Learning Alongside Each Other:  Momentum Fellows Reflect on Philanthropy, Equity and Leadership

Learning Alongside Each Other: Momentum Fellows Reflect on Philanthropy, Equity and Leadership

  • Mijounga Chang is the organizational learning fellow at Meyer Memorial Trust in Portland and is currently finishing her master’s degree in collaborative design/design systems.
  • Zeeba Khalili is the learning and evaluation officer at Marguerite Casey Foundation in Seattle.
  • Denise Luk is the healthy environment program fellow at Meyer Memorial Trust in Portland.
  • Ami Patel is the program manager at the Women’s Foundation of Oregon.
  • Tonisha Toler is the community engagement and special initiative fellow at The Collins Foundation in Portland.
  • Lauren Waudé is the housing opportunities program fellow at Meyer Memorial Trust in Portland.


Momemtum Fellows group photo
From left: Fellows Luk, Waudé, Patel, Khalili, Toler, Chang

The Momentum Fellowship Program, hosted by Philanthropy Northwest, provides opportunities for individuals from communities underrepresented in philanthropy, particularly communities of color, to join the philanthropic field. The program, which is designed primarily as a professional development experience, offers individuals a robust learning opportunity through a full-time position at a foundation and a suite of activities coordinated by Philanthropy Northwest including executive coaching, leadership development opportunities and access to a cohort with peer fellows from other participating foundations in the Pacific Northwest.


The fellowship grew out of Philanthropy Northwest’s first CEO cohort on diversity, equity and inclusion (including Marguerite Casey Foundation, Meyer Memorial Trust, Rasmuson Foundation) who were interested in helping philanthropy become more welcoming to individuals from diverse backgrounds.

  1. What aspect of the fellowship was most helpful to your professional growth? 

Lauren: I can’t highlight the value of having such a strong, supportive cohort of brilliant women enough. Working through challenges together, sharing learnings and best practices, and knowing that I always had a group to go to for support allowed me to dive into the role, in a field completely new to me, with confidence and enthusiasm.

Denise: Yes! I agree. The fellowship with other women of color was key for my personal and professional growth. I feel like I expanded as a human—in leadership, in my equity lens, as a friend and colleague —from knowing each and every member of the Momentum cohort. My foray into philanthropy would have been unnerving without this community of peers.

Lauren: The professional coaching also kept me grounded, knocked away self-doubt that I had and allowed me to focus on my long-term goals.

Tonisha: The retreats and readings provided learning opportunities that we could use to strengthen us professionally in our roles. I grew confident in my skills and abilities in a conscious way. I learned to open my eyes to my natural strengths and how to focus on them to increase my effectiveness. Through these retreats and learning opportunities, I also learned about being vulnerable and asking for support from others.

Denise: Equally as valuable as all the other benefits in my fellowship was the access I had as a fellow. The past two years has been an eye-opening, surreal and sometimes heady experience in privilege. There were obvious areas of access that I had—like understanding how the funding world works and contributing to decisions about who gets funded—but I think the most impactful access for me was the opportunity I had to deepen my equity knowledge. I am grateful for the time I had as a fellow to build relationships with communities, adding another dimension to my equity journey.

  1. What reflective practices did you use effectively during your fellowship?

Ami: Adaptive leadership has helped me reframe who has the power and agency to be a leader. We all have moments where we can exert leadership, and as a fellow in a small foundation, there were several moments when I stepped into a leadership role and helped shape the vision and approach of our grantmaking. I was able to look beyond the surface of a technical challenge to see the adaptive challenge underneath.

Mijounga: Indeed! All the fellows, including myself, experienced huge transitions personally and professionally during the past two years—becoming mothers, getting married, buying homes, starting grad school—all while realizing we could make a greater impact in philanthropy! At our respective foundations, we all wrestled with our roles as women of color, surrounded by great wealth and also great poverty and injustice. What really helped me was practicing collective sensemaking (with the fellows, my colleagues at work, other funders), learning how to be adaptive, and strategizing and course-correcting after reflection.

  1. What was one of the most challenging aspects you faced in your role and what did you learn from it? 

Zeeba: Assessing the impact of providing long-term, sizeable general operating support grants was an exciting challenge because the field is still learning how to tell the story of unrestricted funding, although it is not new. I’ve learned that we have to be creative in conducting these assessments and, most importantly, share our findings to help dispel the myth that general operating support cannot be learned from or assessed.

Ami: I learned it is important to leverage my power in philanthropy to meet communities’ needs. As a colleague of mine once stated, philanthropy is liberated gatekeeping. I have consistently tried to be accessible to community leaders, knowing they will share with me more freely as a woman of color. With those stories and suggestions in mind, I get to work on advocating for more access, more resources, more technical assistance and more flexible funding. I had to recognize I have power, and now I leverage that power with integrity, in service to a broader vision of justice.

Tonisha: While working with many different constituencies, including foundation staff, trustees and the community, it was often challenging to be inclusive of all voices and needs in decision making. I had to navigate a new organization’s culture, develop a new process and take the time to slow down when I encountered roadblocks. In the end, I deepened my ability to develop a program, to be more inclusive of all stakeholders connected to the process, to ask more questions, and to embrace and revel in the ‘oops.’

  1. Which of your contributions to your foundation or the philanthropic field had the most impact?

Mijounga: Since I’ve worked in different functions in philanthropy prior to and during my fellowship (programs, grants management, president’s office), I had a strong understanding of foundation systems and practices. I was therefore motivated to figure out better ways we can do grantmaking across all our departments—and be more collaborative in general, as we ask of our grantees. I found that it makes sense to take a human-centered design (HCD) approach and to use HCD tools and practices that will further help us learn and work better together. As I increasingly became aware that this effort was tied to organizational culture, I also focused on addressing how we can work on and connect our culture to strategy.

Lauren: I came to philanthropy after twelve years of working with families experiencing housing insecurity and homelessness. At first, I felt intimidated by others in philanthropy—I was surrounded by lawyers, professors, CEOs—but over time I recognized my experience as an asset. My first-hand knowledge of different types of programming and government funding enhanced my team’s understanding of nonprofit housing providers’ needs. I believe that philanthropy has much to gain from the perspectives of people with direct service experience who can use their background to contribute towards an effective system change approach.

Denise: I saw that our outside perspectives, questions and curiosity about why things are the way they are, are extremely important to the evolution of equitable funding. I had an impact on how my portfolio thinks about funding holistically when it comes to the “environment.” If the current crisis of climate change isn’t clear enough—the pressing interests of community health, agriculture, food systems, indigenous knowledge and values, ecology, natural systems restoration and industry are also all related to the environment. The question is: How can we support work that benefits those communities most marginalized?

  1.  How do you envision incorporating your learnings from the fellowship into your next work? What new opportunities are you interested in exploring next?

Mijounga: I’m excited to continue using design strategies to curate conditions for transformative interactions, to enable culture shift and social change. Also, how to do powerful and meaningful collaborations—especially with unlikely partners and places! Collaboration (and co-creation) sounds great but I’ve always thought it was very hard to do successfully due to power imbalances, egos and untapped creative juices, among other things. But I’m just as much invested in the synergetic process as I am in the end goal.

Ami:  The biggest thing this fellowship has offered me is space to ground into my truth. I am fiercely settled in my vision of justice. I look forward to building generative collaborations with communities and leaders, and to advocating alongside them in a truly expansive approach to systems change.

Tonisha: I will now start program and process development differently, aware of the ‘potholes’ and prepared for the new ones that may emerge. I will ask more questions and slow down to truly survey the ‘landscape’—culture, needs, desires, roles and systems—keeping my natural abilities and strengths at the forefront. I will continue to reflect on the aspects of adaptive leadership and change management as I move forward in doing more initiative development to support underserved communities. I’m continuing this work for my foundation and wish to eventually take this work nationally, using my skills to create inclusive community programs and processes.

  1. What is another term you would use for “equity” and why?
Momemtum Fellows
From left: Fellows Luk, Patel, Toler, Waudé, Khalili, Chang, Mares Asfaha (Philanthropy Northwest Program Manager).

Zeeba: Justice. It is when all people have what we need to be successful in life based on our own definitions of what success looks like.

Ami: Empowerment. We need to get out of the way and truly let folks in their own communities make decisions that will enable them to thrive on their own terms.

  1. What are six words to describe the future impact of philanthropy in enabling social change? 

Zeeba: Recognizing we can learn as funders.

Lauren: Systems Change – Less restrictions. More trust.

Ami: Start with humility and stay accountable.

Try “Putting Something in the Middle” and “Free-Writing” to Reflect on Grantmaking Strategy

Try “Putting Something in the Middle” and “Free-Writing” to Reflect on Grantmaking Strategy

Are you curious about how to create a routine that allows you or your team to reflect on your philanthropic practice? Dara Weinerman Steinberg, Executive Director of Lippman Kanfer Family Foundation, shares her experience wrangling time to reflect and how it has reinvigorated her belief in the value of informal learning from strategy. I appreciated how many times she had to put it on her calendar before she gave reflection its due. It’s not easy! Dara and I hope this post will encourage you to experiment with taking time for reflection at work. Put that into your calendar, please!  – Jan Jaffe

Like many people, I’ve been moving forward without making adequate time to reflect. I’ve struggled to find the quiet time to think and explore different possibilities as to how the foundation might refine its grantmaking. I’d put a Shultz Hour on my calendar, and invariably I would move it to accomplish a task that was time sensitive. Plus, it’s easier to put off strategic work when there is no clear plan for how to do strategic reflection.

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Making Values Work for Teams

Making Values Work for Teams

Our first interview about reflective practices in group work is with Brenda Solorzano, who is the CEO of the new Headwaters Foundation in Western Montana. So many of our readers have asked how do you reflect when your staff is small and multi-tasking all the time or when the board is just past start-up stage and anxious to move from planning to action or a new CEO has just arrived and feels the need to hit the ground running?  Brenda and Headwaters offer us a chance to answer all these questions at once.  – Jan Jaffe

Jan: Headwaters Foundation is very new – just making its first grants. How do you, as its first CEO, help your board and staff hold the space for reflection when there must be so much pressure to focus on translating strategy into action?

Brenda: Over the years in philanthropy, I’ve come to believe that there is a very direct relationship between good values and good strategy. As a result, I’ve tried to “flip the frame” around those initial exercises about mission, vision and values exercises. It’s so easy to check values off the to-do list and forget that they can be used to remind us about how we want to work together as well as what we do. Rather than thinking about a values statement as a problem to solve and move on, I make it about intentionality around the culture we are trying to build. Values shape strategy.
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New Guide: Four Practices to Help You Work (and Sleep) Better

New Guide: Four Practices to Help You Work (and Sleep) Better


What keeps you up at night?  Our hunch, based on interviews with dozens of skilled philanthropy practitioners, is that it’s not the “what” of your work. You care deeply about a place, a field or an issue. You work hard to stay on top of content knowledge. You network to learn from others. It takes time and vigilance but you can do it. Rarely does that information get in the way of a good night’s sleep.

What challenges philanthropy practitioners is the “how” of that work.
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Effective Philanthropy is Heart Work and Hard Work

Effective Philanthropy is Heart Work and Hard Work


As a Senior Advisor and Vice President at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Dr. Gail C. Christopher led many initiatives that were not without controversy and difficult conversations. She launched the Foundation’s breastfeeding program as a health equity strategy for women and children and she was responsible for the formation and framework of the Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation (TRHT) work. We began our interview talking about what reflective practices helped her meet challenges as a philanthropic practitioner. –Jan Jaffe

Gail: Let’s remember philanthropy’s etymology—love of humanity. I believe the field should be grounded in the heart and love. I am always all about the business! But I put a great deal of emphasis on doing no harm myself and helping others to be on a path of love and understanding. As a practice, that means always asking myself where my attention and focus should be. I think about my day and visualize my intention for each experience. It is a centering practice to have a clear intention.  Continue reading →

Putting Something in the Middle

Putting Something in the Middle

When I read Doug’s announcement about leaving Meyer Memorial Trust at the end of this year, I asked if we might have a couple of conversations about the reflective practices he used to guide his work there. I had admired his leadership of the foundation as it became an early adopter of Mission Related Investments (MRIs) and, more recently, his commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion at Meyer. This first post is about Meyer’s entry into making MRIs nearly twelve years ago. Investing with a mission lens is a high bar for foundations to clear. There is resistance to it, for good and bad reasons. Doug overcame that resistance by using a reflective practice that is often called “putting something in the middle”—using a third object to help participants explore their assumptions at a deeper level than words. This is an unusual practice but it can be a useful one, especially with analytic people. –Jan Jaffe

Jan: We have some examples of philanthropy practitioners using images or poems or music lyrics to open up conversations. You used a newspaper.

Doug: Of course I didn’t know that I was doing something that had a conceptual frame at the time, but I wanted to move our long journey of exploring the possibility of MRIs to a decision and, frankly, I hoped for an affirmative one. At this point, we had two years of experience in making Program-Related Investments. We had structured a learning journey with key trustees to meet leaders in the thick of it and to attend conferences. We arranged for speakers at trustee meetings and regional forums. While the idea clearly had appeal, I was not getting their attention.

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How Can I Be 1% More?

How Can I Be 1% More?

Sindhu Knotz and Jan Jaffe caught up with June Wilson, board member and executive director emeritus of Quixote Foundation to learn about her reflective practices and the foundation’s application of reflective practices to racial equity work.

Jan Jaffe: We started this conversation at Philanthropy Northwest’s annual conference roundtable to exchange stories about how reflective practice impacts our philanthropic work. Can you share with us how reflective practices have shaped your work as a leader?

June Wilson: I can’t remember a time when I haven’t in some way been aware of my personal reflective practices. I will walk, run, or move in space to allow kinesthetic energy to give me a wider palette than just language from which to see, feel and know things. It’s an important source for reflection. I spent many years as a dancer and choreographer learning tools that physicalized the verbal. I often fall back on these techniques especially when I am puzzled by something or feel stuck or challenged by an idea, concept or way of working. For me, it’s a way of reaching farther when I feel like I’ve hit a limit. If I can start by finding even 1% more patience, presence, love, imagination, I can break through that barrier.
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The Creative Tension of Intention

The Creative Tension of Intention


Many years ago, I learned the concept of “Structural Tension” from Robert Fritz, one of the founders of Innovation Associates along with Peter Senge and Charlie Keifer. IA was a company dedicated to helping people build organizations using principles of the creative process. I often refer to “Structural Tension” as “Creative Tension,” because that phrase is readily understandable by children.  Yes, you can teach this to children. Here is how it works.

Stretch a rubber band between your two hands so that one hand is on top of the other.  Imagine that your bottom hand represents current reality (the way things are) and your top hand represents your vision (what you would like to see in the world).  Notice the tension in the rubber band.  This is energy created by holding current reality and vision simultaneously, and it is this tension—this energy—that allows us to create the results we want.  If you let go of either end of the rubber band, you will notice that there no longer is energy in the system.  All you have is a limp rubber band.

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Philanthropists in a Hurry: The Risks of Unhealthy Boundaries and the Rush to Results (Part 2)

Philanthropists in a Hurry: The Risks of Unhealthy Boundaries and the Rush to Results (Part 2)


In the first part of this series, we discussed some of the rookie mistakes my team and I made when we started working to end family homelessness in the Pacific Northwest. Our impatience for impact led us to skip some of the vital relationship building and buy-in processes vital to achieving our goals. Philanthropy works through partners, but sometimes we forget that means strengthening the partnership aspects first.

What are the lessons learned from this?  First and foremost, it’s about the relationships and boundaries we need to maintain as funders.  Our grantees will always take our phone calls and meetings, and always smile and nod when we share new ideas or express our sense of urgency – even when they may not agree with our thinking and would very much prefer that we back the heck off.  Our shoe size is so large that it’s really easy for us to step on the toes of our partners; vigilance and patience is required, even as the pressure we feel to get to impact raises our anxiety levels. Continue reading →

Philanthropists in a Hurry: The Risks of Unhealthy Boundaries and the Rush to Results (Part 1)

Philanthropists in a Hurry: The Risks of Unhealthy Boundaries and the Rush to Results (Part 1)


We philanthropy practitioners are, by nature, an impatient group of optimists, and sometimes our impatience can get the better of us.  This happens when we’re in such a hurry to see impact that we fail to recognize unhealthy boundaries related to our role in the change process, don’t clearly identify and plan for the challenges and obstacles in the path ahead, skip important steps in the process of systems change, or disregard the readiness of our partners to assume responsibility for the tasks we ask them to undertake.

Developing healthy relationships in our sector can be particularly challenging; grantees and partners tend to think of us (or at least treat us to our faces) as smarter and savvier than we actually are, and when we buy into this mythology ourselves it becomes that much harder to cultivate candid communication and encourage the porous boundaries that should be the hallmark of true grant maker/grantee partnerships. Continue reading →

“It’s Not Magic; It’s Intentionality”: Janis Reischmann Talks About Her Reflective Practices with Mark Sedway

“It’s Not Magic; It’s Intentionality”: Janis Reischmann Talks About Her Reflective Practices with Mark Sedway

Mark Sedway: What does reflective practice mean to you?

Janis Reischmann: To me, reflective practice in philanthropy means we—practitioners in philanthropy—are employing techniques or tools to intentionally step back and explore what’s happening in processes, especially difficult ones, and using the answers to those questions to improve or sharpen our practice. It also says to me that the field is mindful of the role the individual plays in the craft of philanthropy…that it is not just about data, money, strategies or deadlines. The personhood we bring to philanthropy is an important element and is worth developing and sharpening.

MS: What reflective practices do you use in your work to do that stepping back and exploring?

JR: One practice I use is a non-traditional form of journaling. I use it before, during and after meetings and events in different kinds of ways. When I’m feeling really anxious and overloaded, it can be a pause to make a list of what’s making me anxious and suddenly I feel I have a handle on it. Sometimes I feel too busy to take even two minutes to do this, but of course I’m not. In advance of a meeting, I’ll outline my thoughts and jot down words or phrase I want to communicate. During a meeting, I’m better if I can jot down thoughts. It crystalizes things for me and helps me to focus more in the moment. Sometimes I’ll offer a summary of what I just heard to see if I’m tracking. After a meeting I do better if I do summary notes. It helps me process what occurred and think about what’s next. It’s a summarizing practice.

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One-hundred-eighty-degree Seeing

One-hundred-eighty-degree Seeing


We all know that foundations are very powerful. Part of the challenge of philanthropy is how grantmakers listen to circumstances on the ground, versus imposing a cookie-cutter approach to incite deeper collaboration with grantees, while developing a more complex appreciation for their partners and how these different actors are connected within an individual landscape.

My goal as a grantmaker was to empower the grantee to take ownership of planning the grant so that the work and investment could be owned by the grantee. Doing so required letting go of control and trusting in the partnership as a learning opportunity for the foundation. Continue reading →