Redefining, redirecting, and shifting philanthropy is one of the many goals of Triangle Capacity-Building Network (TCBN), a combined network of funders working to fund organizations primarily led by and serving Black and Brown communities that have traditionally been excluded or overlooked by inequitable power structures and funding cycles.

In March, TCBN hosted a “fishbowl discussion” at its funder convening. This conversation strategy highlights certain voices in the center of the room (the fishbowl), allowing remaining attendees to listen carefully and learn. Eight TCBN grantee organizations lent their voices to the fishbowl: Nicholé and CJ Morgan (TheGifted Arts), Tameka Brown (H.E.A.R.T.S), Iliana Santillan (El Pueblo), Seema Kak (Kiran, Inc.), George Barrett (Marian Cheek Jackson Center), Illana Dubester (El Vínculo Hispano/The Hispanic Liaison), Joy Harrell Goff (BUMP: The Triangle), and Dawn Blagrove (Emancipate NC), facilitated by Tanaya Suddreth Lynch (Senior Program Officer of Capacity Building Initiatives, Triangle Community Foundation).

The Importance of Unrestricted Funding 

The impact TCBN makes on these organizations was clear early in the conversation.

  • For Tameka Brown, Executive Director of H.E.A.R.T.S., the grant received from TCBN was the first allowing her to build capacity within her organization - she was a volunteer for the first nine and a half years before receiving a salary. The room burst into applause when Tameka shared recent hiring news of a full-time case manager, the second full-time paid staff member to join the team.
  • Nearing the 28th anniversary of El Vínculo Hispano, Illana Dubester shared the organization just passed the two-year milestone of supplying group health insurance to her staff. Based in Chatham County, funding inequities are exacerbated in rural areas and Illana is proud of how far they have come, but challenges persist. “Talent is hard to attract and attain, especially when we struggle to compete with neighboring Triangle organizations.”
  • Nicholé Morgan of TheGifted Arts reflected on the organization’s six-year span without funding before early investors, John Rex Endowment and Triangle Community Foundation, were exposed to their work. TheGifted Arts has now been in service for 12 years and made tremendous impact on the community but has yet to have ample funding to supply staff health insurance. “We are able to make the impact that we do on the community because we have people with the talent, the passion, and the gifts to implement a service and a program that allows young people to thrive, but we could do so much more with stable funding,” she said. CJ Morgan, Co-Founder, later shared that nonprofits have the ability to “take a dollar and stretch it for years.” While they can do this, they shouldn’t have to. “We’re only small because we’re not receiving $1 million checks – you bring us those types of checks and we’re growing exponentially.”
  • Unrestricted funding plays a vital role in the growth of an organization. Seema Kak, of Kiran, Inc., reflected on the restrictions of federal and state funding and the many times she was told “no.” When she became a part of the TCBN cohort, hearing “yes” was the best feeling. “Even if it was just giving a $25 gift card to our volunteers, we were so excited to finally be able to show our appreciation,” she said.

The Constant Battle of Proving Value

Imagine consistently walking into a room and feeling like you are unworthy of being in that space - imposter syndrome. Most leaders in the circle said they felt imposter syndrome in their careers, but TCBN’s focus on equity and inclusion helped alleviate some of those feelings. “Just because I do nonprofit work doesn’t mean that my work doesn’t have value and shouldn’t be valued,” said Dawn Blagrove of Emancipate NC. While many organizations claim to dismantle racism and systemic barriers, they often are reinforcing many of the problematic systems at the root of the issues. “It’s so important that we give voice to the reality that the people closest to the problems are the ones who will have the best solutions. I should never be asked by a funder, ‘What are you giving up so you can do your work?’ and I shouldn’t have to take a salary cut to ensure my staff can get health insurance – no one would ask Bill Gates or any for-profit organization to do anything like that.”

This work is not a hobby for these leaders – it is their mission, with the goal of putting themselves out of a job so their organizations no longer need to fill gaps in the community. Dawn explained, “Funders have to decide if they are going to continue to prioritize the perpetuation of a problem or prioritize funding organizations truly trying to abolish systems that are oppressive to create a world where there is true equity and fairness.”

CJ added, “We understand that it is not that we aren’t incapable or smart enough – it’s the system that has been built, and now we have to dismantle it.”

Educating the Present and Future Leaders

While financial support has a tremendous impact, the conversation also highlighted non-fiduciary forms of support and opportunities for professional development. Many mentioned the Nonprofit Management Institute, the Board of Directors Bootcamp, and the Full-Cost Budget Workshop – all transformational to their organization’s growth. For George Barrett of Marion Cheek Jackson Center, the full-cost budgeting workshop was pivotal when transitioning to the role of Executive Director amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. “The expense for the work is your people who do the work,” he said. “Our people are the ones around the community and neighborhood figuring out the programs and talking face-to-face with people - we had to figure out how to resource our people to be able to do that long term.”

For several organizations, the next generation of leaders are becoming equipped to navigate issues through lived experience and a better contextual understanding of how to find solutions. Emancipate NC’s Justice League program trains former justice-involved individuals to transform their lived experience into training to advocate in their communities. Out of their seven staff members, three were a part of the Justice League cohort. Similar examples exist at TheGifted Arts and H.E.A.R.T.S - individuals who once took part in their programs or are current participants have earned employment or internships at the organization.

Before joining El Pueblo as Executive Director, Iliana Santillan was a teacher in a rural region of the state. “Every person I talked to about the school system had really good intentions, but always looked at Black and Brown kids on a need basis and failed to see their assets,” she said. Being a part of the Network has made her comfortable showing up in an authentic manner and feeling hopeful she can bring others to this space – specifically her staff, made up mostly of young women fresh out of college. “I’m working with a whole generation of women that need to know they belong in this space.”

Cultivating a Space for Each Other

TCBN gives the choice of written or conversational reports, with most organizations preferring the latter. Aside from conserving time, the leaders described the impact conversational reports had on their relationship with Tanaya and the ability to build trust. As a new and emerging Executive Director at BUMP: The Triangle, Joy Harrell Goff credits the openness and collaboration of the Network as what pushed her through a challenging and formative year for her organization. “Everyone was willing to share and talk to each other – I am deeply appreciative of that.”

Many described the power of the Network beyond the funding – in particular the emotional support for one another. “I was sitting in an office I couldn’t afford anymore, talking to Tanaya on the verge of tears – I knew I could make an impact, but I just didn’t know how to get to the money,” said Dawn. She shared how Tanaya listened to her organization’s frustrations and shared them with funders in a way that helped them understand. “[Tanaya] has done the incredible by making a seismic paradigm shift in the funding community in North Carolina and to see organizations as we are and to invest in those of us who need to be invested in – that cannot be understated.”

Building a Space for You

The Network continues to make tremendous strides in funding solutions to our community’s inequities, but as Dawn explained, “you cannot expect us to change these oppressive systems that were built over centuries in one grant cycle.” This conversation not only created a space to amplify nonprofit voices, but space for funders to listen and feel motivated to be part of the Network’s growth. Building relationships is the treasure to this work – once connected with those around us to listen to their stories, it should inform the strategies of funders and inspire them to act boldly.

TCBN is currently composed of funders that include: Fidelity Charitable Trustees’ Initiative, John Rex Endowment, Oak Foundation, The Mary Duke Biddle Foundation, and Triangle Community Foundation. Representatives from each of these organizations were present during this conversation. Gladys Hairston (John Rex Endowment) reminded the room that now is not the time to be timid in funding this work. “There’s no progress that has ever happened in this country without push back,” she says.

Now is the time to be a part of this work so we can be braver, bolder, and stronger together – won't you join us?

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