These are just a handful of questions Iowa grantmakers have been asking through learning and connection with members of the Iowa Council of Foundations (ICoF) network. Over the past several years, ICoF has provided opportunities for funders to think strategically about philanthropy’s role in affecting community well-being outcomes – inspiring shifts in organizational policies and practices, as well as new approaches to investing. Today, Iowa funders are supporting a variety of initiatives that go beyond grantmaking to direct-service programs. Efforts include research to inform policy decisions, capacity building of diverse system-change leaders, and community-driven tactics that advance racial equity.
Not only has ICoF intentionally guided funders on this journey, but the organization also has considered its own evolution. In May 2023, ICoF released a new strategic framework that defines its place within an ecosystem of grantmaking members, nonprofits, communities, and the public sector that can collectively move toward a thriving, equitable Iowa.
“Philanthropy is about continuing to play the traditional grantmaking role in more effective ways, coupled with embracing nontraditional roles, such as policy advocacy, convening, and research,” said Kari McCann Boutell, President of ICoF. “These roles have the potential to really elevate community voice to a place where community members can define and articulate what equity looks like to them. Philanthropy’s essential role is so much about relationships and centering people in this work.”
“ICoF and its members really are after – and want to help build – stronger communities,” said Matt Mendenhall, ICoF Board Chair and President and CEO of the Regional Development Authority in the Quad Cities. “I think about the evolution and how we are expanding our awareness and thinking and priorities around the community at large, as opposed to our own organizations.”
Mid-Iowa Health Foundation President and CEO Dr. Nalo Johnson echoes these sentiments stating, “As entities whose missions seek to address various needs within our communities, ICoF members are being mindful of the ways in which we can bring our resources to the table to help our communities build relationships and be innovative in identifying policies and programs that have the greatest community impacts.”
At an ICoF learning session in 2017, the grantmaking attendees played Deal Breakers | Deal Makers. The card game presented different personas – a grantseeker with a good idea but without a formal application or a grant application littered with grammatical errors – and attendees decided whether they would make a deal in each scenario.
“That was when we really began looking at power and what that power imbalance looks like,” said Denise Swartz, Senior Program Officer at Mid-Iowa Health Foundation. “We may say that we are open to everyone, but maybe we are using our power in ways that perpetuate who we work with.”
This session was part of a cohort learning experience on “openness” that lasted two years. Those who participated explored how trust and power dynamics play out in philanthropy’s policies, practices, and behaviors. By the end, the group understood that “strategic openness is when ‘funders are actively influenced by the needs and ideas of grantees, applicants, and the community,'" a final report stated.
The openness cohort launched two years after McCann Boutell became the leader of ICoF. When she joined, ICoF was focused on serving its members with philanthropy management needs and exploring ways of helping members collaborate on investing in shared priorities. McCann Boutell’s own interest in how philanthropy as a sector can impact outcomes across issues inspired deeper collective learning.
The openness cohort attendees also left with more questions and a desire for additional reflection. Over the next few years, grants from national funding networks and connections with regional and national philanthropic leaders allowed ICoF members to learn about the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy’s “Power Moves” guide; Grantmakers for Effective Organizations’ capacity-building and participatory grantmaking efforts; and Trust-Based Philanthropy Project’s work on addressing power dynamics and building equity into philanthropic systems.
“The ICoF journey, and my leadership journey, are both about thoughtfulness and strategy,” said McCann Boutell, “but also about serendipitous timing and leveraging opportunities.”
Each cohort learning experience has brought a variety of funding stakeholders together, including community, corporate, and private foundations in various geographic settings. As participants have engaged in reading and learning together, they also have offered their own experiences and perspectives to conversations and had opportunities to reflect on how they could integrate new strategies and approaches into their work.
“The cohorts have been structured so that I’m not just sitting and listening on a quarterly basis,” said Swartz. “I’m actively building a plan for how to use this learning and providing time and space to think strategically.”
As discussions among cohort participants dove into topics of trust, power dynamics, and empathy, several funders began to reflect on inequities – both with social issues they were invested in addressing and within the broader philanthropic sector. Several members were ready for deeper discussions on racial equity specifically, but McCann Boutell recognized that not all members were there.
Then in 2019, ICoF’s Board of Directors made the decision to adopt “advancing racial equity” as a strategic priority, demonstrating its commitment to raising awareness of how philanthropy has been, and is, influenced by biases and prejudices and how it can work toward justice.
“We came to a point where we made a decision to put a stake in the ground around equity and racial equity,” McCann Boutell said, “and to guide and move forward with those who were deeply ready and to thoughtfully engage those who had not yet started, or were just beginning, their equity journeys.”
In 2021, ICoF hosted a year-long Racial Equity Cohort experience that engaged 54 participants representing 27 member organizations. Learning opportunities focused on structural racism that exists in the U.S., blind spots in philanthropy work, and solutions and strategies that could create change.
Mindful of her identity as a White woman, McCann Boutell engaged BIPOC regional and national leaders who could facilitate conversations that “helped push members to advance in this space in ways they see reflected across all of the country and here in Iowa." Participants also completed a 40-question assessment of their current organizational practices and joined small group conversations to reflect on their own structures and behaviors.
“The way we did the racial equity cohort was really powerful,” said Mendenhall, “It brought so much more awareness to my work with my organization about what racial equity work is about.” He has continued to reflect on how inequities are not just outcomes, but also drivers of social problems, as a way of understanding where there are opportunities to target resources to strengthen communities.
Through this learning journey, ICoF also reflected on the organization’s ability to affect change within the philanthropic sector. A new strategic framework establishes ICoF’s role of influencing its member network, as well as the public sector that makes policies, in a collaborative effort that drives toward a thriving, equitable Iowa.
“The work has more squarely positioned ICoF in the space of using an equity and justice lens for how to do the work,” said McCann Boutell. The focus on equity is intentional, but not prescriptive, she added, because the goal is to encourage funders to work in partnership with nonprofits and communities to define what priorities for their communities should be.
“Putting philanthropy in relationship with communities and nonprofits that serve their communities will position them to effectively invest the resources to support equitable outcomes,” she said.
This is an example of how ICoF is using the word “guide” intentionally as a part of its updated mission. “We can guide the network through leadership and practice,” McCann Boutell said.
Last year, ICoF offered a series on rural equity for funders in smaller communities to reflect on what it means to foster welcoming and inclusive places as Iowa’s demographics shift. This spring, ICoF expanded on the conversation, in collaboration with Mid-Iowa Health Foundation, diving deeper into rural health equity. These conversations have elevated examples of policy advocacy work that philanthropy can invest in to positively affect population health, highlighting a critical piece of ICoF’s new strategic framework.
Working to advance public policies that strengthen the philanthropic sector, like expanding Endow Iowa tax credits, is one area ICoF is leading in advocacy. It also is encouraging members to reflect on how they can support policy advocacy, such as providing data and information to inform decision makers and providing capacity building opportunities for nonprofits and community leaders.
When ICoF released its new strategic framework to its network in May, it invited Dr. Cara James, President and CEO of the national Grantmakers In Health organization, to talk about philanthropy’s role in policy advocacy to achieve health equity.
At a reception co-hosted with Mid-Iowa Health Foundation, Dr. James challenged both organizations’ board members to consider: “If we’re trying to achieve better health for all through better philanthropy, we have to influence policy … [in order to] change the environment and get to the [health] goals that we’re trying to achieve. If we don’t, we’re really just tinkering at the edges.”
Mendenhall appreciates how the new ICoF strategic framework defines grantmakers’ influence with nonprofits, communities, and the public sector. “If those are our priorities and key relationships,” he said, “it helps us to be more proactive. These are the important relationships we need to invest in, and it gives us that focus and roadmap to be able to move forward in that way.”
McCann Boutell views the strategic framework as a long-term commitment that will help advance the sector: “Five years from now, I hope our sector looks very different. I hope philanthropic institutions are positioned in their communities and are actively listening to their communities. I think our new strategy framework will help guide our network in that direction and many of our members have already made incredible strides in centering community voice.”
“The journey with ICoF feels authentic,” said Swartz who has been involved in several learning cohorts and has served in leadership roles with the network. “It has been organic and very intentional.”
ICoF has made changes, such as intentionally diversifying its board committees and requiring salaries to be posted with job descriptions in its career center. The time and space for funders to reflect on their organizations has also supported shifts in their practices and approaches.
Mid-Iowa Health Foundation has adjusted how it partners with nonprofits and the community over time. For example, it now asks to meet with potential grantseekers before they apply for a grant, staff are engaged in learning about issues within the community and have convened conversations around pressing issues, and application invitation language and reporting requirements have become more inviting and flexible. Having best practices to draw on from regional and national organizations has helped explain these shifts to the Foundation’s Board of Directors and partners, Swartz said.
“When I started in the philanthropic sector many years ago, there was a guarding of that curtain between applicants and grantmakers,” she said. “There’s been a big shift in philanthropy as far as getting to know, getting involved, and getting to really deeply understand what the needs are in the community, from the community.”
Mid-Iowa Health Foundation also has identified “more than money” opportunities beyond grantmaking as it has focused on supporting system-changes that address the social determinants of health. In 2017, the Foundation launched the HealthConnect Fellowship that invests in Central Iowa advocates who are leading policy advocacy work. Through three cohorts, the Foundation has supported 28 individuals with a financial award, mentoring, and leadership development opportunities as they work toward goals that will have broad impact on improving child and family well-being.
Most recently, under the leadership of Dr. Nalo Johnson, who joined Mid-Iowa Health Foundation in 2021, the Foundation brought community stakeholders together to launch UpLift – The Central Iowa Basic Income Pilot. The three-year community study is tracking the health and well-being impacts of 110 participants who receive a monthly basic income to inform how this may be an effective approach to reducing poverty. It is an example of the types of opportunities the Foundation sees to elevate data-driven, community-informed solutions.
For Jelena (Ena) Babic Barnes, being connected with ICoF as she became Executive Director of the Iowa Credit Union Foundation helped with her own leadership development. She joined the Racial Equity Cohort in 2021 and found that the experience was especially beneficial in “providing a safe space to lead these important conversations, showing best practice examples from other states and other funders, gathering people, and providing additional educational support of what we can do together," she said. "I learned a ton with ICoF about how to approach these topics, create space to talk about it, and how to lead with intention centered around equity.”
Most recently, the Iowa Credit Union Foundation released “Economic Realities of Communities of Color in Iowa: A Statewide Report,” which identifies the needs and constraints of Iowans in achieving financial well-being. The report defines financial well-being as more than just wealth within a financial institution, and looks at how issues, including child care, housing, access to health care, and educational attainment have a strong influence. The report also elevates evidence-based policies that credit unions and communities can prioritize to promote financial inclusion based on the data, and the Foundation is identifying initiatives to invest from those findings.
Babic Barnes recently joined the ICoF Board of Directors and appreciates the increase in diverse representation throughout the organization’s leadership roles. She brings her own expertise in philanthropy and lived experience as a new Iowan.
“Being part of the ICoF board is one step in sharing knowledge and experiences that are very much different than other colleagues on the board,” said Babic Barnes, “and how I can bring that to enhance the work ICoF is leading, and how we collectively can support the growth of philanthropy in Iowa in line with values and strategic principles ICoF just adopted.”
Mendenhall has reflected on conversations with ICoF members about the role of philanthropy in tending to the garden versus scattering seeds randomly. It’s an image that’s resonated as his own organization has gone through strategic planning recently to shift from a sole focus on general grantmaking to targeting efforts around four core areas: affordable housing, life skills development, mental health, and child care.
“It’s that expansive thinking about what are we really after,” he said. “We want stronger communities. As resources get scarcer, I think we all want to make sure philanthropic resources are appropriately applied and used.”
Iowa funders are making shifts to center communities and advance equity.
Teenagers in jumpsuits lying on yoga mats, their eyes closed, their bodies still. This is the image Megan Hoxhalli describes as remarkable for juvenile detention, a place where youth arrive shaken, dysregulated, and scared about their future.