How Philanthropy Can Match the Momentum of Movements: Parting Reflections from Rickke Mananzala

May 5, 2020

Borealis Philanthropy’s Vice President of Programs and Strategy, Rickke Mananzala, recently transitioned out of the organization. As one of the first team members at Borealis, Rickke helped build this organization and shaped our vision and values, as well as our donor collaboratives and grantmaking. We will miss his leadership and know that the work he led will continue. 

Read our interview with Rickke as he shares what he feels proud of during his time at Borealis, what he has learned that he will bring with him, and what he sees as the opportunity and role for Borealis and philanthropy writ large in this moment:

When you look back on your time at Borealis, what do you feel proudest of? 

The team of people we built and the work that Borealis funds—supporting the issues, communities, movements, and strategies that are essential for transformative change.  

I was hired as the second staff person in 2015 shortly after Borealis was founded. My first role was to launch our initial collaborative fund – the Transforming Movements Fund (TMF), which focused on supporting LGBTQ young people of color leading within and across the most critical and vibrant social movements of our time – the Movement for Black Lives, immigrant rights, and reproductive and gender justice.  

The TMF shaped the trajectory of Borealis’ investment in movement-building and led to the creation of the Black-Led Movement Fund (BLMF) and Fund for Trans Generations (FTG). I see the BLMF as the heart of this organization, and a call to action for philanthropy to trust and invest in Black leaders and organizations. The FTG has consistently shown us that centering the voices traditionally excluded from philanthropy, such as trans people of color, leads to better grantmaking and ensures resources are moving to where they’re needed most. 

I’m also proud of how we’ve done our grantmaking: moving resources in ways that are nimble, flexible, and ultimately based on what grantees tell us they need. The principles behind our grants—trusting organizations, flexible support, devoting resources to organizational and leadership development—wouldn’t have been possible without the integrity of our team. Our committed team is grounded in and has deep connections to the work we support and for this reason, they are the organization’s biggest asset and essential to fulfilling the mission and vision of Borealis. 

Much of the who, how, and what we fund has been in the footsteps of others who have been doing these things long before Borealis, such as the Third Wave Fund, Groundswell Fund, and Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice (among many others) – all organizations rooted in women of color feminism.  

What have you learned at Borealis that you will carry with you?

Intermediaries are in a very particular position working with larger philanthropic institutions to accomplish a range of goals together – most importantly helping funders keep pace with the rapidly evolving change work on the ground. I learned that we can and should push harder so philanthropy can match the momentum of movements. 

Going from working in organizing and advocacy to working in philanthropy, I knew I would be guided by my same values, but I wondered how many skills would be transferable. Not surprisingly, just as relationship-building is the backbone to effective organizing work, I learned that the same is true as a grantmaker. Organizing and relationship-building principles apply to us too: listen, care, and be reliable by showing up in the hardest of moments. Most importantly, back up words with actions – in our case as grantmakers, that means providing resources and trusting that groups know how to use them. 

I learned that with money comes power and that we have to actively work to challenge and mitigate the effects of the power imbalance between funders and nonprofits. When building our program team, we were looking for staff with direct experience working in grassroots organizations because this provides a valuable grounding for how to be an effective grantmaker. It helps when you can recall the challenges of fundraising while doing the hard work of organizing communities. 

I know I took pride in doing so much with so little when I was an organizer, yet I wonder how much more we could have won with deeper investment from funders. This experience shaped how I think about our roles as funders – to help fully resource the work to leverage vast possibilities and to get out of the way so groups can focus on what they do best. 

Amidst this global pandemic, there is both a lot of uncertainty and a lot of possibility. What do you think is the opportunity and role for Borealis and philanthropy in this moment?

A lot is up for grabs right now with opportunities to win more just policies along with the redistribution of resources and power. Longstanding organizing campaign demands that once seemed impossible are gaining momentum and groups are winning short-term victories while fighting hard to make them stick for the long haul. It’s been great to see funders throw down immediate resources to leverage these opportunities. I’ll hope they’ll stick with these groups that laid the groundwork prior to this crisis for decades to come.  

This moment has also illuminated a scale of mutual aid – where communities take responsibility for caring for each other – that is both inspiring yet not new or surprising. Rather than being perceived as direct service Band-Aids, funders are now seeing more clearly on display how mutual aid has always been central to power building strategies. This is particularly true for organizations based in communities that have been historically failed by policies of divestment and systems that have intensified racial, economic, and gender inequities. Effective mutual aid strategies are also a great gauge of how rooted an organization is in a community for which it aims to build power and serve. 

This is also an opportunity to dig in and fully maximize the extent of our political advocacy limits as 501c3 public charities. We also need to create more opportunities for 501c4 funding. Groups on the ground are way ahead of us and lacking the resources to elevate their 501c4 power-building strategies, so we need to step up and help create more vehicles to support this work. If there was ever a time to get it the game, it’s now. 

The moves some funders are making now are on point and long overdue: committing to increasing rather than decreasing payouts despite a looming economic downturn, moving to primarily general operating support and flexible funding, and easing reporting and proposal requirements. Some major funders made these changes in a matter of weeks. 

Now that we know these effective funder practices are possible in a short amount of time, why go back? My hope is that these changes are not short-term, and that this moment has presented us with the opening and momentum for substantial transformation of our sector for the long haul. I hope Borealis joins the chorus of voices to ensure these changes persist.