Blog home

Headwaters Foundation joins GlassPockets

By Janet Camarena (she/her)
January 7, 2021

Geometric shapes in gray, blue, and red beside the text HEADWATERS FOUNDATION/BE THE SOURCE OF CHANGE

Reprinted from Transparency Talk.

This post is part of our "Road to 100 & Beyond" series, in which we are featuring the foundations that have joined us in building a movement for transparency that now surpasses 100 foundations publicly participating in the "Who Has GlassPockets?" self-assessment. This blog series highlights reflections on why transparency is important, how openness evolves inside foundations over time, helpful examples, and lessons learned.

Headwaters Foundation works side-by-side with Western Montanans to improve community health. Its vision is a Western Montana where all people, especially the region’s most vulnerable, are healthy and thriving.

In recognition that the resources of the Headwaters Foundation belong to the communities it serves, its philanthropic investments are designed with community at the center of the work. The foundation supports efforts that address the social determinants of health issues that keep Western Montanans from being healthy. Investments by the foundation prioritize two vulnerable communities, children living in poverty and American Indian communities. Through 2023 its granting programs include:

  • Strategic Initiatives: Supporting multi-year, multi-faceted strategic initiatives that build community capacity to collaboratively address the issues that keep Western Montanans from being healthy
  • GO! Grants: Quick turnaround, high impact, low stress grants for mission aligned organizations in rural Western Montana
  • Policy Grants: Focused on research, policy development and grassroots advocacy, these investments inform Montana health policy conversations

Headwaters Foundation is among our newest GlassPockets participants. In this interview with GlassPockets’ Janet Camarena, Brenda Solorzano, CEO of the Headwaters Foundation, explains why transparency is key to its philanthropic approach.

GlassPockets: 2020 has been a very unpredictable and challenging time for us all, and much of what is happening in philanthropy today stems from responding to multiple crises unfolding from the pandemic and from a nation reckoning with racial injustice. How is Headwaters responding to these unprecedented times, and how has your thinking about transparency, openness, and funder accountability informed your approach?

Brenda Solorzano: The current crises are forcing philanthropy to re-visit why and how we do our work, including us at Headwaters. At Headwaters, we start from a place of trusting that communities know best about the challenges they face and the solutions needed. This is the lens we applied when the dual crises hit Montana. We turned to our grantees and asked them what they needed. They told us they needed resources to address the significant food access and childcare issues elevated by the pandemic. So that is what we provided. They also shared the need to shift their grant priorities and timelines, so we did that too. The basic theme here is that we listened to our grantees and the communities they serve. There is no greater accountability for a funder than to listen to your grantees. This is true always, regardless of whether we are living in a pandemic or not. And while we always take this approach to our work, these times pushed us to ask ourselves what else we could be doing in regards to transparency and accountability. The decision to participate in GlassPockets came as a result of this exploration. It had been on my radar for a while but the crises lit a fire to finally get it done.

GlassPockets: Your website outlines a community-driven, collaborative approach to problem solving. There is growing interest in participatory approaches to grantmaking as one way to mitigate traditional grantee-grantmaker power dynamics that can get in the way, as well as to better learn and value community expertise. Can you share some thoughts about how this approach is leading the foundation in different, more effective directions than otherwise might have been the case with a traditional philanthropic approach?

Brenda: Philanthropy has a long history of top-down approaches. This includes defining the problems and solution, determining success, and freedom to shift on a whim. And while there may be some merits to these approaches, they often do not support the critical community work that could more effectively address the big social challenges we face, especially during times of crises. Before I address the benefits of this approach, I want to call out a few points. First, doing work in this way requires ceding power and control by foundation staff and board. It also requires relationship building with grantee partners that is grounded in more than the money. Finally, it requires a shared vision for the change that is desired. The benefits of these elements are that grantees start from a place of partnership and buy-in when they are in control of defining the problem and solution. Grantees are also more honest in sharing when there is a mutual definition of success because they have insight into how the foundation will define success and have a trusting relationship to work through any challenges that may arise. Another benefit is that by doing the work this way, grantees can focus on their mission critical work and not have to spend time demystifying the traditional grant application process. From a personal perspective, the way we do the work at Headwaters is more fulfilling than the traditional approaches I took in my previous 15 plus years of grantmaking.

GlassPockets: One of the biggest barriers we encounter when it comes to foundations embracing a more transparent approach is a lack of understanding of the return on the investment of time and effort.  Can you share a story about how opening up and illuminating the work that you are doing has helped you to better achieve your organization’s goals, or advanced your work in some unanticipated way?

Brenda: I would counter the narrative by sharing that the lack of transparency in philanthropy creates far more unnecessary work on the part of grantees and foundation staff than if you spent some time creating more transparent ways of communicating. I’ll share a story that exemplifies this. When we launched our grantmaking programs, I met with many nonprofit leaders wanting to access funds from this new foundation. During a meeting with one of these local nonprofit leaders, I shared our website, which includes a clear description of our strategy and grantmaking priorities. I also shared that all of our grantmaking programs were on the website and that there were no other “behind closed door” funds. After reviewing the materials, she came back to me and said that it was clear to her that her organization and their work were not a fit for funding. She noted that she appreciated the clarity and directness of my communication because she would no longer keep pursuing funding from us since it was clear they did not fit into any of the funding programs. She noted that she has a yearly plan to meet with funders or apply for funding from any foundation that she thinks she has even a slight chance of getting funds from. She recognizes that playing this game results in a lot of her time chasing dollars she may not get, but feels that is what foundations’ lack of clarity cause her to do. She crossed us off her yearly foundation visit and thanked me for giving her time to focus on things that had better return on investment for her mission-critical work. I appreciated that I would not have to take another meeting with her and instead could prioritize time with mission- and strategy-aligned grantees.

GlassPockets: How did the GlassPockets self-assessment process help you improve or better understand Headwater's level of transparency, and why should your peers participate?

Brenda: As a trust-based funder, we are continuously asking ourselves how we can better live the values of humility, equity, and transparency. The GlassPockets assessment made it clear that we have a long way to go to maximize how we live the value of transparency. I felt pleased that we met some of the expectations, but I quickly realized that there is more information we should be sharing with our grantees and the communities we serve. As a result of this learning, we have added a transparency goal for 2021 and will be building a work plan, so when we re-do our GlassPockets assessment next year, we will rate better than our current assessment indicates. This was a good learning process for me and I realized that relying on my gut to measure our level of transparency was seriously flawed.  I’d encourage my colleagues to do their own GlassPockets assessment because it will clearly identify areas of improvement needed to truly be a transparent funder.

GlassPockets: The Headwaters Foundation is active in the Trust-Based Philanthropy movement. Can you share a bit with us about the Trust-Based approach, why Headwaters is participating, and how transparency and openness play a role within that effort?

Brenda: In any kind of relationship, it is difficult to have a trusting relationship without transparency. This applies to a funder/grantee relationship and it is why transparency is so critical within the Trust-Based Philanthropy (TBP) approach.  As mentioned above, TBP is grounded in centering values of equity, humility and transparency. These values are critical if foundations aim to have trusting relationships with grantees and/or are hoping to rebalance the power dynamic between themselves and their grantees.

While transparency is a key component of TBP, it is only part of what TBP is all about. TBP is an approach that also requires centering relationships with grantees, collaborating with humility and curiosity, sharing and ceding of power by foundations, and centering equity by changing practices that perpetuate inequities. The theory of TBP is that having a philanthropic approach with all of these components will lead to more effective community-led change efforts that could more effectively create a just society.

GlassPockets: Since ideally, transparency is always evolving and there is always more that can be shared, what are some of your aspirations for how Headwaters Foundation will continue to open up its work in new ways in the future?

Brenda: To start with, we need to do better at meeting the GlassPockets criteria around foundation transparency. This will be the low hanging fruit, but something we must improve. A couple of other areas I’d like Headwaters to explore is how we can be more transparent about how we manage and invest our endowment. We are also looking at how we can do better in sharing what we are learning from our work and how to share it with key audiences including grantees, the communities we serve, and the field of philanthropy.

Tags: Foundations and grantmaking; Transparency