Second Interview Pair: Tref Borden (the Fish Family Foundation) and David Cohen (Doc Wayne Youth Services)

Moving Forward Together interview series
tref and david
Interview Pair (from left to right): Tref Borden, Executive Director of the Fish Family Foundation, and David Cohen, Executive Director of Doc Wayne Youth Services

Our second interview pair for the Moving Forward Together interview blog series features Tref Borden, Executive Director of the Fish Family Foundation, and David Cohen, Executive Director of Doc Wayne Youth Services (2014 Social Innovator). An important part of Tref and David's relationship building was their willingness to be open-minded and trusting of one another from the start. The Foundation is supportive of Doc Wayne's new initiatives, and both parties express interest in engaging in social change work. We hope you enjoy reading more about how Tref and David managed to move beyond power dynamics and create a vastly different model of a nonprofit and funder relationship. 

Tell us about the time the two of you met. 

Tref: We saw David’s pitch when Doc Wayne was a SIF Innovator. Later, Susan Musinsky connected us given the Fish Family Foundation’s new interest in supporting mental health services for underserved populations.

David: After my SIF experience, I was introduced to Tref. I was invited to an ED lunch, and I was sitting next to Larry Fish and got to know him, Tref, and a trustee, Thaleia Schlesinger better.  I was welcomed into their Foundation family. Getting to know Tref never felt like a lot of pressure -- it just naturally evolved. It’s become more of a model of a transparent, trusting, and supportive friendship. You cannot think of relationship building as a transaction. We’ve built our relationship to the point where everything is on the table, and she and the trustees only want to see us succeed, and that is why they do this -- they’re mission-driven. If we’re struggling in certain facets, we know that it is okay...because not everything is going to run smoothly. Running a nonprofit is not perfect, and the nature of grant-giving is not precise either. 

Tref: We focused on what we as grantmakers could do better and began hosting quarterly ED lunches so the trustees could learn directly from our grantees. Those conversations led us in the direction of building more transparency with our grantees as partners. As David said, it was important for us to build trust. If something goes sideways for a grantee, we want our partners to come to us if they need help. We recognize that if nonprofits are struggling financially or otherwise, it is an opportunity for us to invest in supporting them rather than walking away. We learned this over time, but it goes both ways where it’s not always roses, and sometimes we’ve made investments that haven’t worked out or where the leadership did not develop as a partner, the way David did. It has to go both ways.

The application process can be a roadblock in the early stages of relationship building. What was your experience like?

David: I love the Fish Family’s application process. From my perspective, we apply to many foundations, and it is very time-consuming. The Fish Family Foundation makes it as simple as possible to provide enough information without taxing us with time. They make it easier for us to share information with them so we can have more time focusing on our mission as well as building new relationships.

Tref: When we ask for information from an organization, it is to help us make a sound decision about our funding. In terms of a description of the organization or a particular program--they often already have that somewhere that they’ve submitted to another funder.  But we don’t have a formal application or proposal form; we have them send whatever their most recent proposal was to another funder, and they don’t even have to cross out the name or anything. If there’s missing information, we’ll call and ask questions. We don’t have a lot of reporting requirements either. We view it as our responsibility to follow-up with our partners to learn about the impact of our funding. We know our grantees well enough to know that they’re already asking themselves the questions they need to ask as part of the feedback loop for their program.

We’re investing in leaders and their staff, and they have better things to do with their time than filling out forms for us.

As an investor and a supporter, I don’t want them to spend time doing unnecessary paperwork and administrative tasks.

This question is for Tref. Did you witness any change in the application process since working at the foundation?

Tref: When I came here ten years ago, the foundation asked grant seekers to submit a proposal, but the foundation initiated most of our funding. Later, when we expanded our grant making beyond our citizenship and immigration work, we did our due diligence to create an annual grant portfolio. Some of the grantees we selected didn’t even know they were under consideration. We did our legwork, and there are plenty of resources out there, such as the Giving Common, Guidestar, and other funders. Generally, the only time we ask for a full proposal is when the request is for something new or specific. We need the right information, but try not to make it difficult for the applicant.

David: Ever since I have known the Fish Family Foundation, it’s been like that. There is an initiative we are currently working on.  I reached out to Tref to get her thoughts and see if this is something they would consider assisting us with.  From there, we still need to provide a formal concept-paper plus additional supporting information.

Tref: I don’t remember foundations talking about this much, even five years ago, but now it seems that a lot of funders are taking this kind of approach or are more interested in trying it out. I was at a funders’ briefing in Lowell last summer and mentioned that we accept applications that have been submitted to another funder.  Most of the others in the room thought it was a great idea, but none were doing it yet. More grantors may move in this direction, although they may want to test the waters a bit first and see how it works for other funders.

What is helping the relationship forward? How do you maintain balance in the relationship?

Tref: David and I contact each other regularly. I get that the leaders of nonprofits are busy and they don’t have a ton of time for idle chitchat, but David has always been good about scheduling check-ins. Over the three or four years, David and I have built up trust and mutual respect.  He has shared his challenges, such as managing his staff or working with his board.  Even if he’s not asking for advice, just thinking through certain challenges, that are completely unrelated to the grant request. I’ve also shared with him frustrations I have had or asked for his input when I need perspective from the nonprofit’s side.  For us, it’s an ongoing conversation and a relationship that isn’t just about specific issues or funding requests but as colleagues. There is nothing you can do to decrease the power dynamic between a grantor and a grantee, but you can mitigate it by the way you interact with people and how you treat them.

David: Over the past few years, I was going through a battle with cancer, and so knowing Tref and her interests, some conversations were about things she enjoys and is trained in that could be helpful to me like yoga and meditation. Again, it is not always about raising money. There were ways that she was able to help me navigate my journey personally. It has become more of a friendship as much as it can be under the circumstances.

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

David: I’m facing the same challenges that probably every nonprofit in Boston is facing--there are so many of us. Building new relationships, finding new supporters that are not overextended and interested in our mission, and being able to raise general operating dollars are items I think about daily. We have to find a way to keep our lights on and create a culture that’s going to support our team and allow them to grow as they are the backbone of all programming. From an industry standpoint, a lot of my team are social workers and mental health counselors, and it is a challenge to live in the region with their salary. Some have incredible student loans, and there is a big challenge across the country--you’re trying to educate future leaders to improve society and impact the lives of others, but you’re not going to be able to compensate them fairly? That is a significant challenge industry-wide. When building a budget and trying to reward people for their incredible work, we often have restrictions on our dollars so it’s hard to provide enough so that people can maintain a sense of well-being and happiness.

Tref: We’re understaffed right now and time-constrained. My challenge is that I’m trying to increase our annual funding, but without enough time to process it effectively. We’re also trying to go beyond traditional grantmaking with more strategic funding.  For example, to David’s point earlier about nonprofit staff salaries.  In reviewing the budget for a grant request, we saw that the salary of an experienced clinician was going to be $42,000 and one of my trustees said, “that is not enough to live on.” We have been talking about what role philanthropy can play in pushing for more livable wages or some way to make public service feasible and accessible for people who don’t have other financial resources. So far, that conversation has gone nowhere. Our struggle is that we don’t know how to approach the problem – it is significant and systemic, and we are a small foundation. Just giving money to our grantees to pay their staff more does not address the overall problem and it is not a sustainable solution.

David: Additionally, many foundations ask for data, but many prefer not to invest in helping nonprofits with monitoring and evaluation. It is a critical piece of our work so we can measure impact and how we are doing as an organization, but finding extra dollars to invest is a challenge. If funders allowed measurement and evaluation to be included as a line in a budget they support, it would make a significant difference to nonprofits.

Tref: I know it’s hard to walk away from money, but you do have to consider what the money is costing you. I heard from one grantee about a donor that is starting inserting themselves in the organization’s work after providing a large grant, telling them what staff they should let go and requesting program changes. Other grantees have shared how much time they spend on reporting, hosting donors who want a presentation on outcomes, etc.  In the short term, yes, you need the money, but in the long run... I don’t know, and I’m not sure it is always worth it. This is another reason why the relationship between grantors and grantees is really important – funders need to know when they are interfering with a grantee’s ability to be successful, or they will never do things differently. We can do things differently here because we trust David; we trust his leadership, his organization, and his staff. So, if they tell us we need to do things differently than we thought, we’ll listen. My trustees are very committed to it as well.

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?

Tref: The one thing I can tell people is to be patient because it takes time. You don’t develop this overnight, but it’s worth it. I can’t do my job unless I can partner with organizations like David’s or others that do the work we’re trying to support.

David: My advice to nonprofit leaders would be to understand that things take time, and raising money should not be a transaction; it’s a conversation, a relationship. If you think of it [as a transaction] you’re doomed, you’re not going to succeed. And boards need to understand this as well; they need to support the CEO/ED in relationship building and to open some doors and to be part of that conversation. I don’t think all nonprofit leaders get that support all of the time. Sometimes people are just looking at the bottom line, but there’s more to it. There’s a long-term strategy here.

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