5 Questions for…Melissa Bradley, Chief Executive Officer, Tides

Regina Mahone’s interview with Tides CEO Melissa Bradley originally appeared on PhilanTopic, the Philanthropy News Digest blog, on February 22, 2013 and is reprinted with permission.

Philanthropy News Digest: Tell us about the Twenty-First Century Foundation Powered by Tides program. How did it come about? And how does it support Tides’ stated goal of “scaling the growth of African-American donors and supporting new majority communities that are lacking financial and social capital”?

Melissa Bradley: Before moving back to Washington, D.C., in 2004, I lived in Harlem, where I became very familiar with the Twenty-First Century Foundation, which at the time was working independently to encourage strategic giving for change in the African-American community, as well as many of its grantees in the neighborhood. I even volunteered at one of them. So I was a longstanding supporter of and contributor to the organization before it joined the Tides Network last year.

Like many other intermediary foundations focused on addressing the needs of one group or subset of the general population, 21CF’s business model was contingent on large private foundations giving smaller public foundations money that they would then re-grant. Once 21CF realized there was a disconnect between the availability of funds and its growth prospects, we started talking about how Tides could be of help.

For us, the merger was more about being able to preserve the history and relationships 21CF had forged, both within the African-American community and also beyond California. I think the majority of people assume that most of Tides’ work is done in California. But we actually have a national presence, including an office and building that we co-own in New York City, as well as an office in Washington, D.C. So the merger was an opportunity for us to expand our geographic footprint among donors and doers in New York and around the country.

The partnership supports Tides’ goal of growing the African-American donor community, in that we now sponsor many of the programs 21CF had started. For instance, 21CF initiated an African-Latino Diaspora initiative with the Baobá Fund for Racial Equality in Brazil, and we have continued that effort, actually accelerating some of the deliverables. 21CF also accomplished a lot in terms of grassroots organizing, and as a result of that work we have been convening, and looking at how to support, many of those organizations. So, while we’re continuing some of the organization’s work, we’re also expanding on it to engage donors and communities who had not had exposure to 21CF before, and walking the work it had started across the country through our networks.

PND: What other programs and tools has Tides created to assist groups and individuals involved in this kind of work?

MB: We are about to complete work on our three-year business/strategic plan and a couple of things have come out of that process. One, we decided to refine and grow the core aspect of our business by promoting the use of donor-advised funds and collective action funds. With so many organizations competing for resources, we believe we need to be proactive in expanding our fiscal sponsorship work. So that’s our number-one priority, in terms of just really pushing, promoting and growing the programs we currently have.

In terms of new programs, one of the things that will help us meet our long-range strategy is engaging more people in the act of philanthropy and in the work of the social sector. So the second area we’ll be focused on is impact investing, which we have been doing for more than fifteen years, although not as part of the larger conversation.

And the final area we’ll be focusing on is employee resource groups at large corporations. These groups contain individuals who haven’t yet figured out how to leverage their corporate contributions, and in many cases the groups themselves don’t have a national network they can tap into. Under the leadership of 21CF Powered by Tides Vice President Toby Thompkins, we will work to help these groups set up a more formal philanthropy program and connect them to other groups across the country. We see the effort as tying into our goal of democratizing philanthropy, as well as with our belief that regardless of whether you have $5 million or $5, your contribution and willingness to serve is important.

PND: As you mentioned, Tides was an early proponent of impact investing. What have you learned from your work in that field?

MB: In 2010, when I first arrived, we surveyed our clients who had done impact investing and a couple of things became clear. For starters, we learned that it’s still a nascent field, and that people are struggling with how to define a “good” investment. Now, as we work with donors, we advise them to learn more about a project before investing by examining trends within the sector, potential outcomes and so on. Our research shows that “good” investments all involve a significant amount of preparation by donors/investors.

The second thing we learned is to be patient. I think within the philanthropic community, there’s an expectation that a donor will exit a program within ten years. But the impact investor is learning that their commitments are not business as usual and that more time may be required to achieve a project’s goal.

And the third thing we learned is that while there are a great many new evaluation tools out there, qualitative data counts the most. Many of our clients have told us that it’s about finding the right balance between qualitative and quantitative measures.

PND: How would you characterize philanthropy’s support for human rights/racial justice initiatives and programs?

MB: I think philanthropy’s support for human rights and racial justice is strong but maybe not always self-evident because of how little the public knows about those areas or philanthropy in general. One of the things we have found through our racial justice equity work is that there are tons of people and institutions focused on racial equity and racial justice, but if you were to ask the average person who, beyond the key players — those featured in national media — is funding this work, that person would be hard pressed to name more than a few foundations. So while there’s a significant amount of support for human rights and racial justice in this country, a lack of public knowledge about the details tends to hold us back a bit.

That said, it won’t surprise anyone to hear me say that more needs to be done. If you look at philanthropy in the U.S. alone, there is definitely not enough money flowing to human rights and racial justice initiatives and programs. And as new issues emerge, there will always be needs, unfortunately, that go unmet.

I also think a lot more advocacy work needs to be done, from the community level on up, to really get people to focus on legislation and policies that address systemic issues of race and discrimination in this country. It’s one thing to be able to invest in changing a person’s mind, but at the end of the day it’s the rule of law that tacitly endorses many of the inequities that exist in America, and so there’s a huge opportunity there, I think, that is being missed.

PND: What would you say to those partners who are nervous about supporting or advocating on behalf of underserved communities?

MB: I would say they should talk to other people doing this work to get a better understanding of what to expect in terms of a community response. If, after they do that, they are still hesitant, they should consider partnering with an organization like Tides. We are ready and willing to be out there, to support and invest in things we think will have a real impact and create lasting change, projects that sometimes make people uneasy. And if they don’t want to be aligned with us or anyone else, then I would say to them to at least consider being part of the solution. Groups don’t have to fund this work, but they can help us spread information and knowledge through their networks. The benefits of educating and organizing people are huge. So if they don’t want to put their money out there and have their support counted in that way, they certainly can — and should — help us organize other people around this important work.

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