As Director of Partnerships, Cher-Wen DeWitt worked to build an equitable community of funders committed to more impactful, community-centric philanthropy. As she wraps up her chapter at Segal Family Foundation, she sat down with SFF’s Executive Director, Andy Bryant, to reflect on lessons learned during this three-year journey.
In your career, you’ve had varied interactions with different funders great and small. What was the baggage and the wisdom you brought when you began with Segal Family Foundation?
When approaching this role, I had some doubt internally about whether or not I could work on the funding side. I carried an identity of being a ‘doer’, being an implementer. But coming from that background has certainly been an asset, when thinking about how to approach our own funding, build relationships with our partners, and how to speak to other funders about the work being done by organizations. The number one thing I realized — through many different interactions with funders, both before I joined SFF and after — was just how large the gap can be between reality and what the funder understands about the truly granular difficulties of running an organization. It’s not uncommon for funders to oversimplify the sheer amount of work, talent, and commitment it takes for people to consistently do their work and serve their communities well.
I also wanted to hang onto the understanding that you can’t conflate proximity to resources with expertise. In the SFF team, we talk a lot about checking ourselves on where the limits of our knowledge are and when to know to take a step back. We understand that we have a lot to learn. Many funders are looking for ways to get closer to that realistic sense of how much is going into the work and why.
How does a funder learn? How do they bring themselves closer to an understanding of the complexity facing doers?
Well, it’s important to maintain a learning mindset. This applies to donors who are former doers as well. In every single new context that you enter, there are probably factors that you haven’t considered — even if it’s a model that you’re familiar with, or a community that you have worked in before, there are still more questions to ask. There’s more to understand from the people who are doing the work day in and day out, who probably were informally doing that work in some way, shape, or form before the organization was even created. There’s a lot of opportunity to continuously learn. There’s no end to that process and when it’s embraced, it can be a really wonderful thing.
When we listen to the What Donors Want podcasts (proudly sponsored by SFF for the past few seasons), every single funder on there said, “What we strive for is a real trust-based relationship with our grantees.” The rhetoric is eerily similar across funders great and small. What’s the reality? What are the real-life impediments to that trust-based intimacy of relationship? And what are the solves for those impediments?
I think the first thing is, like in any human relationship, trust is earned. We can all state our best intentions about how we want to show up in relationship to others and the qualities of the interactions that we want to have. In this particular dynamic, no matter how progressive or equitable a funder is, they still have to recognize that they are on the benefiting end of a pretty outsized power dynamic. And to wave that away is actually an impediment to trust. The imbalance located in that relationship between a doer and a donor needs to be acknowledged. Without naming it, there’s no way to collaboratively solve for it.
It’s important to acknowledge that there are legitimate reasons why organizations are not inclined to trust funders. A lot of organizations have had experiences where they have been penalized for sharing information about setbacks, about challenges. There are a lot of inflexible funders out there who respond to those situations by withdrawing funding or even questioning organizations’ integrity. Because those experiences are real and they happen to people consistently, creating trust is fighting against a not-so-great status quo.
If we are to earn trust with the organizations that we work with, it takes time to demonstrate that you can consistently show up for organizations throughout the full journey of their work and with full understanding that there will be hiccups along the way. There will be mistakes made. There will be human moments, but that support will stay there.
What are your best pieces of advice for progressive funders — whether we’re firmly within the establishment or right on the edge of it — who are looking to do no harm and perhaps even do a bit of good, especially as it relates to African development?
I think it’s important for context to share that in general SFF works mostly with American and European philanthropists or foundation teams who are looking to work with organizations in Sub-Saharan Africa. One thing that is really top of mind for me is that I often find myself in conversations with funders who say, “I would like for my funding to be as unbiased as possible.” The thing that concerns me about that is, I don’t think it’s possible for any human process to be unbiased. And I wonder what would be attainable if, instead of trying to show proof that we don’t have bias, we were instead able to be extremely aware of the biases we carry because of our identities, because of our experiences, and then to move through our decisions with a lot of intention and accountability.
I have my own biases as an Asian American woman with experience working in an international context, for example. There could be a lot of opportunity for all of us, if we could be a bit more forthcoming about the biases we know we carry and create more mindful processes around them, rather than trying to create the illusion of bias-free systems and bias-free decision making. At the end of the day, philanthropy is still very much a relationship-driven sector. I think it’s one of the best things about it, and it’s also one of its weakest points, in terms of who we end up including in processes and who receives funding.
Another thing we encounter a lot is funders who really do want to fund in a more equitable way. They want to shift to working with more local organizations — more African led organizations in particular — but they get a bit frozen, and they don’t really know how to start. As a result, there’s a block in the way of their attempts to ‘walk the talk’. The advice that I would offer is to just get started, because no equitable process is perfect or static.
At SFF, we strive to be as equitable of a grantmaker as possible, but we also understand that is something that we have to engage in every single day. It’s a continuous practice that we have to maintain, and we always have to ask new questions and hold ourselves to new standards in order to kind of work towards that mission. Right? It’s not that one day we weren’t an equitable funder and the next day we were. Putting intention into those shifts while not succumbing to analysis paralysis — and accepting that you’re probably going to make mistakes along the way and will have to build a muscle of being accountable for them — that’s how we learn.
Think about the people who you incorporate into your processes and how much you trust them. The strength of SFF’s work is our African grantmaking team. That’s a big acknowledgement made by people like you, of the biases that you carry, right? And because you can’t always solve for those within yourself, you have to bring in people whose perspectives can balance your own and can re-center things towards the communities that we’re working in. I’m happy to see that more and more foundations are starting to hire philanthropic staff from the communities in which they work.
Are there critical tools, must-haves, non-negotiable values, or mindsets that every funder should have?
A sentiment that I think should be incorporated into how we all think about philanthropy is encapsulated by a quote from Robert Egger: “Twenty-first century charity seems to be about the redemption of the giver instead of what it should be about: the liberation of the receiver.” For all of us in funding, we need to remember this isn’t really about us. It’s about the people who are in need of resources that have been unjustly sequestered in some way. It is a great responsibility and a wonderful gift to be able to be a part of the process of redistributing those resources to places that really need them and can utilize them well. Maintaining a focus on the people doing this work is the way to keep a clear mindset about how to do the work well.
What were some of the most special moments from your time at SFF that you’ll take with you?
That’s so hard; there’s a highlight reel in my mind of so many things! It felt really significant to me when, for our Future Summit in 2021, you invited Anand Giridharadas to be our keynote speaker. That’s not necessarily an easy choice given that a huge part of Anand’s work is about being critical of philanthropy at large. It was a wonderful reflection about the extent to which the team at SFF are willing to grapple with difficult conversations and questions about the premise of philanthropy. Something that has really strengthened this team is our willingness to kind of go back into the fray of those conversations over and over again, because doing it once is not enough.
There’s also a constant stream of inspiration and wonderful news that comes out of our big community. I have particularly enjoyed moments with our team, who are a group of incredible and compassionate leaders with their own areas of expertise. I treasure the in-between times that we have together. At our most recent retreat, I got to bedazzle everyone’s faces with rhinestones one night, which was sort of like a trust exercise mixed with a dance party, and everyone was game for it! There is a wonderful commitment to joy and camaraderie in our team that is really exceptional, and I have so much love for my teammates.