Third Interview Pair: Toni Elka (Future Chefs) and Klare Shaw (Liberty Mutual Insurance)

Moving Forward Together interview series
Interview Pair (from left to right): Toni Elka, Future Chefs, and Klare Shaw, Liberty Mutual Insurance, at "Re-imagining the Nonprofit/Funder Relationship: A Conversation with Vu Le on building EPIC Partnerships" in April 2019

Our third interview pair for the Moving Forward Together interview blog series features Toni Elka, Executive Director of Future Chefs and Klare Shaw, National Director of Programs at Liberty Mutual Insurance. Toni and Klare's approach to resolving power dynamics began with an awareness of how their leadership presence would affect the quality of their relationship. As Klare mentions, Toni chose to be direct and confident from the very beginning. Similarly, Klare was willing to help Toni through any of her challenges. We hope you enjoy reading more about Toni and Klare's journey towards a more trusting and stronger relationship. 

What is your big takeaway from the ''Re-imagining the Nonprofit/Funder Relationship: A Conversation with Vu Le on building EPIC Partnerships'' event? 
Klare: Attending the Vu Le event with Toni was a good reminder to be more attentive and respectful of the time of all my partners. 

Toni: It reaffirmed to me that it is going to take a while for the philanthropic system that we have to have more equity. Power dynamics are always more or less challenging; it’s not that nonprofit leaders are counting every single hiccup, but successful partnerships mean a commitment to developing an open relationship. That’s worked out well for the two of us, don’t you think Klare?

Toni: When I am with funders, and I don’t know them well, I try to establish a one-on-one connection with them.

I find that by listening, giving, and paying attention to their needs, the relationship evolves more authentically, making room for us to talk through any of the challenges we might have.

Klare: A lot of it has to do with how you show up. My way of thinking is: I should be grateful to nonprofit partners for doing the work. It’s not about a funder’s background necessarily, but it’s their mindset of how they interact. Sometimes, when meeting a funder, more novice executive directors are showing up nervous or timid, but they may not understand that funders are people too. We are all in this trying to solve challenging social problems, and we really should be helping one another. 

What is one thing you have learned from each other?
Toni: One thing I have learned from Klare is that funders care about our projects. She’s also very accessible, so I wasn’t afraid to open up to her. 

Klare: Toni is pretty fearless and truthful; she is okay about saying when things are not going well (either with her work or in the relationship). A lot of nonprofit leaders are not as direct. That’s something that comes with confidence, and I think we don’t hear it enough.

What is helping the relationship move forward? 

Toni: Our relationship has to do with the funding mission at Liberty Mutual and how it aligns with our work. It’s a plus that we like and respect each other. I feel seen by Klare.

Klare: A lot of times, we meet outside of the office, and this helps us get a different perspective on things. I have a lot of empathy for the issues and challenges Toni has faced in sustaining the mission of her organization. She also is genuinely committed to the teens and young adults in Future Chefs, and she engages directly with them daily. It’s not a client/provider type relationship. Feeling that sense of urgency and investment from her fuels my respect for her. She’s upfront about race, class, culture, and discrimination, so while Future Chefs is about culinary skills Toni uses that as a vehicle to do so many other things. 

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?

Klare: It’s going to seem preachy, but it’s really to place the people who are doing the work at the center of the work. When you give them that platform, and you have that perspective, it makes all aspects of your decision-making easier.

Toni: I would say to maintain your communication with people. I try my best to connect with all the people that I work with. I don’t only contact them when I need something but to share the good news with them and to think about what they’re going through – to be reminded of their humanity. If we’re being honest, I’m thinking about Future Chefs all the time. In reality, we’re a small part of what they’re thinking about, so I try not to waste people’s time and to uphold my end of the relationship the best that I can.

Klare: I don’t think you should ever waste people’s time as folks are working on really serious issues given this political and social climate. We had this come up at Philanthropy Massachusetts – people were talking about the amount of time executive directors are spending on fundraising, which was something that came up at the SIF event with Vu Le as well.

Toni: Can you tell me a little more about what came up?

Klare: It was the annual meeting of Philanthropy Massachusetts and there were some questions on the table and space for overall discussion. Believe it or not, often when funders speak together, what always comes up is the desire to be more helpful. One obvious point is to give more operating support to nonprofits. Another troubling thing that came up was the number of times nonprofits spend on fundraising. I don’t think we came to a clear answer, but I think it is being discussed regularly. Perhaps there are some better steps that funders could take to make fundraising less time-consuming. I know of someone who accepted a proposal that was addressed to someone else because they were looking to basically fund the same project. If we could do more of that it would be a boon.

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