that heritage, knowledge, and pride has been lost as African Americans migrated out of the South in search of new opportunities and professions. He’s worked with youth of color, using garden activities to teach about history and culture, and been told by a few that they didn’t want to participate initially because they were “not a slave.” He’s travelled extensively throughout the South where he’s seen many African American restaurants shuttered, and presented at conferences with several hundred people in attendance where he finds himself one of a handful of people of color.

But this can change, and there are roles for a variety of community leaders to play in doing so, including funders. Food brings us together. It can be used to teach about science, math, history, health, or home economics. And whether it’s collard greens from Africa or potatoes from Peru, food can be used to teach about cultural ancestry and build bridges between communities. In Michael’s words, true community can be built through food.

There’s a growing awareness that where our food comes from matters to environmental sustainability, workers’ rights, and much more. As community members and consumers, Michael suggests that cultural heritage and economic development should also be factored into our thinking about food. He talked about a white chef in the South who positions himself as the interpreter of one African country’s cuisine without any obvious attempt to partner with contemporary African or African American authorities on the cuisine. He contrasted this with an example of a partnership between a white chef with a farm-to-table restaurant and a local farmer.  The chef makes a hot sauce from the heritage varieties of a pepper first grown by slaves but now grown by an African American farmer. With these contrasting examples, Michael illustrates his notion of culinary justice.

Whereas food justice generally refers to the right to grow, sell, and consume culturally appropriate and healthy food, culinary justice extends the concept to include recognizing cultural authority over certain foods and traditions. This includes the right to benefit from one’s own foods and traditions. By embracing this notion, Michael argues that food can be used more effectively as a tool for community building and development.

To learn more about Michael Twitty’s work, check out his blog, afroculinaria.com

The Power of Food

By Tamara Copeland, President

Food is one of the most fundamental elements of life. When we think back on the memories that shaped our lives, food is often at the core — summer picnics, romantic candlelit dinners, and raucous family breakfasts. Breaking bread is a health, social, economic, and artistic experience. It is food as an entry point for exploring history, culture, and community empowerment that encapsulates the work of Michael Twitty.

At WRAG’s first Brightest Minds event of the year, Michael Twitty will introduce you to a whole new way of thinking about food.

If you don’t already know who he is, Michael Twitty is a food writer, a chef, and a historian. He is an expert in African American foodways who explores Southern cuisine by reconstructing foods from the antebellum era. Michael lifts up this history and elucidates the common connections between today’s popular Southern-style foods and African American communities. But that’s only where Michael’s work begins.

Michael’s message is about food equity and community empowerment. He utilizes the construct of food to explore why certain communities have insufficient access to healthy food, poor health and nutrition, and limited economic opportunity. He believes that food as a cultural inheritance should be celebrated and leveraged to connect people to their history, to their neighborhoods and communities, and to ultimately promote what Michael calls “culinary justice,”—that is, access to quality, healthy, good foods regardless of your income, regardless of your race, regardless of where you live.

This year WRAG is working with funders to take a closer look at food. Regular Daily readers know that one of our funder groups, the Washington Regional Convergence Partnership, is looking at how to improve equity in the region’s food system. Last week we released an edition of What Funders Need to Know that captured some of what this group has learned thus far and a few ways that funders can strengthen our region’s food system.

We invited Michael to speak to our community because we believe that embracing the notion of culinary justice can further cultural understanding, wellness, and community building.

I hope you will join us to hear from Michael on April 1 at Busboys & Poets. More information can be found here.

Strive’s Jeff Edmondson explains the power and the pitfalls of collective impact

By Rebekah Seder, Program Manager

All of us working in the social sector are concerned about the impact of our work. But, too often we work in isolation from others focused on the same problems or serving the same populations, stuck in our own silos. An enormous amount of public and private resources get thrown at issues without any real change — the so-called “spray and pray” approach. What if funders, nonprofits, government, and others concerned about a particular problem in their community came together around a common agenda, understood how their work aligned, adopted the same goals, and committed to doing their own work in the most effective ways possible?

This is the basic spirit of the “collective impact” approach. Jeff Edmondson, who spoke to local philanthropic and nonprofit leaders last week at our second Brightest Minds event, knows the ins and outs of collective impact better than anybody. As head of the Strive Partnership in Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky, he led a cradle-to-career initiative that has seen remarkable gains in student achievement, and now, as head of the Strive Network, he advises partnerships around the country on how to start and sustain effective collective impact initiatives.

The collective impact approach can be adopted for diverse issues in diverse places. There is no specific model to be followed. Rather, it is a framework with four key elements:

A shared community vision: All involved must agree on the specific goals that the initiative is working toward, and how they are going to move the dial on them. Choosing four or five outcomes that everyone can align around, assessing where you stand now in relation to those outcomes, and figuring out how to most effectively achieve them is difficult, but necessary to effect change. As Edmondson said, paraphrasing Abraham Lincoln, you can’t find true north without a compass.

Evidence-based decision making: Decisions have to be guided by data. Data ensures transparency and accountability, and allows initiatives to report to the larger community where they are relative to their goals. Even more importantly, using data effectively allows stakeholders to see what approaches and interventions are working, and what needs to improve.

Collaborative action: Stakeholder engagement is key, and this is where collective impact can be especially hard and messy. Convincing funders, practitioners, and government to be transparent with their data – particularly when the data shows that things aren’t going right – requires a high level of trust among everyone involved.

Investment and sustainability: Moving a cross-sector agenda forward requires committed staff to serve as the, in Edmondson’s words, “chief cat herder.” A backbone organization is necessary to keep everyone on track, provide data analysis, and to serve as facilitator.

The widely read Stanford Social Innovation Review articles  about collective impact that highlight the work of the Strive Partnership, he says, are a “sanitized version of reality.” Creating the civic infrastructure to take on entrenched issues requires a high level of trust, a willingness to acknowledge and learn from past failures, and deep engagement and support from respected leaders. Collective impact isn’t simple or easy, but it does hold incredible potential to change our communities for the better.

You can check out Jeff Edmondson’s slides here.

Former HUD secretary Henry Cisneros’s top 10 ways funders can support housing affordability

Yesterday, we wrote about former HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros’ talk that kicked off WRAG’s Brightest Minds series last week. Cisneros laid out a clear case for affordable and transit-accessible housing, highlighting its impact on both an individual level and a regional level.

To spur the thinking of grantmakers in the room, Cisneros laid out the following recommendations for how funders can effectively create a more equitable housing market in our region:

1. Grantmaking: The most obvious way that philanthropy can support the development of affordable housing is through good old-fashioned grantmaking to nonprofit organizations, including housing developers and intermediaries, that are working on affordable projects. In very high cost markets like ours, it is difficult to complete affordable projects without supplementing traditional financial resources with philanthropic support.

2. Program-related investments (PRIs): Beyond traditional grantmaking, foundations can use their endowments to make return-seeking investments in projects and organizations. Besides providing much needed capital for housing developers, Cisneros noted that PRIs often can provide a considerable return on investment for foundations as well.

3. Public–private collaboration: Philanthropy can collaborate with local government, particularly around acquiring land in key areas. Providing matching funds to purchase land around transit stations, in particular, is a potential way for funders to support affordable housing where it is needed most.

4. Support financial counseling: Funders can support related services, such as financial counseling for potential home buyers. As Cisneros noted, the importance of financial counseling is especially important in light of the subprime mortgage crisis and the often abusive lending practices that precipitated it.

5. Support for the overall concept of sustainability: This means supporting the creation of energy efficient homes, so that energy costs are manageable, as well as supporting transit-oriented development, so that the cost of transportation isn’t burdensome.

6. Advance senior housing: As our region is hit by the “Silver Tsunami,” funders can support the creation of homes that are safe, accessible, and affordable for older adults. In the same way that houses have been retrofitted to make them more energy efficient, much of the existing affordable housing stock needs to be retrofitted to better accommodate aging residents.

7. Leverage the home-building industry as a source of job training for youth: Philanthropy can support programs, models of which can be found around the country, that help young people get into construction and related fields. These are good, career-oriented jobs that can’t be outsourced, and, as the housing market recovers, these skills will be in high demand.

8. Research into the interface between housing and other forms of social services: It’s hard – if not impossible – to pursue job training opportunities or ensure that your children are getting a good education if you don’t have a safe and secure place to live. Philanthropy can support research into how access to affordable housing relates to other critical outcomes, and advance initiatives that take a “housing first” approach to addressing other issues. For instance, Cisneros mentioned creative programs that highlight the connection between access to housing and success in life, such as public housing in Denver that was built next to a community college, in order to facilitate residents’ pursuing education and job training opportunities.

9. Support international housing needs: Access to affordable housing is not just a domestic issue. Cisneros noted that, for the first time in history, there are more people living in urban areas worldwide than in rural areas. For funders who support projects internationally, housing is an area where you can have a significant impact.

10. Public policy advocacy: Finally, funders can maximize their impact by supporting advocacy. Policies at the federal, state, and local levels can be improved to increase rental stock, shore up low income housing tax credits, and change local zoning restrictions to allow for infill housing development, “granny flats,” and other innovations that are often met with resistance.

Clearly, there are a variety of avenues that local funders can take to support housing affordability in our region. And, you don’t need to consider yourself a “housing funder” per se to have a positive impact on efforts to increase the supply of safe, accessible, and affordable housing for everyone who lives here.

What do you think of Cisneros’s suggestions?

The importance of political giving to achieve policy goals…Mental health services off the chopping block in Fairfax…A WRAG event announcement! [News, 9.12.12]

PHILANTHROPY | Eric Kessler, founder and managing director of Arabella Advisors, and member of WRAG’s Board of Directors, writes in the Huffington Post about how supporting political campaigns can help effect change in the policy arena in the long run (Huffington Post, 9/11):

…Engaging financially in the political process is a critical lever that too few philanthropists integrate into their strategies for change. Using personal contributions to help political candidates who support the issues you care about — or to counter candidates who oppose your interests — is the best way to build a base of support for the future policy changes that are needed to reach your philanthropic goals.

BUDGETS | The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors has voted to bail out the Fairfax-Falls Church Community Services Board, preventing cuts to programs and services for people with mental illness and disabilities. (WaPo, 9/12)

POVERTY | The U.S. Census Bureau says that the poverty rate nation-wide in 2011 was 15 percent – about the same as it was in 2010 – meaning that nearly 1 out of every 6 people lived below the poverty line. (WaPo, 9/12)

WORKFORCE | The DC Fiscal Policy Institute looks at the extremely high cost of, and low rates of reimbursement for, child care in the District, a hugely significant burden for low and moderate income families. (DCFPI, 9/11)

EDUCATION | The New York Times‘ “Room for Debate” series covers the relationship between education reform advocates and teacher unions throughout the country. (NY Times, 9/12)

EVENT ANNOUNCEMENT | Join us on October 4 for the final installment of the Brightest Minds series, Social Sector Innovation: A Response to Our Economic Reality. Economist Susan Raymond will discuss how innovation — in organization form, revenue, skills, engagement, and management — is a pre-requisite for growth and success for the post-recession social sector. This is a conversation that is particularly timely, given the potential for federal budget cuts that could deeply affect our region next year. More information and registration here.

Regardless of how you feel about the Chicago teachers on strike, the strategy of defaming Rahm Emanuel as a fan of the god-awful band Nickelback is pretty creative (and hilarious).


Generating impact and returns: How area funders are using impact investments

By Rebekah Seder, Program Manager

Funders who want to make an impact on entrenched social issues are increasingly moving beyond traditional grantmaking to use return-seeking investments to achieve change. Last week, WRAG and Arabella Advisors co-hosted a discussion with local funders engaging in impact investing – investing that generates social and financial returns – to maximize the impact of their work.

The Consumer Health Foundation (CHF) has taken a number of steps to use the investment process as a tool for supporting its mission of achieving health justice in the region. Rachel Wick explained how CHF engages in mission-consistent investing using local and minority managed funds; banking with a community development financial institution (CDFI); and making program-related investments (PRIs) – which generate a below-market rate of return while advancing specific program-related goals – to support the D.C. Primary Care Association’s Medical Homes D.C. initiative.

The Walton Family Foundation (WFF) has embraced program-related investments in support of its work strengthening charter schools throughout the country. Anne Stoehr discussed how WFF complements its grantmaking strategy with PRIs administered through intermediaries like CDFIs. One of the successes that WFF has seen through its investing is a leverage rate of 10 to 1 as its investments attract other capital to the charter school sector. Likewise, Robin Hacke, who leads the Catalyst Fund at Living Cities, explained how the fund provides flexible capital to innovative projects that advance Living Cities’ mission of revitalizing American cities. The fund provides below-market rate loans to “unlock more money” for organizations and provides investors with a low risk way to have a big impact.

Impact investing represents a paradigm shift for both philanthropy and finance. Changing the thinking in the foundation boardroom about how to creatively use endowments – and also among fund managers whose focus is traditionally on maximizing the rate of return on investments – is an undeniable challenge. However, impact investing allows funders to maximize their impact by providing flexible capital through PRIs and by supporting a broad spectrum of intersecting issues through mission-consistent investing. As Ms. Hacke put it, philanthropy has no choice but to push the field toward embracing impact investing – and at the same time push the financial community to better understand its social impact – because there is nowhere near enough grant money in the world to solve the deeply entrenched social problems that philanthropy seeks to improve.

WRAG will be continuing the conversation about impact investing at our final Brightest Minds program of the year. On October 4, Dr. Susan Raymond, a noted economist from Changing Our World, will discuss impact investing and other innovations in the social sector. More information and registration.

DCPS announces changes to IMPACT teacher evaluation process…Income segregation rises in the region [News, 8.3.12]

– D.C. Public Schools has announced changes to its IMPACT teacher evaluation system that will reduce the weight of standardized test scores in teachers’ overall performance ratings. The changes also include a new rating category for “developing” teachers, and reduce the number of classroom observations. (Examiner, 8/3)

– While the changes might take some of the pressure off teachers, many are concerned that the new “developing” performance category will make more teachers eligible for firing. (WaPo, 8/3)

ARTS | The D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities has announced a new permanent public art installation along the super drab stretch of Connecticut Avenue between K Street and Dupont Circle, featuring colorful LED lights intertwined with the landscaping along the median. (DCist, 8/2)

DEMOGRAPHICS | A new Pew report shows that rising income inequality throughout the country has led to an increase in income segregation between high- and low-income residents in metropolitan areas. (WaPo, 8/1) Our region ranked 7 out of the top 10 largest metro areas in terms of both the percentage of low-income households located in low-income census tracts, and upper-income households in upper-income census tracts. (Pew, 8/1)

PHILANTHROPY | New York will be the first U.S. city to pilot social impact bonds, as Goldman Sachs invests $10 million in a nonprofit program aimed at reducing the recidivism rate, which the city will repay if the program succeeds. (NY Times, 8/2)

Related: On October 4, we’re continuing our Brightest Minds series with Dr. Susan Raymond, who will discuss how the social sector is innovating in response to the economic downturn. Registration and more information.

AGING | 10 best cities for ‘successful aging’ (CNN, 8/2) Somehow Washington lost out to Omaha.

DATA | Did you attend the Brightest Minds program with Cole Nussbaumer back in May? Today on her blog she offers a chance to practice what you learned to help out a community foundation looking for some data visualization assistance. (Storytelling With Data, 8/3)

I’m sure hosting the Olympics is pretty much the most exciting thing that can happen in a city, but there has to be something cool enough going on in the Greater Washington region to get an elected official to try this…though hopefully with more success.


Helping funders and nonprofits tell better stories with data

By Rebekah Seder, Program Manager
Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers

We all know that collecting and analyzing data is critical to communicating the impact of the work that we do. However, sometimes the charts, graphs, and tables that are used to present data end up looking like this – messy, confusing, and almost impossible to interpret. When funders and nonprofits are under pressure to show the results of their work, telling an effective story with data is a crucial – if often overlooked – skill.

Yesterday, the Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers hosted Cole Nussbaumer, a People Analytics manager at Google, for a session in our Brightest Minds series titled “Storytelling With Data: Visualizing Philanthropy.” Cole’s motto is helping “rid the world of ineffective graphs, one exploding, 3D pie chart at a time,” and her work focuses on communicating quantitative data. For a group of funders and nonprofits yesterday, she explained the basic principles of data visualization and led participants through a workshop on improving some of their own graphs.

Here are a few key take-aways from Cole:

1. Use the right kind of graph for your data: Bar graphs work better for categorical data, and line graphs work better for showing changes in data over time. Pie charts, however, don’t work well for anything.

2. Get rid of the clutter: Only include the information that is needed to get your point across. Meaningless colors and unnecessary labels and data points can make displays difficult to read and interpret.

3. Draw the reader’s attention where you want it: By making judicious use of color and size variations, you can make your audience see the information you want them to see before they even realize they are seeing it.

4. Tell a story with your data: Use text to provide background information and to explicitly state what you want the reader to take away from your data.

5. Practice: Creating good data visualizations is hard, so get feedback from your colleagues and be prepared to spend time to get them right.

Check out Cole’s blog at www.storytellingwithdata.com to learn more about communicating effectively with data, and to see some helpful before-and-after data visualization makeovers.

This was the second installment of Brightest Minds, a colloquium series in celebration of WRAG’s 20th anniversary. The next event, on October 4, will feature economist Susan Raymond.

Prince George’s and Montgomery counties release budgets…Why affordable housing supply can’t meet demand [News, 3.16.12]

– Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker has released his FY 2013 budget, which he says aims to make the county ” a nationally recognized jurisdiction that has a thriving economy, great schools, safe neighborhoods, access to high-quality health care, effective human services for those in need, and provides a clean and sustainable environment.” (WaPo, 3/15)

– Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett has also released his budget, which includes increases in spending on libraries and public safety. (WaPo, 3/15)

AFFORDABLE HOUSING | City Paper looks at some of the reasons why, despite high demand, there is such a low supply of affordable housing in the region. (City Paper,, 3/15)

– D.C. Area Has Fifth Largest Homeless Population (DCentric, 3/15) Out of every 10,000 people in the region, 24 are homeless.

– N Street Village has a new apartment building near Logan Circle, which will serve 31 women. (WBJ, 3/15)

ARTS | Here’s a look at the renovations that are almost done on the Howard Theater. (City Paper, 3/15)

REGION | Small tech firms, Silver Line (not Uncle Sam) will fuel future growth in Metro Washington (Region Forward, 3/15)

FOLLOW-UP | For those of you who made it to WRAG’s Brightest Minds event with Dr. Jim Johnson yesterday, his slides are available on our website. We hope you enjoyed the event!

After this week’s beautiful 80 degree weather it’s especially hard to imagine what spending a week and a half on the back of a dog sled in the middle of Alaska must be like