Lessons Learned for the Year Ahead

Tanuja Dehne

December 17, 2020

At the Dodge Foundation, we challenged ourselves this year as we focused on the opportunity to lead and live into equity. 2020 invited us to explore the intersection of risk and opportunity and to take responsibility for our collective safety as the global pandemic, racial uprisings, and threats to the foundation of our democracy brought into focus who we are and what we stand for. We leaned into what the year brought with trust, transparency, and compassion for each other and our community.

Democracy is Solidarity. Image Courtesy Amplifier / Tracie Ching

As people navigating the pandemic ourselves united by our collective vision of an equitable New Jersey, we have become more grateful than ever before, counting our blessings, cherishing our loved ones, consuming less, and adapting to our new realities. We are more resilient, flexible, and agile than we ever thought we could be. Amid the chaos, this collective pause allowed us to appreciate those moments of Zen and “check in” as we rediscovered our shared humanity.

The dual crises of racial injustice and the global pandemic accelerated the Foundation’s imperative to Imagine A New Way and commitment to transform our work and the construct of philanthropy itself. We deepened and built new relationships, experimented with different ways of working, and embraced the boldness of what it means to us to explore this new mindset’s two interdependent components:

  1. Imagine a New Way is Dodge’s transformation to become an anti-racist organization as we center our work with intentionality and action on racial equity and justice.
  2. Imagine a New Way is also Dodge’s transformation, role, and leadership in designing a new model of “philanthropy” by democratizing power, redistributing wealth, and shifting economic control to communities that is just and regenerative for people and the planet. 

Imagine a New Way is the lens with which we have operated internally, externally, programmatically, and financially this year. Drawing from the Just Transition framework, over the next year at Dodge we will begin to build the new, live the new, and change the rules. Below are just a few highlights from this past year that are informing the activation of the next phase of our transformation. 

New work, new grants, new processes, new thinking

In response to the pandemic and building upon the experiences from other disasters, Dodge awarded more than $2.55 million in COVID-19 urgent community needs and election integrity grants.  We converted almost all grant making to general operating support, created more inclusive decision-making processes to evaluate and decide on new grants, and leveraged technology to deploy funds quickly and efficiently. We set aside existing grant guidelines and application processes and lived into Trust-Based Philanthropy protocols and the Council of Foundations Pledge. Our poetry team rose to the challenge of the pandemic and created the first-ever virtual Dodge Poetry Festival reaching more than 14,000 people across the globe over 11 days while providing 80,000 in COVID-19 relief to 8 poetry organizations. Finally, cross-state and cross-sector collaborations for pandemic relief led to the formation of a new New Jersey Arts and Culture Recovery Fund to support artists and arts organizations now and in the future.

In 2021, we will leverage the lessons learned from living into and creating virtual collaborative spaces and strengthen our new relationships. We will also examine how our current program areas intersect and are elevated through the pursuit of democracy and justice, regenerative systems, thriving and resilient communities and life-long learning.

Culture building in a remote work environment

Like many organizations, Dodge swiftly switched to remote work in March and will continue to work remotely through at least June 2021. We explored new ways to build culture online by incorporating wellness in our meetings with moments of gratitude, meditation, breathing and movement, and found ways to acknowledge grief and loss and celebrate life’s happy moments. We also created space for self-identified BIPOC and White caucus learning groups where we shared readings, learnings, wellness tips, or just connected.

In 2021, we will continue to explore and implement ways to evolve Dodge’s internal culture so it is more inclusive and reflective of our commitment to anti-racism. 

Financial stewardship

Dodge’s strategic plan outlines our financial goals as being “responsible stewards of our financial assets, growing them to ensure future impact, and aligning our investments and expenditures with our vision, mission, and values over the long term.” The strength of our endowment provides the financial resources and stability to achieve our programmatic goals. In 2020, Dodge distributed funding above its original budget and awarded more than $2.55 million in crisis response grants.  

Our ability to act swiftly is largely attributed to the financial performance of our endowment and prudent budget decisions over recent years to reverse an earlier trend when Foundation expenses outpaced investment returns. While disbursing more than $76 million to the community over the last five years, the endowment currently ranks in the top 1 percent for endowments and foundations over the same period, and has grown over $90 million.

Dodge has also made significant strides in ensuring that our current investments are aligned with our mission, vision, and values.  We have made investments which specifically seek to make a positive social impact and financial returns, such as our recent investments in Newark Venture Partners and the Jonathan Rose Affordable Housing Fund. In 2020, we also dramatically reduced investments in fossil fuels to under 1 percent and affirmed that we are making no investments in private prisons, firearms, and munitions.

In 2021, we will continue to explore ways to align our endowment with our vision as we bring all of our resources to bear to make the greatest positive impact in New Jersey. Our strong financial position frees us be bold as we Imagine a New Way regarding wealth redistribution and shifting economic control to communities that is just and regenerative for people and planet. 

Sharing, multiplying, and amplifying

In 2020, Dodge shared its program Theories of Change and Equity Framework through several online convenings and listening sessions with our diverse stakeholder groups and partnered with colleagues in the field to advance racial equity. We also launched a Dodge Anti-racism training series for 130 nonprofit and funding partners with more than 400 people working from where they are to turn learning into action. 

In 2021, we will explore how we can more intentionally bring people together to learn from and connect with each other, so the nonprofit sector and our communities are better equipped for activating people for social change and racial justice. 

We are grateful to our partners, our community, and networks and friends as we use our collective influence and power to amplify, multiply, and activate the voices of many. Stay tuned as we share more about our transformation and our journey.  

Wishing you health, happiness, joy, and love in 2021.

Tanuja Dehne

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.