Bridging Differences to Advance Equity: Three Lessons Community Foundations Are Learning About Engaging Donors and Community

  • By Lori Bartczak, January 25, 2024

An exciting evolution is happening among community foundations in the United States.

While community foundations have always existed to support local donors who want to give back to their community, many are now exploring how they can leverage their unique strengths to contribute to transformational change in their communities. CFLeads’ Igniting the Future of Community Foundations survey found that 98 percent of community foundations plan to deepen or expand their community leadership. Most of these foundations are also centering racial equity in their work out of recognition that, in most communities, race is the biggest driver of disparity on a range of issues that impact residents’ and communities’ ability to thrive.

Since 2020, Community Wealth Partners has facilitated peer learning cohorts for community foundations working to advance racial equity and direct more resources to BIPOC-led and BIPOC-serving nonprofits. (This work was made possible through funding from Fidelity Charitable Trustees Initiative.) Through these cohorts we were able to work with 18 community foundations, located all over the country, and ranging in size from less than $300,000 to more than $1 billion in assets. While these foundations had differences in terms of size, geography, and grantmaking priorities, some common themes emerged from these cohorts.

Many of these foundations are centering racial equity in their organizations’ strategies, and, as a result, are prioritizing engaging in new ways with donors and community to advance these strategies. For the most part, foundations in the cohorts were looking to deepen relationships with communities and nonprofits that historically had not had access to resources from the foundation—especially those organizations that are most proximate to the challenges the foundation seeks to address. At the same time, these foundations have also been experimenting with communicating a stronger point of view with donors. For example, foundations were educating donors about systemic inequities in their communities, having explicit conversations about racial disparities, and inviting donors to support discretionary funds aligned with the foundation’s strategic priorities.

Working in these ways requires community foundations to bridge differences in lived experience and perspective. Some foundations have had to stretch themselves to build trusting relationships with nonprofits and community leaders that perhaps the foundation has not supported before. At the same time, they are having conversations with donors that are different from how they’ve engaged donors in the past. While the community foundations we worked with would say they still have a lot to learn about how they can bridge differences to advance equity, through experimentation and iteration, some lessons are emerging. Here are three of them.

Lesson 1: Leverage and deepen relationships and trust.

As Rev. Jennifer Bailey of Faith Matters Network has said, “Relationships are built at the speed of trust, and social change happens at the speed of relationships.” Community foundations are finding ways to leverage their unique position to build relationships and bridge divides between donors and organizations working closest to the issues in communities, with the goal being donors, nonprofits, and the community foundation working toward a shared vision of a thriving community with equitable outcomes for residents. Doing this requires time and patience.

On the donor side, some community foundations are trying to engage donors differently to share a point of view about outcomes the foundation is working toward and opportunities for donors to support this vision. To do this, they are finding personal connections with donors to be an effective strategy. While mass communications and learning and networking opportunities are important tools for donor engagement, community foundations we’ve worked with are finding that one-on-one conversations are what makes a difference in helping donors understand the foundation’s goals and priorities and having a meaningful influence on donors’ giving.

“We’re working to leverage the trust in the donor services team that our donors have to create better connections and get to more robust giving,” said Lindsay Aroesty, vice president of development and donor services at the Pittsburgh Foundation. “We are trying to make more of a connection between what we’re funding through our discretionary grants and how aligning with those priorities is a value-add for donors. This speaks to the need for our donor services team to be able to communicate about the foundation’s grantmaking priorities effectively.”

On the nonprofit side, some community foundations are taking a closer look at their own history of funding and working to rectify disparities to ensure organizations closest to the issues have access to foundation resources. Reaching a more diverse range of nonprofits has required community foundations to do intentional outreach and relationship building.

One way the Community Foundation of Northern Virginia (CFNOVA) is doing this is by promoting grant opportunities to area chambers of commerce that represent diverse cultural and ethnic communities, such as the Northern Virginia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, the Northern Virginia Black Chamber of Commerce, and the Asian American Chamber of Commerce.

CFNOVA also has created a tiered funding model for one fund, offering different sized grants to organizations depending on the size of their organizational budget. This allows organizations of similar size to be reviewed and vetted alongside one another rather than alongside organizations with widely different budgets. The foundation also has leaned into its convening role to host events featuring regional data and providing opportunities for diverse stakeholders from government, private, and nonprofit sectors to come together.

“We have recognized that community leadership on part of the foundation is essential, and we are striving to provide as many entry points as possible, with the goal of creating a community that works for everyone,” said Sari Raskin, vice president of grants and community leadership.

Lesson 2: Words matter—use language that offers “grace and space.”

Community foundations have relationships with a broad swath of the community, representing diversity in identities, lived experiences, and understanding of historical drivers and current data showing inequities that exist in communities and how racial justice strategies can lead to better outcomes for all residents. “When we’re talking about why racial equity matters to us, we have to assess where people may be and what they don’t understand and give them grace and space to engage in dialogue with us,” said Judy McBride, director of strategic partnership investments at Hartford Foundation for Public Giving.

In Texas, Communities Foundation of Texas has worked to stay the course living their diversity, equity, and inclusion values, charting toward a community that thrives for all. Dr. Reo Pruiett, chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer for the foundation, says a helpful strategy has been staying focused on the issues community stakeholders and partners have an interest in—which in North Texas has been education, health, and economic workforce opportunities.

“I try to enter these conversations from my background as an educator and principal,” Dr. Pruiett said. “Healthy communities have education, health and safety, and economic workforce opportunities as their center of focus. Concentrating on these points has helped open doors with people who may be wary of language sometimes categorized as polarizing or politicized, and it’s also enabled me to further listen and learn what continues to be top of mind for the community.”

The Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham learned similar lessons when they surveyed their donors and hired Frameworks Institute to offer guidance on language and messaging. Recommendations from Frameworks Institute included 1) lead with the shared values and principles of the community, 2) clearly define “equity” for your audience, 3) use stories to show local solutions to challenges and the impact of those solutions. (See more guidance from Frameworks Institute in their report Navigating Cultural Mindsets of Race and Place in the United States.)

“Words have power, and the context in which they are used matters,” said Christopher Nanni, president and CEO. “We have learned that the language we use and the audiences that receive them can determine how the message is received. We know that we need to be thoughtful in how we frame our communications around these challenging issues so that people will be open to hearing and not be alienated. It is not about watering down the message, but, rather, being more strategic in communicating the message so that it is actually received. We are learning to talk about equity-related issues in a way that distinct audiences can understand so that we can move forward together in unity as opposed to feeding into an already divisive environment.”

Some community foundations are leaning into their role as a connector and working to bridge differences in experience and perspective. The Community Foundation of Northern Virginia names community resilience as one of its strategic priorities. This includes supporting and encouraging civic engagement and helping residents bridge what divides them with civil conversations and dialogue.

The foundation recently launched a book circle, inviting donors and other members of the community to read and discuss Monica Guzmán’s book, I Never Thought of It That Way: How to Have Fearlessly Curious Conversations in Dangerously Divided Times.

“Our belief is that a resilient community is a connected one, and we saw Guzmán’s book as a unique formula for civic healing,” said Gabrielle Webster, director of donor relations. “The book is challenging readers to be curious and build or maintain relationships. Over the course of the year, we were able to engage more than 425 readers in conversations across the region and learn how they were using the text in their homes, workplaces, places of worship, and beyond to enrich our collective understanding and dialogue.”

Lesson 3: Create more bridges internally between donor services and programs.

As community foundations center racial equity in their strategies and work to engage donors in their vision for a more just and equitable community, it is important for programs and donor services teams to be working in alignment. Some community foundations have recognized the need to break down silos that have been occurring across these parts of the foundation — each side focused on a unique segment of the community and with their own goals — to bring greater alignment.

“Silos between donors services and program teams aren’t going to work if the goal is racial justice,” said Aroesty of the Pittsburgh Foundation. “You need to leverage the foundation’s reputational and social capital across all areas of its work.”

One way the Pittsburgh Foundation has worked to bring stronger alignment across the donor services and program teams is through joint visioning sessions. For example, the donor services team invited members of the program team to offer advice and coaching as to how the foundation might reimagine donor events to align with the foundation’s new strategic framework and focus on racial justice.

Leaning Into Community Foundations’ Role as Bridge Builder

As community foundations work for more just and equitable communities, many are bringing more intention to their relationships, communications, and internal ways of working. For community foundations interested into leveraging their role to build bridges across differences in the community, here are some things to try.

  • Invest time in relationship building with donors with donors and nonprofits. Community foundations hold a unique opportunity to unite a community around a shared vision.
  • Create a vision for the future that will attract broad support by focusing on the issues that everyone cares about. This could include things like quality education, access to jobs and affordable housing, and the health and safety of residents.
  • Find ways to bring alignment across teams in the foundation. Possibilities include co-creating strategies and plans, cross-team peer coaching and support, or joint learning opportunities.

Lori Bartczak

Associate Vice President

Lori Bartczak is Associate Vice President at Community Wealth Partners, a social-sector consulting firm that partners with nonprofits and foundations to create a world where BIPOC people and other people historically kept furthest from power and resources have what they need to thrive. Connect with her at