Introducing Our First Interview Pair: Leah Hong (Letters Foundation) and Tania Shabazz (Compass Working Capital)

Moving Forward Together interview series
leah and tania
Interview Pair (from left to right): Tania Shabazz, Financial Services Manager at Compass Working Capital and Leah Hong Director of Community Impact at Letters Foundation

Our first interview pair for the Moving Forward Together interview blog series features Leah Hong of Letters Foundation and Tania Shabazz of Compass Working Capital. Leah has worked with Tania for the past two years on their Community Partners Program, which was the first strategic initiative of Letters to work with a nonprofit organization. Both Leah and Tania were willing to address their personal and institutional challenges, which resulted in the streamlining of processes to help provide more financial assistance to individuals and families. We are eager to share this piece, and we hope others will find their approach to resolving power dynamics well calculated and practical. 

Q & A

What did you learn from the “Reimagining the Nonprofit/Funder Relationship: A conversation with Vu Le on building EPIC partnerships” event that you have put into practice?

Tania: Honesty jumps out the most for me. Leah and I had it from the beginning. Continuing with honesty throughout the partnership between with myself and others, created openness to understanding what funds are needed, meaning understanding our work to provide funds in the best way, which led to the question of how best to model this for other partnerships in the community.

Leah: The Letters Foundation’s funding goes to individuals and families rather than institutions, so over the past two years, the Community Partners program was the first strategic outreach of partnering with nonprofits that we’d done in a while. We initially used our application process with constituents who they didn’t know or weren’t tied to community-based groups, which led to a much more rigorous application process as there wasn’t as much of an established connection. But after establishing relationships, we found out that the application was inaccessible, too cumbersome, not trauma-informed, and created too much stress. We found it necessary to have connections and existing relationships, so why not place more trust in the advocates? We spent an entire summer devoted to looking at community partners and what they had to go through to get grants from them, and we wanted to get feedback to see how the application process could become more accessible and more trauma-informed. We wanted to come to a consensus about what would make things better and more informed, and we implemented a new process next fall.

Tania: The process is way more seamless. The application process is also much shorter than it used to be, which pushes the turnaround time to a much quicker timeframe. The Letters Foundation was willing to listen honestly to do the work better—this created space for partners to have a voice and honest conversation, which is a huge highlighting point. It is hard to have that environment when it is not invited, and it is hard to acknowledge the real needs of organizations without honesty and opening up the conversations.

Leah: It’s about placing more trust in partners. The application represents the Foundation’s shift toward a paradigm that focuses more on trust in the frontline staff of nonprofit partners and trust in grantees. Our central tenet is trust in grantees and partnership, and listening is also super important. It’s often hard for foundations to listen, and listening is critical to grant-making that works. 

What is one thing you have learned from each other?

Tania: Lots of things have become transactional in the corporate world, but the human element needs to be at the forefront. Having built a partnership with Leah and through my work on the National Network side at Compass, there are shared values and commonalities around the approach to our work. We both serve as a point person, which is critical for developing a partnership and building on that for funding and programs. You need a direct point person who you can share values, philosophies, and approaches to do the work on both sides. Shared understandings are fundamental on the business side, but the human element and being in touch with who you are and leading with that is so important and led to a deeper connection on our work.

Leah: There’s often a power dynamic, but Tania was able to speak truth to power in a way that helped us change our application process. Funding often leads people to stop listening, which leads to a power imbalance and a level of dishonesty in the discourse, but Tania had the best interests of the constituents that both organizations were working to support in mind. Every sort of interaction at the foundation spoke to her persistence and dedication to the work, and these commonalities were both tied to social justice from different contexts, but the values stayed the same.

Tania: Having a bond led to us being able to push for what we advocate for and to support one another. By Leah sharing opportunities to discuss process change and recognizing the questions about their own internal processes in a room full of community partners to address respective constituencies’ needs, demonstrated a funder’s level of curiosity, which led to learning more about what the process entails and having a better understanding of what that looks and feels like for their community partners.

Was Tania able to go in and influence people in the funder space?

Tania: Inspiring change is the word I would use, rather than influencing. Witnessing that inspiration and being a part of that gave me all the more drive to continue that mission forward. You can’t push the work forward without motivation. As of right now, lots of funds go to white leaders, white CEOs, and white executives. who oftentimes are not deeply connected to those who are underserved. So, we must continue to inspire change by finding a commonplace we can relate to and build on bringing more awareness and understanding of what is really needed to shift the funds in ways that are more impactful…

Leah: Bringing in Tania’s voice in working sessions and to partners was something that caught people’s attention. The work itself internally at Compass to push the partnership forward meant that Tania hit the ground running, took the initiative with the team, and made sure that everyone at Compass knew about the changes made to the process. Compass continues to be a grant-leader (with $250,000 given to families in a year and a half), which is amazing because she made the process easier and was able to make it successful. It was wake up call for us to be able to open up more space, and Tania has been brought back to educate people within the Letters Foundation about the best practices of financial coaching in the present, leading to a new alignment in our practices.

Tania: It’s about striking a balance and being straightforward but also bringing people together, as we’re all human beings. We’re all trying to live our values and embody them, and my approach involves bringing one’s own lived experiences and drawing that out from people which usually leads to being more open and connecting to something deeper. I have gotten to a place where I take a breath and comes as I am (when I enter a space). and we all have to unpack things by starting as ourselves, the essential aspects of humanity, and how we operate with one another. That applies universally to anything in life.

What challenges are you currently facing? What would be helpful to you in addressing this challenge?

Leah: We’ve asked our partners and Tania to do a lot, and it’s always a struggle on my end to balance and manage how much we’re asking because it does take a toll on our partners, whether that’s the additional responsibilities for Tania, having to manage a partnership, which is often challenging, or lots of added work. The whole piece that Vu Le added about paying people and having more opportunities to expand the scope of funding has been hard because Letters isn’t in the position to fund multi-year operations costs for institutions. Transitions have begun to occur, but it’s hard to get partner staff to manage the partnerships and also continue with their work on the front lines. It’s also hard when people are set up in systems created for them to fail. Our partner staff is at times under-resourced or not adequately compensated for talent, so we’re trying to manage what the best balance is between knowing partners’ ability and being aware of their time.

Tania:  A sub-team at Compass had to be built because when the referrals were opened up, we needed assistance (because many of our clients need financial assistance). Letters has a unique approach which they provide strong efforts to increase financial resources by listening and streamlining their referral processes, knowing partners have limited capacity. In recognizing this fact, we continue to “fight the good fight” together, while building the internal support system and infrastructure at Compass, for our work to thrive for a long time.

Leah: Recognizing and nurturing talent, particularly with young leaders of color (which is lacking, particularly in the nonprofit/philanthropic sector), is also very important. The piece missing from work on nurturing talent is often nurturing the ability of young leaders of color doing the work on the ground every day, who often aren’t recognized and compensated enough.

How will you begin to address this?

Leah: Letters is trying to do movement-building and raising awareness around systems of oppression and privilege with our staff, and raising up these issues and having more awareness around what they mean for constituents, partners, and more broadly, what it means to be a person in this country. It’s also about recognizing (as one of the few people of color at the Letters Foundation) that I also need self-care, and that I need to invite more people into the conversation. No one person can carry the load of this work by themselves.

Tania: This is a lifelong journey for all of us to continue this work. We have to continue to build context and awareness of why systems are the way that they are, and acknowledge what your role is in making the changes you want to make, in order to make room for those who have been pushed out. This is bigger than all of us, but it affects all of our work. We must continue to get people involved in order to find alignment across like-minded people, hoping to build something significant. And we want to alleviate a lot of these voids, but if we can focus on things that are already moving while making the movements where we are most present, that’s important too. Things get diluted depending on whose hands they sit in, but there’s also a risk in being brutally honest. So, all of us finding an understanding of what happens when we sit together in a room, but then all walk back to different spaces means something deeper. I often think about those who came before us—if those people didn’t push, we wouldn’t be where we are today. Not all of us will have the opportunity to make a significant change, but the small gestures make a difference too. We have to go back to the idea that we’re all worthy and ask, how do we make space for people to give their gifts to the world and to shine their light? I hope this inspires others and that this kind of energy continues to spread because we want this to be contagious.

What is one piece of encouraging relationship-building advice you would share with other leaders in the sector who are looking to build trust in their relationship?

Leah: Take more time to listen than to speak.

Tania: Know that to those you give, they know best what to do with it.

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