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

Moving Forward Together interview series
Interview Pair (from left to right): Tania Shabazz, Compass Working Capital and Leah Hong, 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 closely 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 myself and others, created openness to understanding what funds are needed, and how to provide funds in the best way - which led to the question of how to best model this approach for other partnerships in the community.

Leah: The Letters Foundation directs funds to individuals and families, but engages with nonprofit partners through our Community Partners Program (CPP).  CPP was our first strategic grantmaking effort to outreach to nonprofits connected with families who would benefit from the resource. When we piloted this initiative, we used our general grants application, which we quickly learned didn’t align with our partners’ view of a trauma-informed, user-friendly, transparent process.  The distinction of having frontline advocates to vouch for potential grantees, with whom they had long-standing relationships with, was a significant advantage for re-examining our internal grants processes. (Previously, we didn’t have the benefit of a nonprofit partner to refer their constituents to us.)  We then spent last summer soliciting feedback from our nonprofit partners and hosted a series of working sessions to redesign a process that would work for all.  The conversation with Vu Le reinforced the importance of pausing to reflect on our practices, listen to feedback, and then act on that feedback in order to iterate on processes that would lead to more effective grantmaking.

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 considerable 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: The change in our application process represents the Foundation’s shift toward a paradigm that focuses on placing trust in nonprofit partners and trust in grantees. Our Community Partners Program’s central tenets are trust, collaboration, and encourages listening more than scrutinizing. It’s often hard for foundations and funders to listen to the actual needs of their beneficiaries, but listening, particularly to constituent voice, is critical to grantmaking 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 experience building partnerships in the National Network at Compass, I’ve learned there must be some aspect of shared values and commonalities around the approach to our work to be impactful. Leah and I both serve as a point person, which is critical for developing an effective partnership for supporting and funding families in our programs. You need a direct point person who you can share values, philosophies, and approaches to do the work effectively 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 tough power dynamic in grantee/funder relationships, but Tania, from day one, was able to speak truth to power in a way that helped us evolve. The power imbalance often allows for a level of dishonesty in the discourse between grantees and funders, but Tania remained steadfast in having the best interests of our constituents at heart.  We both learned through working together that we share many of the same values related to social justice and racial equity, and commonalities in lifting up our constituents by raising their voices when overlooked around decision-making tables.

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 from partners 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, because change is hard to make and takes time. 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: In working sessions with partners and in internal functions at Letters, Tania remains a source of inspiration at the foundation. Her work internally at Compass, to push our partnership forward, meant that Tania took initiative with her team, made sure everyone at Compass knew about the resource and its value to constituents, and continues to be a grant-leader with over $250,000 given to families connected to Compass’ services. It was wake up call for us to be able to open up space, and allow our partners to influence practices at the foundation, to learn, grow, and remain open to change.

Tania: It’s about striking a balance of 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 collectively bringing one’s own lived experiences into my trainings or discussions. Drawing that out from others and creating a shared experience together, usually leads to people being more open and connecting to something deeper. I have gotten to a place where I take a breath and come as I am (when I enter a space) and we all have to unpack things by starting with 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 our partners to do. The whole piece that Vu Le added about having more opportunities to expand the scope of funding has been difficult because Letters isn’t in the position to fund multi-year operating costs for institutions. While our funds are flexible and go directly to people connected to nonprofit services (a fairly rare practice), the work required of our partners to refer and shepherd constituents through our grants process, while feeling the general weight of starvation cycles pervasive in the nonprofit sector, remain significant challenges.  What would be helpful in addressing these issues, I really believe, is at the macro level: public policy changes that would impact the lives of our constituents in a more meaningful and sustainable way. Funders can begin to move in the direction of prioritizing and funding the work of advocacy groups pushing for more equitable legislation in communities that have been historically sidelined.

Tania:  A sub-team of coaches at Compass had to be built when the referrals were opened up as we quickly needed staffing support (because so many of our clients need financial assistance). Letters has a unique approach by providing strong efforts to increase financial resources through 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 together for a long time.

Leah: Recognizing and nurturing talent, particularly young leaders of color is also very important. Young leaders of color often experience compounded stress in the work environment (and in life), having to bear the burden of racism, while navigating their career steps, and often are tasked to educate their colleagues on practices related to diversity, equity and inclusion. This remains a pervasive issue across sectors. Organizational leaders have the responsibility of understanding the legacy of racism in this country, how it continues to show up in the most insidious ways, and work to change their practices and values in the workplace and beyond.

How will you begin to address this?

Leah: Letters is engaging in internal movement-building by raising awareness on systems of oppression, racial inequity, and privilege with our staff.  This is important not only for how we engage with our work and relationships between colleagues, nonprofit partners, and constituents but also as a person living today in this country. It’s also about recognizing (as one of the few people of color at the Letters Foundation) the need for self-care, and to invite more people into the conversation. No one person can carry the load of this work alone.

Tania:  This is a lifelong journey for all of us to continue this work. We have to keep building context and awareness of why systems are the way that they are and acknowledge our role in making the changes we need to for those who have been pushed out. This is bigger than all of us, but it affects us all in ways we have yet to fully see. We must continue to get people involved in order to find alignment across like-minded people, hoping to build something significant enough to impact social change. We can start by focusing on things that are already in motion in the nonprofit sector and fields of service 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, let’s work towards understanding one another better when we all sit together in a room and reflect deeply within ourselves as we walk back to different spaces. It means something deeper when we challenge ourselves to do better. 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 discussion 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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