by Megan MacDavey, Program Officer
My first day at The Peter and Elizabeth C. Tower Foundation was the day that the staff was moving back into the newly renovated office space, just after the first of the year. We wore jeans. We loaded and unloaded things on carts and dollies. I got to hear more about the vision for the new space - a shared space that can be accessible to the community as they need it. There was talk of racing in the roll-y office chairs. I began to re-acclimate to using a mac computer (seriously, I have to scroll in a different direction?!). We ate pizza, and I got to learn about people's topping preferences and aversions.
I tell you this to paint a picture of a really approachable, fun group of people that I have the pleasure of getting to work with now. But by nature of where we work, this is also a powerful group of people. Or at least we can be perceived as such. Foundations give money. Nonprofits need money. Foundations make determinations about who gets money. When someone controls the resources - they have power. Plain and simple. (Yes, I was a sociology major, but this lesson was learned early on as a toddler when the cookie jar was only within Mom's reach.)
As I mentioned in my first post, wow, the power dynamics have been noticeable everywhere since I started - in both little and big ways. People eager to make introductions (resulting in a general feeling of being way more special this year than I was last year), and eager to act upon my directive, or lack of. My colleagues advised me of the reality of this dynamic very early on in my orientation. Cautioning me to be mindful of the language I use with applicants and grantees; a casual comment about a program's success could come across as an overwhelming endorsement, or a commitment for funding, or the opposite. A question about an organization's structure could be perceived as a directive for changes.
I get it - I really do! I used to be sitting on the other side of the desk (as have many of the other foundation staff here). You want to present yourself and your organization in the best light possible. You are listening so closely to that funding representative to try to understand the implications to your organization of what they are saying. And yes, the foundation team is made up of gatekeepers to the funds. But what is so refreshing about the Tower Foundation culture to me, from my newbie lens, is the sincere desire here to listen and learn from grantees in the field. We don't know what is best for you and your organization - and we can't pretend to. Does the Tower Foundation have something to contribute to the conversation? Yes! We think so. We have the privilege of being involved with many organizations sometimes working to tackle the same issues through similar approaches. It's our job to connect you and share lessons learned or pitfalls to avoid. We get to see a macro or field-level perspective that many practitioners don't get exposed to as often as we do. So yes, we can contribute to the conversation. But should we have the loudest voice? No way.
One thing I think is so wonderful about this foundation is the staff's willingness to meet with applicants or review a proposal before a preliminary grant deadline to feel out whether or not the request the applicant is dreaming up would be a fit for the foundation. Ever have a question? Before you do all that work - just ask! Seriously. Give a call. Drop an email. We are always willing to listen.
And then there is this blog. Talk about transparency! I have learned so much about the culture here at the Tower Foundation and the strategies for decision-making from reading the blog. The team at the Tower Foundation wants YOU, our partners, to engage with us. Whether it's through the comments on this blog, our Facebook page or Twitter account. It's one way we try to balance the power dynamic.
So in conclusion: Is there a power dynamic present with the Tower Foundation and our grantees? Yes. But, did you know that Don despises mushrooms on pizzas? And Kathy only likes onions caramelized as a pizza topping? We hope you can see us as people and not just funders, partners and not just gatekeepers. We hope you can be comfortable talking with us about your favorite pizza toppings. And okay, more relevantly, what cycle you should apply during, your thoughts about our grantmaking process or what organizational challenges you have. Help us stay true to our aspiration of being a transparent, open, listening foundation and we'll help you do the work that changes lives.