Six Years: Six Lessons Learned - Women's Foundation California

It’s hard to believe, but at the end of this month I will leave the Women’s Foundation of California after six wonderful years. In my time here, I’ve had the opportunity to work with leading advocates, organizers, researchers, donors and institutional funders who are dedicated to improving the health, safety, and economic security of all communities in California.

I’ve learned a lot in the last six years. To celebrate each year I’ve worked at the foundation, I offer these six lessons learned:

1. Relationship-building is worth the time. There’s nothing like face-to-face. Gatherings that bring together community-based leaders, donors and others committed to social equity strengthen our ability to work together and create lasting change. We won’t be able to create a just and equitable world if we don’t establish trusting relationships. And providing unstructured social time with music, beverages and good food helps too.

2. We need to visualize the world we want to live in and articulate it because, in a sense, our work begins at the end. So yes, we have to address the root causes of inequity and discrimination but we also have to develop a compelling and joyful vision of where we want to go. That will make us more effective at engaging people – whether through policy advocacy, grassroots organizing, leadership development – and yielding enduring results.

3. It’s smart to strengthen and support disadvantaged and vulnerable communities to advocate on their own behalf. The leadership of the community should be at the center of efforts to craft solutions. Without community leadership and engagement, advocates tend to propose policies that fail to address community priorities or that lack the community involvement needed to ensure implementation. Foundation convenings like Connecting California 2010 give leaders a chance to engage in deeper conversations, build relationships, broaden their network of allies, learn about similar conditions facing other communities and explore opportunities to build powerful coalitions.

4. Invest in policy advocacy training. Positive, long-term change is possible when organizations can educate policy makers on the needs of their communities and specific policy measures. Because the rules for policy advocacy vary depending on whether a foundation is public or private, it’s wise for foundations to partner when devising policy initiatives. The Women’s Policy Institute (WPI) of the Women’s Foundation exemplifies one way of educating organizations on policy advocacy. Increasingly, funders are considering investments to strengthen and replicate models like WPI throughout the US.

5. Build the capacity of organizations. Tackling multiple issues, many of which are interconnected and entrenched, requires organizations to have staying power and organizational skills. Helping organizations to strengthen their technology, increase professional development opportunities for board and staff, gain fundraising skills, and implement effective financial systems is key to ensuring the long-term success of social change efforts.

6. Don’t be afraid of failing. We often take risks and sometimes our efforts fail. We might lose a campaign or fail to pass or implement a law. But what we learn and gain in the process is valuable. Did we mobilize people? Build coalitions where none existed? Build our email database in the process? We may not have accomplished our big and lofty goals, but we often make incremental progress and we need to recognize that and celebrate it.

Surina Khan is Vice President of Programs for the Women’s Foundation of California. In June she will join the Ford Foundation as a Program Officer and help launch its new Initiative for LGBT Rights.

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