Building Philanthropic Capacity to Better Support Advocacy, Organizing, and Civic Engagement to Advance Racial Equity

Posted on June 7, 2019 | Leni Dworkis, Weissberg Foundation

The Weissberg Foundation’s Reframing Empowerment Fund explores and advances efforts to change how the greater Washington region sees and therefore transforms itself, particularly in terms of how power, opportunity, and potential are built and distributed. The fund supports ten different community-based organizations in the DC region that are deeply committed to advancing racial equity, have operating budgets of $1.5 million or less, are predominately person of color led, and take intentional steps to use advocacy, organizing, and/or civic engagement to foster change.

Earlier this year, we asked our grantee partners, “How can philanthropy be a better partner to you in your work?”. Below, their responses have been distilled into six key recommendations.

1. Redesign grant processes and deliverables to reduce the burden on grantee partners. Nonprofits are often tasked with tracking, compiling, and analyzing data, which can be useful in assessing their progress, challenges, and impact. However, funders often place an undue burden on nonprofits to conform to formal and rigorous evaluation standards that take significant time to implement, duplicate existing efforts, or require extensive training to put into place. Funders should be aware of the knowledge, capacity, and experience grantee partners have around reporting and evaluation; considerate of current evaluative practices organizations are already using; flexible and patient when suggesting new systems, timelines, and structures; and open to feedback and change.

2. Increase transparency about grant review processes, particularly by providing feedback to grant applicants. Because grantmaking is complex and multi-faceted, it’s important that nonprofits get looped into the process. By providing feedback, foundations are able to eliminate some of the mystery around the review process. Reviewer comments can allow organizations to build capacity in grant writing, better assess what funders may be looking for in future applications, and consider their work from another perspective. For more insight into developing a comprehensive grantmaking process, take a peek at some early lessons learned based on applicant feedback for the Empowerment Fund.

3. Deepen understandings of advocacy, organizing, and civic engagement. Foundations should know not only what their grantees do, but also how they do it in order to more effectively support and advance the work.

  • Advocacy – seeks to influence the political, economic, and social landscapes that shape the realities and lived experiences of groups, particularly those who are under-resourced.
  • Organizing – focuses on the concept of social and systems-level change being driven by the community and those closest to the issues, while often exploring the role of power, strategies for disrupting inequity, and fostering self-advocacy for those who are directly impacted.
  • Civic Engagement – involves making a difference in the civic aspect of communities and skill-building, sharing knowledge, and building values as a means of creating change.

4. Connect grantees to funders and to each other. Connecting grantees is a great way to assist them as they work to navigate the philanthropic landscape. By connecting grantees to funders, we can help to grow their operational and programmatic budgets, promote longevity in their work, expand the scope of their initiatives, and help broaden their reach. By connecting grantees to each other, we can seed opportunities for learning and growth, networks of like-minded individuals, partnerships or collaborations, and inspiration from one grantee to another.

5. Build the capacity of grantees. Capacity building is vital as grantees work to advance their missions and values. Foundations can:

  • Survey grantees to determine their needs.
  • Offer flexibility in funding to allow for risk taking, which allows nonprofits to learn and grow from both successes and failures.
  • Link current and previous grantees to assist in resource sharing and knowledge building.
  • Connect organizations to experts who can assist with development and growth.
  • Provide training and education to grantees on structural, organizational, and programmatic topics.

6. Center racial equity in our work. In expressing our commitment to social justice, it is important that we as funders use our power and privilege to amplify the work of our grantees who are reaching the most under-resourced populations. We need to understand why we fight for racial equity, what the barriers to achieving racial equity are, where the issues are localized, how to create and establish change, and strategies for creating long-lasting impact. Further, there needs to be a cultural and structural commitment to racial equity which is built into funding strategy, decision making, and operations. Foundations should consider the values of our program areas, whose voices are being uplifted, who is making decisions and how they are being made, what power structures/dynamic exist internally, and the ways in which staff are trained to identify and examine their own privilege. To learn more about advancing racial equity in the DC region, check out more of our early lessons learned from Reframing <Washington>.

One small way the Weissberg Foundation is integrating the above recommendations into our work is by partnering with GEO, Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers, EPIP-DC, United Philanthropy Forum, and YNPNdc for the third annual Beverages to Enhance Equity in Relationships (BEER) event on Friday, June 21st at Tonic at Quigley’s. Appetizers and drinks will be provided for local nonprofits and funders as we mingle and discuss ways to break down power imbalances and strengthen relationships in our sector. Learn more and register HERE.


Leni Dworkis is the program manager at the Weissberg Foundation, where she provides robust programmatic support to Grantee partners seeking to advance social, racial, and criminal justice. Prior to joining the foundation in 2019, she served in research and programmatic capacities at the Vera Institute of Justice where she contributed to strategic development initiatives, measurement and evaluation efforts, and exploratory investigation around reaching and serving under-resourced and marginalized crime victims. Her long-standing passion for working with and giving voice to underserved populations has fueled her interests in breaking down oppressive barriers and rebuilding social structures to better meet the needs of all individuals.