5 questions for leaders in philanthropy

Nov 5, 2021
Suzanne Mineck

There is an ongoing joke among those I work with that if Suzanne Mineck calls and says she has an “idea” – watch out. But recently, I was struck by Simon Sinek’s quote from his book Start with Why: “The role of a leader is not to come up with all the great ideas. The role of a leader is to create an environment for (or I would add, support environments) in which great ideas can happen.”

I have had the honor of serving Mid-Iowa Health Foundation and our community for more than a decade. While I have had many ideas, I have worked diligently to look for, make space for, advocate for, and listen for the voices and ideas of others—knowing their expertise, knowledge, and passion would point our foundation where it needed to go.

This summer, I decided to take yet another step on this journey—a step aside to make space for the next leader. A leader with a new lens, new energy, and new and expanded relationships. I am thrilled that Dr. Nalo Johnson agreed to take on this role.

As I prepare for my transition, I have been reflecting on what my experience at Mid-Iowa Health Foundation has meant and the ideas I’ve gained from the incredible people around me. I am left with a series of questions I have asked myself, and that I hope we ask each other, as we strive to improve the well-being of kids, families, and our community. I offer these thoughts in hopes that they spark continued conversation and careful consideration for how we work together to make the greatest impact.

This blog shares questions specifically for funders. A second part is for nonprofit and community partners.

Five questions for philanthropists:  

1. What is our role and responsibility in fostering diversity and equity?

Iowa’s philanthropic sector is making tremendous strides in asking critical questions about the work we do and how we do it. Listening and understanding are important steps, but at some point, we also need to take meaningful action. Otherwise, it begs the question: Are we really listening?

The HealthConnect Fellows have been instrumental in guiding me to better understand how discrimination and oppression are occurring in our community and challenging all of us to do something about it. These conversations over the past year have demonstrated the importance of surrounding ourselves with many voices and experts who help us see what we do not know. But no matter how many perspectives we seek, we still process information and make decisions through our lens, which is shaped by our experiences, biases, and relationships. While we can be aware of these influences, we also need to ensure we have diversity among those who make decisions about where funding goes in our community. It’s especially critical that we have greater racial diversity in leadership positions in our sector.

2. How do we balance relationships with accountability?

Trust-based philanthropy is an important approach to create a more equitable nonprofit sector. It focuses on building mutual relationships with organizations and supporting the work they know needs to happen. We must be responsive to our community and to nonprofits who are meeting our community’s needs, but we also need to continue to ask critical questions about our partnerships, the work we fund, and the impact it’s having to ensure we maximize the dollars we distribute.  

3. How do we support leaders of nonprofits?

Top leaders at nonprofit organizations are increasingly in a space of isolation. As funders, we often place high expectations on these leaders. We need to reflect on what we are asking them to do and how those expectations place value on certain tasks or actions. This goes back to the question of how we partner, along with financially investing in the work, so that nonprofit leaders have the support they need and we build a relationship of respect and trust as we work together to make an impact.

4. How do we stay centered where we can have the most impact?

Mid-Iowa Health Foundation, like many other funders, not only provides grants to nonprofit organizations, but we also look for opportunities to convene conversations, make connections, offer thought leadership, and support learning. While this allows us to maximize our impact on issues impacting children’s health, we also must take time to consider our purpose for doing this work, whether it fulfills a need, and whether someone else should be doing it. Otherwise, we risk being in a space that isn’t helpful.

5. How can we leverage partnerships to have a greater impact?

When I stepped into my role at Mid-Iowa Health Foundation, we were already participating as a thought leader and influencer in community conversations on children’s issues, but I think we’ve taken it to another level by carefully considering how we partner with the organizations we fund. One example is that we moved away from competitive grant cycles that require nonprofits to tell us a complete story on a piece of paper. Instead, we recognize that a broader conversation needs to happen first to understand an organization’s why, their priorities, their strengths, and where they see gaps and opportunities. Then we can determine if we can partner and the best ways to partner.

Being a small foundation has also meant that we must actively seek other funders to join us on projects. Building these kinds of partnerships leads to a greater collective response around an issue, an expanded sense of responsibility to the work, greater understanding and sharing of knowledge, and hopefully, greater opportunities to sustain the work.

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