Funding & Policy: Building Long-Term, Systemic Solutions

On Tuesday, September 22, the Connecticut Food System Alliance (CFSA) held the third session of this year’s virtual summit, Designing Resilience for Food and Farming in Connecticut: A Virtual Series to Collectively Shape the Future of Growing & Eating in Our State. This session, Funding & Policy: Building Long-Term, Systemic Solutions, focused on philanthropic giving and advocacy as methods of creating change. CFSA Steering Committee members Latha Swamy and Cara Mitchell moderated a panel discussion between Fahd Vahidy, philanthropic advisor to William C. Graustein, and Nyree Hodges, project coordinator for Connecticut Farm to School Collaborative.

Funding in Connecticut

Connecticut sees hundreds of millions of dollars in charitable giving from both foundations and individual donors annually. In 2017, Connecticut foundations awarded $803.7 million in grants, less than half of that amount remaining within the state (CT Philanthropy). In Connecticut, 32% of foundation giving goes to health initiatives, 5% goes to community and economic development, 3% goes to environmental and animal services, and 0.3% goes to agriculture, fishing, and forestry (CT Philanthropy, according to the most recent data collected in 2016).

Connecticut is also home to 18,602 nonprofits with 501(c)(3) distinction, including public charities, religious organizations, and public and private foundations (Independent Sector). Despite a common misconception, it’s legal for these 501(c)(3) organizations to lobby for legislative change (Bolder Advocacy & Center for Nonprofits).

About Fahd Vahidy

“Fahd Vahidy currently serves as a Philanthropic Advisor to William C. Graustein and supports his charitable giving work and programmatic investments including the Community Leadership Program in New Haven, CT.  Fahd has held management and executive management positions in the nonprofit sector, and as a consultant, he’s advised on innovative startups, talent development and organizational culture work, and systems-level advocacy and change. He has served on the board of several state-wide organizations in CT over the last 20 years. Fahd received his undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of Connecticut. When he’s not fly fishing on the Farmington River, he’s likely to be gardening in his backyard or spending time with his wife and two cats.”

About Nyree Hodges

“Nyree is a certified community health educator who brings several years of experience as a non-formal educator/ and project coordinator in environmental education, service learning, and agriculture to her work. Nyree currently works as the Project Coordinator for the CT Farm to School Collaborative and finds it essential to incorporate the intersectionality of food, education, and land in her approaches to work.”

Discussion

Latha Swamy framed the panel discussion as an examination of the divisions, or false silos, that prevent progress toward true food systems change. For example, groups emphasizing the importance of emergency food services while knowing they are temporary solutions, not long-term solutions to hunger or poverty. Latha spoke about how food systems change includes addressing housing security, job security, and financial security through policy.

Latha also acknowledged the separation of food and agriculture in funding situations. For example, a funder could be focusing on the food system, but may not choose to fund something related to land security or growing food. Agricultural programs go underfunded even though they are integral to the food system.

Q: How do we bridge these divisions that prevent collaborative change?

Nyree acknowledged the work that mutual aid groups and grassroots organizations have done to support populations not included in pandemic relief, such as undocumented immigrants. Nyree observed that, “these grassroots organizations have filled in the gap where policy has failed us.” Mutual aid groups mobilized during the pandemic to provide communities with food, money, and other resources.

Nyree also discussed silos based on who is at the table in different organizations. For example, the information she collects through her work as a project coordinator for the Connecticut Farm to School Collaborative is different from the information shared with the Northeast Farmers of Color (NEFOC). She added, “as time goes on I see funding that’s brought into these rooms and they get used in very different ways. So I think that’s one way that these silos live and division happens.”

Fahd stated that silos are part of the system’s design: “Silos are emblematic of the very design that’s been reinforced and replicated, structurally, politically put into place through policies and programs.” Fahd continued that in order to bridge these divisions and encourage collaborative change, we should analyze whether these efforts to bridge and collaborate reinforce or redesign the existing system.

From Fahd’s unique philanthropic perspective as an advisor to an individual donor, funding is relational: “We try to build these relationships with the folks who are on the front lines, who have a deep expertise about systems that are working efficiently and systems that are not working efficiently.” It’s through these relationships that philanthropists can work toward understanding needs of individuals and connect them to community agencies that have trust within impacted neighborhoods. “The bridging work for us is not so much as redesigning systems but really trying to influence the type of conversations that can support reimagining systems.”

Q: It’s often easier to obtain funding for programs than it is for policy or grassroots organizing. Do you observe these patterns as well and what are some of your thoughts around how that impacts what’s happening? Is there potential for change?

Nyree drew from personal experience working with Make The Road Connecticut in Bridgeport. She worked on a project to provide safe pathways for students to get to schools in Bridgeport. “They [Make The Road Connecticut] worked with the city council a lot to try to get this funded and they wanted permanent paint so that students can have a pathway to get to school where the rain wouldn’t wash away the paint. But the city kept telling Make the Road for years that they can only use temporary paint.” While this was not related to the food system, Nyree expressed that it’s an example of a system redesign that was not funded for the long-term until very recently and after years of asking. “That’s just one example when I noticed that something temporary, or a temporary program, is more likely to get funded than a long-term permit or policy, especially one that redesigns a system.”

Fahd acknowledged that this issue is alive in the philanthropic world; there’s a prevailing bias toward programs. Program officers and grant managers often inform these funding decisions based on program evaluation metrics, not on systems redesign. Fahd referenced how historically philanthropy has been a neutral endeavor. “If you were to back away from thinking through this and be a bit more imaginative around the types of systems we want to change, you have to take a position and it certainly can’t be neutral on issues that matter.” Though neutrality is an issue in institutional philanthropy, individual giving has the opportunity to fund advocacy and policy initiatives without aligning an organization with a political agenda.Fahd also references a New York Times Magazine article, America At Hunger’s Edge, about philanthropy and giving during the pandemic and during economic emergencies through history. “It’s easier to put the money out there to the organization or to relieve pain and suffering than to push for a policy. It probably has something to do with the government structure or the trust in government and the immediate benefit that people receive from putting money out for emergency food.”

Q: I have an excerpt from a blog written by Vu Le. He is a former executive director of RVC. He wrote a piece called ‘How philanthropy fails to support its greatest assets, BIPOC leaders, and what it should do about it.’

“In order for us to make significant change, we must invest in leaders, not simply see them as instruments to advance the work of organizations. Given the level of disruption and change that’s much needed and more possible than ever before, real progress will more likely come from unfettered leaders and the new platforms they create than from slow-to-change organizations that are hoping for a return to normalcy.”

Is this something you agree with, and is it happening in Connecticut or not happening in Connecticut, especially in the food system?

Both Fahd and Nyree agree with Vu Le’s quote calling to invest not only in programs and organizations but BIPOC leaders.

Back in 2001/2002, Fahd’s employer, Bill, created the Community Leadership Program,  bringing leaders from New Haven together to discuss tensions, divisions, and leadership capabilities in the state. “I’m certainly behind leadership development investment and I think a supplement to that is having experiences that allow for leaders to critique and perhaps reexamine some of the narratives that they’ve bought into about what leadership looks like.” The space for critique is especially important when discussing redesigning systems. This program and similar programs help build cooperative leadership skills, interdependencies, and trust that can help generate the right results. They also help bring community leaders and those with direct ties to the issues to the table to develop solutions: “The people who are closest to the issues that we want to impact are the best forces to influence that design.”

After graduating college, Nyree was part of a fellowship program called Young People For, a leadership development program dedicated to social change. While programs like these uplift BIPOC youth leaders, they’re contextualized by predominantly white perceptions of professionalism. “People of color will get these roles because they’re the best people to go out into the community for the non-profit…I do see that kind of running down on a lot of BIPOC leaders because it’s like telling BIPOC folks ‘you don’t have the tools to lead their communities in a way that they could without having to go through this corporate or professional way.’” In a state like Connecticut, lots of the same BIPOC leaders are pulled into discussions in a tokenizing way. Instead, organizations in the state need to expand outreach to include more voices, especially Indigenous voices. “There are a lot of people who are interested, a lot of people who are doing this work…I think we can do a lot more targeted outreach to bring in those people who you wouldn’t normally see to be a part of the space.”

Q: How do we move toward cross sectoral relationships and create that ecosystem so that funding is not siloed, conversations are not siloed, and we are not talking in vacuums all the time?

Fahd assessed that more leaders and organizations are shifting their priorities and opening conduits for more collaborative and cooperative initiatives. He sees the potential to look past short-term solutions and focus on long-term change that can benefit more people, especially when it comes to extractive food system practices. “I think we’re beginning to turn a tide on this where people are beginning to realize that we need more people at the table to influence the type of work we’re into and while we may have divergent interests if we look at a short-term timeline, but in a longer scale a cooperative working environment and cooperative thinking design are really necessary.” Fahd referenced the Business Roundtable, an association made up of leaders from well-known organizations, that started to focus on corporate social responsibility. “I think these are some ways we can start developing a framework that people can support but also having some critical conversations about what’s fundamentally important.”

Nyree agreed with Fahd. However, we need to connect organizations having these conversations separately from one another. “There are a lot of folks in Connecticut who are working towards the same goal and sometimes when I’m in a room I think to myself ‘we’re talking about this and they’re talking about that and it would be great if these two rooms can conjoin.’” Nyree noted that COVID-19 has presented the unique opportunity to increase communication and start pulling more groups together in the virtual space. She went back to an earlier point about siloed conversations based on who is in the room and subsequent funding based on those conversations. She proposed increasing coordination between all of these groups (through designated coordinators and community liaisons) and including feedback loops into these discussions.

Key Takeaways

The conversation sparked interesting discussions in breakout sessions. Each group had opportunities to share their thoughts on the panel and add to the main ideas.

Funding

  • Funders need to foster integration and de-siloing. Funders tend to overlook the issues that intersect with the one they are trying to support. For example, food and agriculture are deeply intertwined, but are often separated in funding. The same applies to food security and other anti-poverty initiatives promoting affordable housing, job security, and financial security.
  • Funding windows, often a year, limit what philanthropic giving can realistically change. Instead, short-term funding goes toward programs and charitable work, treating a symptom of inequity instead of attacking the root cause. Programs and charitable giving are important during emergencies, but building a resilient system can prevent future devastation and strain on these temporary programs. Unrestricted or less restricted funding could foster long-term systems change.
  • Funders avoid policy work due to political stigma. When it comes to food security and policy work, “apolitical” funding skirts the root cause.

Policy

  • Knowledge gaps exist for both the general public and legislative policy makers. Policy makers need more information on the intricacies behind food insecurity and the general public needs to better understand the legislative process and how they can get involved.
  • Knowledgeable policy makers will have the ability to address the full scope of issues related to food security, including the racism and classism deeply embedded in the policy-making space itself. Leadership programs, specifically for Connecticut’s BIPOC leaders, can help facilitate representation in influential policy spaces.
  • There’s a disconnect between what policy makers view as “new” issues and what entire populations have been experiencing since before COVID. For example, research shows that SNAP funding has been insufficient, and those on SNAP are still widely food insecure. However, with more people on SNAP during COVID, policymakers finally addressed this information, and states like Connecticut started providing SNAP families with more funding and support. While the pandemic exacerbated hunger in our state, the need to expand SNAP existed prior to the pandemic as families struggled with the insufficient funds.

Funding & Policy

  • When it comes to funding, there’s a bias toward programs. While philanthropic organizations might be concerned with political affiliations, it’s crucial that these organizations fund advocacy and policy work in order to make changes for causes they support. While this is mitigated by individual philanthropy, institutional philanthropy’s bias toward programmatic funding limits change and leads to a nasty cycle.

These discussions highlighted the false silos in funding and policy. There’s a responsibility for philanthropic organizations to invest in policy and advocacy initiatives, instead of temporary programs. There’s also a responsibility for non-profits and grassroots organizations to get more involved in the legislative process through lobbying and other legal processes. There’s a bias toward temporary programs that prevents long-term policy change; non-profit leaders and philanthropic influencers need to abandon the apolitical mindset and get more involved in policy work.

Connecticut also needs to expand its decision-making space, becoming more inclusive and accessible. Some proposed solutions include policy training and education for both non-profits and philanthropists, and increasing BIPOC leadership and representation in decision-making spaces. With our collective new proficiency in virtual technology, this may be the perfect time to facilitate inclusive, cross sectoral conversations that can mitigate funding silos and address existing and worsening problems in the food system.

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