Member Week 2021: Foundation Leader Q&A with Jen Rainin

Saturday, December 4, 2021 - 2:30 pm EST
CoF Author Council on Foundations

Jen Rainin, Kenneth Rainin Foundation

Question: What drew you to the field of philanthropy?

Answer: My father was an incredibly powerful force in my life. He was curious and creative. He was a great listener, which allowed him to build a medical device company that responded to the needs of patients. Most of all, he was charitable. He wanted to make sure that other people would benefit from his good fortune, so he established a foundation as a way of giving back. Philanthropy became my way of taking those great qualities—curiosity, creativity, and generosity—and embodying them in an organization that is dedicated to serving others. It’s an extraordinarily rewarding thing to be able to do, and I feel very fortunate to be able to do it.

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: Collaboration in any endeavor requires plenty of give and take, but the rewards are well worth the investment. The simple fact is that no single individual or organization can succeed alone. Change can only happen if we are in close partnership with people living and working in the fields and communities we support, and by building honest and trusting relationships with our peer funders. At the start of COVID, we formed a partnership with the City of Oakland and a host of funders to support artists, who suddenly lost all means of living. We launched the East Bay/Oakland Relief Fund for Individuals in the Arts. Administered by the Center for Cultural Innovation, this pooled fund distributed more than $700,000 to more than 500 artists and cultural workers that anchor the East Bay’s diverse and vitally important cultural communities. The fund provided a vital safety net for independent artists, teaching artists, culture bearers, and nonprofit arts workers across the East Bay who might otherwise not be able to receive emergency funds. Many artists and culture workers lack access to unemployment insurance, making them ineligible for unemployment benefits. It was a huge undertaking and an amazingly effective collaboration. The funders included the Akonadi Foundation; City of Oakland, Cultural Affairs Division; Richard Diebenkorn Foundation; Fleishhacker Foundation; Gerbode Foundation; William and Flora Hewlett Foundation; Nion McEvoy and Leslie Berriman; Oakland COVID-19 Relief Fund; Shuler-Heimburger Family Fund at East Bay Community Foundation; Phyllis C. Wattis Foundation; and individual donors. In November 2021, we collaborated with other funders to launch another relief fund to serve the same purpose. The power of this collective effort—each of us using our networks and channels to share information was key to success. We all recognize that there’s an opportunity here to invest more resources and time on that effort. This is especially important as we are trying to reach people who have historically been underserved and may not be connected with or have a trusting relationship with our institutions. Reaching these audiences presents another opportunity for funders to collaborate.

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: These past two years have obviously been very challenging and a reminder of how much work we all need to do to support a more just and equitable society. We’ve seen quite a number of foundations rise to the challenge, committing more funds for racial equity and improving grantmaking processes. Rainin has tried to do our part as well. Some of the changes we've introduced include: reducing unnecessary administrative burdens by offering flexibility with timelines and grant reporting requirements, revisiting originally approved grant periods and timelines, and encouraging grantees to talk with us about challenges they’re experiencing. In Health, this resulted in the Foundation making a grant deadline earlier because we heard from researchers that funds were needed to make hiring decisions. By 2020, we were well underway in exploring how we can make our organization more diverse and more equitable, but the pandemic and the events of 2020 deepened our understanding of the flaws and inequities of our political and socio-economic systems and accelerated our efforts to address those injustices. At the center of promoting equity is our responsibility to acknowledge that we are in a position of power. It is a privilege to be able to do the work we do and be in community with passionate creatives, researchers, educators and activists. We take this understanding to heart in everything we do.

Q: How do you think philanthropy can become a more trusted partner in advancing the greater good?

A: Philanthropy has come a long way from the days in which the most prominent act of transparency was publishing an annual report, but there’s a lot more to do. For many, philanthropy is still a black box. Grantees, grant seekers, and even fellow funders often don’t know why foundations make the decisions they make, or even whom they choose to support. To build trust, foundations must share what we’re thinking and what we’re learning, and be willing to admit that we don’t have all the answers. We must not only communicate about what works, but what doesn’t, so others don’t repeat our mistakes. We must engage with our colleagues—especially our grantees—by listening carefully to the needs of the field and be willing to be flexible when better ideas emerge. We can all do better, and if we all do the same things better, we’ll be able to serve more people and be much more effective overall.

Q: Share one or more ways that your Council on Foundations membership has benefitted your organization.

A: The Council on Foundations has been a great resource for us. It is our go-to for current and helpful information on how to improve our practices at the Rainin Foundation. We’ve benefitted from live and recorded webinars, research and reports, information on sector issues like legal and financial tools, and we are grateful for resources on topics like government relations and advocacy.

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