Change Leaders in Philanthropy: A Conversation with Rebecca Cisek of Bainum Family Foundation

  • By Grantmakers for Effective Organizations, June 16, 2022

GEO’s Change Leaders in Philanthropy Fellowship (CLIPF) launched in 2016 to offer an intensive, peer coaching-focused learning experience for senior leaders in philanthropy. Over the last six years and four cohorts, more than 75 senior leaders in philanthropy have engaged with deep candor, vulnerability and generosity to support each other in leading comprehensive organizational change. There is so much to learn from peeking under the hood of an organization undergoing change – about human dynamics, invisible forces, power and the complexities of culture.

This blog series features the perspectives and stories of several CLIPF Fellows from the 2020 most recent cohort. We focused on what it really takes to shift organizational structures, strategy, culture, and practice - and what those changes required of them as leaders. While the stories are specific, the lessons are universal.

For more information about the Change Leaders in Philanthropy Fellowship, please visit our website.

Tell us a little bit about yourself, the Bainum Foundation, and the change (or changes) that you catalyzed, supported, and navigated.

Rebecca Cisek: The Bainum Family Foundation is dedicated to working alongside our partners and communities, co-creating and harnessing our collective power — both the power that has always been in communities and our power and privilege as philanthropists. We focus on early childhood and we have made a commitment to becoming an anti-racist organization as a mission-critical part of our work.

Originally, my change challenge was to develop and institutionalize frameworks and practices for learning. Because we were still in the midst of strategic planning, I knew that we weren’t ready to implement a new learning strategy yet — my work was to guide how we were thinking about learning and the use of evidence as a core part of our strategy. We had already identified racial equity as a core goal, so we were already engaged in embedding those values and practices for both our staff and board. But even though learning had always been one of Bainum’s core values, we weren’t practiced at “learning out loud.”

A great example of how we’re engaging in effective learning is with our program teams. They were already innate learners — they were already in the habit of asking for input from partners, taking feedback, learning from what happened in their work and making changes. But at the organizational level, the majority of our learning was happening at the individual and team level instead of as a collective whole. We also weren’t consistent at capturing our learnings.

I think that’s the case in so many organizations! How did you move to a more collective approach and start to create an organization-wide emphasis on learning and self-evaluation?

RC: I needed to do a lot of listening, understanding what people’s needs were while simultaneously imagining a new strategy with the rest of our leadership team. I started out by asking: how can learning help us advance outcomes so that all children and families thrive? We needed to get out of individual learning patterns. I found that I needed to show people what it could look like to have an organization-wide learning agenda where we were collectively answering shared, meaningful questions that would help us advance our strategy.

We also wanted to begin thinking about how we connected learning to our accountability as funders. Before we could evaluate outcomes of ourselves and our partners, we need to look at how we are showing up as partners.

There’s frankly not much accountability inherent in philanthropy. Historically, communities have not been able to hold philanthropic partners accountable because of the systems, structures and power dynamics of funding. But we are looking at power very differently, and are trying to come alongside the tremendous power and expertise within every community. We want to identify community-led solutions, not just community-informed solutions. So our commitment to learning helps us hold ourselves accountable for how we show up, and it will also create systems and mechanisms that enable the community and partners to provide feedback that we can learn from and act on.

What came up as the change unfolded?

RC: People here are very committed to making the world a better place, but it can be anxiety-provoking to start talking about accountability and results in a new way. I have needed to emphasize that we aren’t trying to create a “gotcha” moment — we are trying to ask questions that we must answer and understand in order to move our work forward. This means that we have to be ready to hear the feedback when we get it, especially if it means we need to make changes. It’s better to know so we can apply our learnings! But to get to the point where we can be comfortable learning and acknowledging where there is an opportunity to do better, we all need to fully trust that mistakes and course-corrections are not just ok, but in fact vital to this longitudinal work.

We’ve already learned some important things. The operational decisions we make every day matter in terms of how our partners experience us. Do our partners determine the terms of our funding? Do we listen and respond in a timely manner? Are we flexible to meet evolving needs? We are continuing to learn not to make assumptions about our partners and their needs. With one partner, we thought we were doing the right thing by providing funds and getting out of the way — until that partner let us know that they needed more from us. We realized that we still hadn’t just asked them what they needed.

And finally, it’s not enough to talk about our intentions. Our intentions are good, but we have to ask, measure and understand what we have done, how we have done it and what progress has been made because of our actions. Our answers must then inform our decisions and next steps.

How did the Change Leaders in Philanthropy Fellowship support, provoke, connect or push you?

RC: CLIPF was so highly relevant to my work, it never felt like an extra. The community conversations were grounded in relevant, credible content — and just the right amount. The way that racial equity was centered was crucial. It wasn’t too academic or theoretical — we were pushed to apply what we learned right away. I would literally bring ideas and strategies back daily to my organizational team, our executive team, and our consultants.

When you’re in the messy middle of a change process, you can lose sight of the progress you are actually making. Being able to calibrate with colleagues who were doing similar work in similar positions was also so valuable. It allowed me to celebrate where we were making progress and acknowledge where progress was still needed. I am grateful that I went through this program exactly when I did; CLIPF was a lifeline when I was trying to balance the pandemic, our country’s racial reckoning, a young child learning from home, my work, and trying to stay afloat. The CLIPF community was not just important — it was truly a lifesaver. I could be completely honest, very raw, and feel not alone in my mess.

My CLIPF experience elevated my leadership and continues to provide me with a supportive community, reflective learning, and inspiration. Just as the best learning opportunities should, the CLIPF experience equipped each of us, it challenged each of us, and it mobilized each of us to create more meaningful impact as individuals. And beyond that, we’re now taking our learnings back to our organizations so we can better infuse equity, increase efficiency, and ultimately catalyze action to create a more just and humane world. It just doesn’t get more exciting than that.

As Vice President, Organizational Learning and Effectiveness, Rebecca Cisek, EdD, works to advance the Bainum Family Foundation’s mission, culture and impact through the development and implementation of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), learning, and evidence strategies and frameworks. Prior to joining the Foundation in 2015, Rebecca worked in field leadership roles in human resources, training and development for Target Corporation, and before that worked as a sports medicine clinician and educator for eight years. She holds a Doctor of Education in Organization and Leadership from the University of San Francisco, and both a Master of Education and Bachelor of Science in Athletic Training from the University of Virginia.

This interview series is conducted by Jessica Beaman (Bearman Consulting, LLC), who is one of the facilitators of the Change Leaders in Philanthropy Fellowship.