Over the past few years, the Dodge Foundation has been an organization in transformation. We are an organization aspiring to become an antiracist institution. We are an organization working to increasingly center racial equity and justice in all aspects of our work. We are an organization that is listening and learning.
We are also an organization that is putting action to our words because we are committed to learning by doing and doing while learning. As our transformation continues, we have embraced a learning mindset and committed ourselves to invest in and take guidance from networks, movements, organizations, and leaders who are on the front lines of this work to address the root cause and repair of structural racism and inequity in New Jersey. With that learning mindset at the forefront, we are taking a moment to reflect on our lessons learned – my own lessons of leading this organization over the last three years and our collective lessons as an organization.
In 2016, the Dodge Foundation began its equity journey in earnest, culminating in a strategic plan centered on a vision for an equitable New Jersey. In 2020, as mobilizations for racial justice swept the country and the pandemic abruptly exposed the devastating impacts of structural racism and inequity on people’s lives, we answered the call of these crises to Imagine a New Way. We knew that it was time to change ourselves inside and out – to more deeply center racial equity and justice in all aspects of our work, to transform our philanthropic approaches to be more just and regenerative, and to shift more power to those who are closest to the harms and solutions to structural racism and inequity.
What we’ve learned so far will guide us in our work to come:
1. Collaboration is key. This work is so much bigger than any one of us, and we simply cannot make the necessary progress alone.
For us, collaboration these last few years has shown up in different ways, with 19 unique examples, including the New Jersey Pandemic Relief Fund, the New Jersey Arts and Culture Renewal Fund, and other pooled funds across the state for crisis response and recovery. From COVID-19, election integrity, Afghan refugee resettlement, and trauma-informed healing to Hurricane Ida – we answered the calls of crisis after crisis with our fellow partners across the state. We also listened to our community when they called for action beyond traditional philanthropic grants to organizations by deploying cash assistance to individuals, including our undocumented neighbors, through pooled funds.
These relationships strengthened and grew, which led us to pool resources with other funders for fair redistricting, New Jersey-focused racial justice learning via the Imagine More Series, youth-led narrative change and storytelling for school integration and guaranteed basic income.
Over the last three years, collaboration has allowed us to lead and listen. This level of collaboration, and an acknowledgment that we can do so much more together than apart, will drive us to create new opportunities and connections in the future.
2. Equity and trust must be at the core of the work, inside and out. While our funding increasingly supports organizations centering racial equity and justice in their work, our organization also needs to reflect on our policies and pathway to becoming an antiracist organization. We cannot ask others to do the work for us. We must be co-conspirators in the fight against injustice.
While we set a vision for a just and equitable New Jersey in 2016, it became clear in 2020 that we needed dramatic, not incremental, change. Our organization has grappled with this shift in strategy – wanting to care for the deep relationships and investments we’ve made throughout the state for decades but also feeling the urgency to address the inequities that became so stark in 2020. We also wanted to build relationships and approach this work with trust at the center – something we know takes time to build and grow.
In launching our Imagine a New Way grantmaking, we have invested a third of our funding in organizations working on the root cause and repair of structural racism in our state. By 2024, we expect the majority of our funding will support this work. Through this process, we also changed our grantmaking structures to allocate 70% of our funding to grants via general operating support. We are proud to provide flexible resources that create the space for innovation, imagination, and increased organizational stability and freedom to self-determine the best path forward.
The Momentum Fund is another new way for the Dodge Foundation to approach grantmaking with trust at its core. Launched in the fall of 2021, the Momentum Fund used a new community-engaged process to select and fund ten emerging organizations employing innovative strategies to address the root causes of structural racism in New Jersey. Each of the ten organizations received unrestricted funding of $150,000 over three years, along with capacity-building support. We believe this runway of flexible funding will offer these organizations time and space to explore new approaches and strengthen their work.
We have also changed and continue to evolve many internal policies and practices to build trust and culture among our team. In 2022, we set out key principles to guide the culture we seek to build in service of supporting movements and communities toward a more just and equitable New Jersey. As we all know, trust and culture are built over time with each deed, so we remain steadfast in our commitment to practice what we preach.
3. A learning mindset must guide our work. But, while learning is important, it cannot be done at the expense of deploying resources to the work. We committed early on to learn by doing because we cannot sit on our resources while we determine the perfect path forward. Organizations and our communities need support now, and we can and must do both.
We also acknowledged that our grantmaking alone is not the full picture of our potential for impact. In 2021, we launched a $5 million multi-year pilot investment program to begin to align our investment strategy with our values and our vision. Our first three investments in this fund provide employment opportunities for college students of color; enhance the affordable housing ecosystem in greater Newark; and support the financing of childcare centers, charter schools and small businesses in low-income neighborhoods in New Jersey. As this program evolves and we learn more from our communities, we will explore new opportunities for mission investing in our state.
We know that there is healthy skepticism for our organization’s and the overall philanthropic sector’s commitment to racial equity and justice for the long term. Too often, funders have had shifting priorities and moments of obligation that only last as long as a few-years strategic plan. We also know that an organization in transition can create uncertainty and discomfort.
I can tell you that we are committed and dedicated to becoming a racial justice funder today, tomorrow, and long into the future. But it will be our actions that matter. We ask that you hold us accountable. That you tell us when we can do better. Because we know that trust cannot be built overnight, and it cannot be built in just a few years. We remain committed to following the lead of the organizations and communities whose lives and livelihoods depend on our collective action.
Tanuja Dehne is President & CEO of the Dodge Foundation where, alongside her team, she is leading the Foundation’s transformation into an anti-racist organization dedicated to realizing a just and equitable New Jersey.