The RISE Together Fund (RTF) is celebrating 10 years of grantmaking in 2019! Throughout 2019 we are sharing 10 lessons on what we’ve learned over the course of 10 years.
Listen into a conversation between the founding director of the RISE Together Fund, Dimple Abichandani (now Executive Director of General Service Foundation), and current Director, Shireen Zaman. They reflect on their almost nine year relationship, from when Shireen was funded by RTF for the first time as a grantee, to now when Dimple is funding the RTF in her role at GSF. They discuss the founding and growth of the fund, the critical role of the Proteus Fund in supporting and growing the collaborative and what we can learn about the value of collaborative funds in social change philanthropy.
We encourage you to listen to the full conversation (above). For your convenience, we’ve also included a shortened transcript below (please also refer to the timestamps below if you want to revisit certain points in the conversation).
1:02 Founding (Dimple)
The Security & Rights Collaborative was founded in 2008 by Open Society Institute and Atlantic Philanthropies. It was part of a broader National Security and Human Rights Campaign, of which the initial goal was to take advantage of the big opportunity offered by the Obama administration coming in.
At its founding, the program was going to work on four different buckets of work. Within the first six months, though, we decided to focus our efforts on supporting Muslim, Arab and South Asian (MASA) communities, in part because nobody else in philanthropy was doing that. We determined we could have the most meaningful impact. That was in supporting frontline grassroots organizations, and funding them in a way that positions them to get long-term, sustainable support.
There were two other key pieces of work early on. One was building out a shared communications hub at ReThink Media, which is a good example of how programs within Proteus influence and build on each other’s work, as both Colombe Foundation and Piper Fund also built similar hubs. The second was a three-year initiative with Rockwood Leadership Institute, building individual leadership to elevate grassroots leadership – but also developing connective tissue in the field.
9:08 Transition to Shireen’s Leadership
The work that Dimple and others did to lay the groundwork for what’s now become the RISE Together Fund was essential for the moment that happened in 2016 – when philanthropy woke up to the idea that we should have been funding MASA and other impacted communities.
When I came into the role, some of the national MASA organizations had started to get direct funding from the funders that were at our table. We were beginning to see some traction from those groups and on some of their issues. We were in good position to step back, look at our strategy, and try to understand who our grantees were how they did their work.
We did an important grantee survey, and learned: they didn’t think about their work in a national security frame. They saw their work as civic engagement and intersectional organizing. So we pulled back from that national security framing, and a few years later evolved that reframing into the program’s name, as well. We also thought about how to more deliberately fund that intersectional racial justice organizing work, which led to shifting our focus to more local and regional work. We also determined that the programming and technical assistance we do was going to be of most benefit to those organizations.
During the 2016 election cycle, I was the only SRC staffer. It was critical that other people at Proteus stepped up to help, because we were getting inundated with requests, both from potential donors – and dealing with a traumatized set of grantees and field leaders. Right away, we built opportunities for them to increase their own safety and security. That was one of the most immediate needs that we heard. We were in a position in the first year after the election where we’d doubled our number of donor partners, which allowed us to double our grantees. We were able to support a whole new set of exciting, innovative work in new places all over the country, which have now become models of organizing.
It’s been inspiring to see how when our leaders are most vulnerable, they have become most powerful. They’ve been true partners to other racial justice and immigrant rights organizations. I think a lot of that has to do with the sustained support we’ve been able to give.
15:26 This Work Takes Time (Dimple)
All of that is so exciting – I want to pick up on that last point, which is that this work takes time. When we give it time, often what we can do is far beyond what we would have even imagined. I want to give Proteus credit – institutionally, Proteus knows that, and has the experience of having successful donor collaboratives over time, as political context and buzz words change.
When the SRC was started, it was a three-year commitment. Early on, we had that conversation about getting out of the three-year mindset, which would open up space for us to do much more. A personal legacy for me of my time at Proteus is that I deeply believe in the power of donor collaboratives, and I think RISE Together Fund is a case study in what happens when we remove artificial timelines.
17:59 Building Relationships (Shireen)
Another value of a collaborative like ours is we can take time to build relationships to make the work more successful. We’ve learned to move slowly and build buy-in, to build the groundwork.
Dimple and I have known each other for nine years. I often tell the story of the first grant I got from the SRC when I was the new Executive Director at ISPU. I basically cold called Proteus Fund, was connected to Dimple, and she not only invited a grant even though the docket deadline was only two weeks away, but then after the grant was awarded came to visit me in DC and offered support on other challenges. I was struck by the idea that a funder would offer help and training, not just a check, especially as a new ED. From that point on, Dimple and Proteus became allies to me.
The other significant meeting that Dimple and I had was right after the 2016 election. I was totally overwhelmed, and Dimple sat me down and said “This is the time to ask for what you need. I’m going to help you put this work in front of funders.” I wrote a three-pager that outlined six places where we could add value, and Dimple shared that with other funders, some of whom funded the work. That helped build credibility and momentum, which led to us funding that work in six months. This legacy of close relationships between funders and grantees was carried over from Dimple’s leadership. It’s how we work with our grantees – I’m not just cutting you a check and calling you in 11 months.
Thank you for sharing that – I’m so moved. That’s at the heart of why I imagine both of us work in philanthropy, that we understand our roles to be in partnership or of service. When we approach our work in that way, I think it just amplifies the power of our funding in ways that we cannot even capture. I remember that 2016 conversation – I wanted you to have a huge invitation to think bigger than you’d been invited to think before.
To me, the power at the heart of donor collaboratives is that kind of partnership.
25:40 Thanks and Wrap-Ups