Member Week 2021: Foundation Leader Q&A with Teresa Miller

Friday, December 3, 2021 - 10:30 am
CoF Author Council on Foundations

Teresa Miller, President and CEO of the Kansas Health Foundation

Question: What drew you to the field of philanthropy?

Answer: After years of working for state and federal governments, philanthropy was appealing because of the opportunity to take a long-term view of addressing problems. While government work is often heavily influenced by election cycles, philanthropy has the luxury of being able to look for sustainable solutions to deeply rooted issues, including those related to equity and battling systemic racism.

Q: Collaboration is often the most effective way to tackle key issues and drive sustainable change in philanthropy. Share an example of a successful philanthropic collaboration or partnership that you have been a part of. What issue brought the organizations together? Why was a collaborative approach the right way to approach the issue? What were the results?

A: As we strive to place equity at the center of our work, we are trying to do a better job listening to the community and supporting grassroots organizations addressing community needs. That desire led to a collaboration with a local nonprofit organization that is already paying large dividends. This organization works to empower young people to activate underserved communities. In addition to supporting this organization’s core work, we’ve also been able to engage in conversations around juvenile justice, education, afterschool programs and community resources. The partnership developing between our organizations led to our organization, for the first time, hosting a youth-led listening session to discuss the hopes, dreams and challenges of young people in our community. The learnings from this listening session have sparked further discussions and are guiding our work as we move forward.

Q: Reflecting on how COVID-19 and the movement for racial justice have impacted philanthropy, in what ways has the sector changed its approach to work since spring 2020? Share any examples of how your organization changed its operations or strategy.

A: The dual events of the pandemic and the calls for racial justice following the murder of George Floyd forced our organization to do two main things: 1) relax grant requirements, and 2) take a hard look at how we can tackle health disparities rooted in systemic racism. Like many operating in the philanthropic space, when the pandemic hit, we relaxed a number of our grant requirements so we could get funding out the door quickly to address urgent and emerging needs. As we reflect on what we have learned over the last several months, we are working to truly embrace the concept of trust-based philanthropy, incorporate less burdensome approaches, look for trusted partners in the community and provide more core support for their work. Previously, our grantmaking and strategies were geared toward ensuring funding throughout our state, whether rural or urban. As we watched calls for racial justice intensify nationwide, and as we quickly saw statistics showing communities of color bearing the brunt of the pandemic, we began to look at data to help us identify health disparities in the state and target our efforts more strategically. As the data shows the greatest health disparities in the state are often located in traditionally Black neighborhoods that were historically redlined, we are intentionally focusing our efforts in these communities. We have started this work by listening and working to build partnerships because we know addressing these disparities will require intentional alliances and a long-term horizon.

Q: How do you think philanthropy can become a more trusted partner in advancing the greater good? A: First and foremost, by listening. It’s critical to remove the long-held philanthropic mentality of “we’re the saviors” and instead foster space and opportunity for resident-led and community-led solutions. We don’t have all the answers. We must continue to get out of our “ivory towers” and be a part of the solution instead of telling people what they should do. Q: Share one or more ways that your Council on Foundations membership has benefitted your organization.

A: While the field of philanthropy is new to me in my current position, our organization has benefitted from Council on Foundation conferences, utilizing list servs so we can ask questions of the field as well as legal assistance during our transition from a private foundation to a public charity.

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