St. John's Well Child & Family Center


Key Learnings from Listening to Frontline Organizations

Eric Medina and Sara Montrose, Program Officers

By Eric Medina and Sara Montrose, Program Officers

As Weingart Foundation program officers, one of the greatest privileges of our job is the opportunity to learn from our nonprofit partners. We do this through ongoing conversations, site visits, and listening.

Listening to communities and responding to conditions is at the core of what we do. Our funding is informed by those with lived experience and direct knowledge. Hearing from those on the ground who are most directly impacted by injustice is inspiring and necessary—especially for funders sincerely committed to building an equitable and just society.

Given the unprecedented challenges facing the region, we reached out to community leaders earlier this year through a series of virtual listening sessions. Program officers joined our C.E.O., Miguel Santana, and our Vice President of Programs, Joanna Jackson, in hearing from communities across Southern California.

Leaders shared how they are responding to mental health crises, educational inequities, homelessness and housing needs, food insecurity, and health care gaps—all of which were laid bare by the pandemic. They also shared what opportunities lie ahead to advance racial justice and the importance of supporting staff mental health and resilience. Across geographic regions and program areas, we heard a number of cross-cutting themes that stood out.

The following are five key learnings from community leaders that continue to guide our work as a Foundation:

1. Pandemic fatigue is real.

Given the trauma, stress, and extreme challenges experienced by so many, leaders told us that their organizations are stretched thin, staff are burnt out and experiencing their own secondary trauma, and community needs are overwhelming. This is especially true and presents a huge challenge for those organizations closest to the communities of color hardest hit by the pandemic and those still struggling with its impact. As the pandemic has been prolonged, nonprofits and their leaders simply haven’t yet recovered—yet they continue to be asked to do even more and respond in new ways. For example, direct service organizations are using their voice and client experiences to call for systems change, and advocacy groups are pivoting to provide direct monetary relief, operate vaccine clinics, and meet basic needs.

Organizations are working to build staff infrastructure and support. Concerned about staff wellness, many groups are providing different healing activities, connecting staff with support services, and looking at increasing salaries and compensation. Many young leaders and organizers are redefining what “organizational health” means as they shift the ways they work. Organizations are also looking for professional development and coaching to support new managers who have not been formally trained. Nonprofits are doing tremendous work under extraordinary strain. As funders we need to support staff mental health, sustainability, and resilience.

2. Organizations fear a post-pandemic financial cliff.

Organizations continue to feel the long-term effects of disinvestment in people and nonprofit infrastructure, particularly among grassroots organizations in communities of color. Many nonprofits shifted programs to basic needs service delivery in response to community need during the pandemic and are now assessing how they can sustain themselves in the long-term. Many of these programs were backed by government funding and there is overall concern about a funding “cliff” when public dollars for pandemic relief and recovery run out. While public funding is needed, leaders shared how public funding is often inaccessible to community-based organizations that are most proximate to residents and how the funding is designed to meet narrow goals rather than to support creative approaches to service delivery or make transformative change. Community organizing groups advancing racial justice also share fears about a funding cliff, wondering how much of grantmakers’ response to the racial justice uprisings and anti-Black racism will be sustained beyond this moment.

Funders can support nonprofits in accessing public relief and infrastructure dollars, as well as provide multi-year unrestricted funding to help provide a stable source of revenue. We also need to embed racial justice and support for BIPOC communities into our missions and strategies in a deep and ongoing way.

3. Organizations are deepening collaboration and cross-racial solidarity.

As organizations manage an ongoing response to the pandemic and efforts for a just recovery, leaders shared inspiring plans for the future. One silver lining in this time is that many organizations have really strengthened their relationships with each other. We were excited to hear leaders’ interest in increasing collaboration that enables nonprofits to focus on their strengths and expertise while minimizing duplication of efforts. Organizations are also interested in collaborating and become stronger thought partners with philanthropy and government.

The pandemic and racial uprisings also catalyzed deeper partnerships and collaborations, building solidarity among people and organizations—especially in the communities with the greatest inequities. Nonprofits are talking explicitly about race, increasing cross-racial solidarity, and confronting anti-Black racism. Advocacy and power-building organizations are also developing pro-active strategies that move beyond having to constantly react and defend. This last year presented a critical moment of awakening and solidarity for so many of us, and it has offered opportunities to support important narrative and systems change. Funders can support the time and space it takes for community leaders to come together, deepen relationships, and foster movement-building.

4. Funders need to support frontline communities, especially Black, immigrant, and indigenous communities.

We heard loud and clear how important multi-year operating support is to meet needs, build infrastructure, and support advocacy. Leaders also lifted how important it is for funders support systems change—including by supporting smaller, nontraditional, and more radical organizing groups—and the need to specifically support Black, immigrant, and indigenous communities. There is urgent need to invest in frontline communities and allow communities to drive the work. Funders can also do more to move the public sector to make public funds more available to smaller nonprofits, support capacity building, and streamline our own grantmaking process to minimize burden.

5. Foundations need to listen—and act on what we hear.

Formal listening sessions are one of many ways that we hear directly from community leaders—both about individual organizational needs and broader sector-wide trends. Listening deeply is something we strive to do every day as part of building authentic relationships with partners. The lessons we learn are vital to informing our grantmaking and how we advance our racial justice mission.

We are deeply appreciative of the insights that nonprofit leaders continue to share with us as we plan for the upcoming year and strive to meet the evolving needs of the sector. We will aim to lift these learnings with our colleagues in philanthropy, encouraging our field to put nonprofit and community voices first. Listening is essential in our role as program officers. It makes us better grantmakers, and—beyond that—better partners and allies.