The Role of Philanthropy

Insights from the Kresge Human Services Program National Nextgen Initiative Cohort II

How Philanthropy Shows Up Matters

Philanthropy can and has played a vital role in advancing social and economic mobility and supporting innovative solutions in the social sector. The NextGen initiative is an example of how one Foundation sought to provide catalytic support to visionary public and community-based leaders by creating space for collective learning, collaboration, and field building efforts that influence mindsets, practices, narratives, and policies.

As part of the NextGen initiative Cohort II, the Kresge Human Services Program sought to lead with the core values of servant leadership, humility, shared power, and mutual learning. Simply put, the way foundations show-up matters. To better understand the approach the team took with this initiative, we lift-up insights about supporting bold and visionary leadership, creating the conditions for learning and collaboration, and building momentum for collective action.

“The commitment to the human services sector by the foundation for me is really uplifting and encouraging. This is the first time in my professional career that I've seen a foundation go this deep into a sector with a major commitment, not only with financial resources, but technical and capacity building to support the evolution of the field.”

– Joseph Jones, NextGen Advisor

Key Takeaways and Insights

Guiding Questions

As part of the NextGen Learning journey, some of the questions explored related to the Role of Philanthropy approaches include:

  1. How has or will your Foundation leverage these lessons to inform your effort to foster the conditions for shared learning and collaboration?
  2. How might you leverage this information to adapt and improve your approach to creating cohesive, trusting, and innovative environments to support organizational learning and leadership?
  3. In what ways have or will you leverage this information to center racial equity and racial justice to help build momentum and support for systems change?


Embracing a shared vision and creating a culture of trust

Recognizing this type of initiative was not the first of its kind, the Kresge team built off lessons from internal Foundation teams, program partners, other funders, and external partners undertaking similar cohort-based initiatives. The team intentionally sought to bring together what ultimately became a cohort of diverse public sector and community-based organizations already doing innovative work and poised to take their efforts to the next level. To further support a culture of trust, the Kresge team recruited a dynamic group of diverse and representative expert advisors with shared values, multilevel experience, and deep content expertise. The advisors served as partners and played an integral role throughout the experience. The advisors were inspired by the work of the cohort members and champions of their success in partnership with the families and communities they serve.

In addition to inspiring alignment around a shared vision, there are other noteworthy leadership attributes that have created the conditions for testing, learning, and trust-building. Advisors and grantees reflected on the role and support of the Kresge Human Services team. The fact that the effort was led by two Black women who brought deep content knowledge, human service sector experience, and credibility, was noted by advisors as key. As one advisor said, “leadership matters and representation matters, too.”

The selection process was an integral part of establishing rapport and the early development of trust. “We were driven by a commitment to deliver on the promise to families and communities,” recalled Raquel Hatter, the Managing Director of Kresge’s Human Services Program, “while service delivery models and theories of change have a place in these efforts, [just] as important are a strength-based, values driven, and adaptive mindset that manifest in practice, action, and impact. Congruence across all these elements was important.” With the initial orientation session, the Kresge team established a collaborative and supportive tone where cohort members spoke candidly and openly about both their achievements and pain points. It’s important to note that this wasn’t permissive but instead an inherent characteristic at the first session and throughout the initiative. As NextGen Advisor Jesus Gerena noted, the Kresge team brought “a straightforward approach as well as vulnerability. These qualities create the space for people to open up. There wasn't a defensiveness. There wasn't an exercising of the power dynamics that can happen with philanthropy and grantees.” According to advisors and grantees, the Kresge team showed up as partners, co-learners, and trusted allies.

“Humor, levity, and music were also key elements that served to tap into individual and collective authenticity, a sense of unity, and an invitation to be true to oneself are important when operating in service to others. This permeated the entire experience.”

-Raquel Hatter, Managing Director, Kresge Human Services Program

Creating spaces, structures, and conditions for collective learning and support

A key priority in the design of the initiative was to create an atmosphere of ease that was free from any pressure to perform or compete. The vision was to cultivate a much-needed space for organizational leaders to step back from the fast-paced nature of human services work to take stock, re-focus, experience authentic engagement, and think more expansively in a supportive and non-judgmental environment. The NextGen cohort reflected the diversity of issues, perspectives, partners, and contexts in which human service organizations operate, making it a unique opportunity to test and learn together.

Developing relevant content, practical tools, innovative workshops, and leadership academies require a level of skill and excellence to support the overall experience. The Kresge Human Services team tapped existing partner Leadership for a Network World (LNW) to serve as the learning partner. In addition to being the creators of the Human Services Value Curve, LNW brought more than a decade of experience of working across sectors with public and community-based health and human services, law enforcement, corporations and more. The relationship between Kresge and LNW was marked by a shared vision, accepting and challenging differing ideas, mutual learning, flexibility, candor, and trust. The Kresge Human Services team noted the importance of cohort members and advisors being engaged in the design and development of each learning session. LNW employed a number of methods to fulfill this shared priority.

“Taking lessons from the National NextGen Initiative Cohort was very important as we planned Cohort II,” said Joelle-Jude Fontaine, Senior Program Officer for Kresge’s Human Services Program. “We learned the importance of peer networking time, a shared understanding of racial equity, ensuring the two-generation approach was more integral, the human services value curve more practical, and reinforced the importance of integral partnerships with the public human services sector.”

COVID-19 brought an abrupt halt to in-person sessions and required a rapid pivot as organizational leaders focused on crisis response in their respective regions.  LNW and the Kresge team immediately created supportive virtual spaces where participants could share what they were grappling with.  They openly acknowledged the real impact of exhaustion and the need to tend to and address various needs of staff and organizational leaders as no friend or family was untouched by the pandemic. Despite the limitations of virtual engagement, both advisors and grantees once again called out the values-driven nature of the spaces created, referring to them as spaces where participants could be authentic and vulnerable.

Racial equity and racial justice were central tenets of the learning program from its inception.  The program’s focus on racial equity was reinforced after the tragic public murder of George Floyd in 2020 and the wider public’s seemingly sudden awareness of the historical practice of taking of Black lives, which sparked global racial justice protests and a deeper interrogation of systemic and institutionalized racism. With heavy hearts, cohort members readily leaned in to crucial conversations and a greater sense of urgency to act. It continued to be a time of further testing courageous leadership in turbulent times.  This burden of racism was not new to leaders of color but created more extreme pressure for them at the personal level, within their organizations they led, and the communities they served. Their white cohort colleagues were clearly impacted as well and readily acknowledged the experience of the leaders of color. They expressed their support and allyship. These discussions were powerful and served to build greater trust and cohesion.

The Kresge Team’s support went beyond the structured engagements during this time said Fontaine, “we engaged in wellness check-ins as cohort leaders presented with or expressed the need for a trusted partner, listening ear, and a virtual embrace.”


Building momentum and field capacity for collective action

Several cohort participants called out the uniqueness of a foundation going deep in a sector, not just with financial resources to support individual organizations, but with a field building mindset. Several advisors and cohort members underscored the opportunity to put those examples of next generation human services organizations and models in front of national leaders. “Every one of these groups in some way, shape, or form is fighting upstream,” one advisor observed, and there is an opportunity to elevate a set of “policy changes to make that easier.” For the Kresge Human Services Program, formal structured cohort-based learning is one of many ways they create opportunities for collective learning and collaboration. This includes creating access to resources for partners to co-design spaces to engage, hosting roundtable series with resources and tools, facilitating peer learning with partners sharing similar bodies of work, etc. A key observation the team noted is how partners have sustained new connections and partnerships. There are several examples of how cohort members have collaborated with one another and advisory members. For example, the Jeremiah Program collaborated with the Center for Urban Families as a part of establishing a new site in the city of Baltimore. Many of the cohort members also continue to partner with Kresge Human Services’ ongoing innovative and transforming efforts related to policy, advocacy, racial equity, racial justice, and economic inclusion.

The Kresge Human Services team recognizes the value and critical importance of flexible funds. to advance systems change in a rapidly changing context. Flexible funding is especially important for organizations charged with fulfilling unfunded mandates that too often don’t necessarily result in families and communities experiencing economic success and wellbeing. The priority for the team was on ensuring shared vision, values, and impact with the NextGen partners. The value of general operating funds is that it is a less “restrictive” approach and removes the need for ongoing requests for permission to use resources in multiple ways, given the alignment and agreement in vision at the onset. Flexible funds facilitate nimbleness and the agility of partners to address adaptive challenges through generative solutions. The intention is for the resources to serve as an accelerant to support great work that was underway. The cohort organizations received multiyear funding over the course of the program and received additional resources at the conclusion to support continued engagement and other efforts.

Participant Testimonials

What progress has your organization made
in the past two years?

“Hispanic Unity of Florida partnered with the Urban League of Broward County and Florida International University, to produce two reports published in 2022: The State of Black Broward and The State of Hispanic & Immigrant Broward. Both reports look at inequality through an equity lens and recommend areas of opportunity to change systems through public policy and advocacy.”–

Hispanic Unity of Florida