Q&A with Leticia Corona: Learning with funders about diversity, equity, and inclusion in international grantmaking

A community health worker in Kaolack, Senegal, provides women in her community post-natal care and counseling on reproductive health issues and family planning at her home. (Photo credit: Jonathan Torgovnik/Getty Images/Images of Empowerment)

Leticia Corona is a fellow with the Hewlett Foundation’s Global Development and Population Program. Last fall, Leticia shared Hewlett’s expanded grantmaking to support youth-led organizing, engagement, and leadership in U.S. reproductive health, rights, and justice. As she comes to the end of her three-year term this week, she reflects on her work with Hewlett colleagues to apply principles of diversity, equity, and inclusion to the program’s international grantmaking.

Demonstrators around the world are standing in solidarity with Black people in the United States and calling for the end of systemic racism. How have you and your colleagues been thinking about diversity, equity, and inclusion in international grantmaking?

In 2018, Hewlett Foundation President Larry Kramer wrote about our institutional commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. He described the work in our own institution to build trust and shared understanding of tough issues among staff, to clarify our approach to recruitment, hiring, and compensation, and to create an environment that is inclusive and supportive of a diverse staff. And he shared the steps we are taking to learn from and support our U.S.-based grantees that are pursuing a range of diversity, equity, and inclusion activities. This has been truly rewarding work. The commitment is not just institutional; it’s deeply personal.

That same year, the Global Development and Population Program formed a taskforce with colleagues from our grants management and legal departments[1] to create an internal learning environment to discuss diversity, equity, and inclusion in our international grantmaking. In this case we considered DEI quite broadly, related not only to the characteristics of an organization’s leadership at all levels, staff, and internal practices, but also to their mission, activities, geography, and relationships with partners and communities.

We began by reviewing the geographic data of grantees. The data revealed half of our total foundation grant resources, and about 85 percent of our program’s grants, went towards international work. Knowing this, we decided to reflect on our grantmaking practices and create internal documents to help guide us and hold us accountable to our efforts of integrating DEI in our grantmaking decisions. We also looked at what percentage of our grantee partners were headquartered in the United States, Europe, or Canada versus how many were based in East and West Africa and Mexico. We strongly believed this was important because it is our duty and responsibility to use our privilege as funders to shift power in philanthropy by increasing our support to grassroots organizations and institutions based in-country and led by local leaders, young people, women, and communities.

From the beginning we were intentional about learning from the field, contributing to the field, and learning from grantee partners who are closest to the problems and solutions and bring lived experiences, valuable knowledge and expertise to the goals we are both working towards.

What’s hard about diversity, equity, and inclusion in international grantmaking?

No one involved in this work thinks it’s easy, or fast, or ever complete. Rebalancing power dynamics, reaching across racial, gender, cultural and other divides, and hearing everyone’s voice are complex tasks in any context. For those who do international grantmaking—as we do with organizations in Senegal, Kenya, Mexico, and many other countries – the challenges are particularly significant.

We started by asking ourselves “How do we define diversity, equity, and inclusion in a country outside the United States, or in an international organization?” When we work directly with partners in the countries such as Uganda, Senegal, and Mexico, or we support international NGOs pursuing their own relationships in other countries, we tend to have far less information about social hierarchies and historical disadvantage than we do in the United States (at least this is true for those of us who grew up here). We also don’t understand the nuances of the debates, or the legal issues, related to discrimination in employment, sexual harassment, and other matters that we are more fluent with in our own context.

We also asked “How can an external, U.S.-based funder provide resources without reproducing or reinforcing power dynamics that might run counter to the principles of diversity, equity, and inclusion?” We are mindful of existing power dynamics that exist between U.S.-based funders and in-country organizations and indeed, the colonialist past that has shaped the aid and development sectors. This is why we were intentional from the beginning of this process—for example, allocating additional financial resources to international organizations who want to learn how to implement principles of DEI within their organizations. Additionally, we allocated staff time to design an inclusive DEI process shaped by our grantees’ in-country knowledge, expertise, and feedback. Even more challenging is how we think about—and try to reimagine—the relationship between external funders and in-country organizations. How can we provide needed resources without reproducing and reinforcing patterns of domination that have hurt so many for so long?

How are you and your colleagues continuing to learn and integrate DEI into your international grantmaking?

We’ve embraced a number of practical steps. First, learn more about grantees’ interest in considering DEI in their work and organizations. Second, provide support to our grantees to build organizational structures, practices, and culture that are more diverse, equitable, and inclusive. Third, identify more diverse voices and ideas in our grantmaking. Fourth, share our learning and advocate for increased diversity, equity, and inclusion among peer funders. And fifth, integrate a racial justice lens into our investment decisions.

As a result of these efforts, we have strengthened our support to organizations that are based and work in East and West Africa and in Mexico. My colleagues Alfonsina Peñaloza and Althea Anderson helped create a new donor collaborative that aims to provide at least $20 million over five years to strengthen women’s funds—organizations that provide financial and other support to advance the rights and opportunities of women, girls, and LGBTQI people in their communities, countries, and regions. The initiative supports women’s funds not only because they are leading women’s rights movement in some of the most challenging contexts, but also because they are informing philanthropic donors in how to support those efforts.

In 2019, my colleagues Althea Anderson and Kim Brehm, who manage our international reproductive health local advocacy sub-strategy, worked with Niyel, a consulting firm headquartered in Dakar, Senegal, to host the first grantee convening to discuss power dynamics between funders, grantees, and civil society organizations based in East and West Africa. The feedback and input gathered during the convening will inform the team’s approach to address the power imbalances through our grantmaking practices, including in a new strategy for international reproductive health.

We’ve also enhanced our efforts to center and amplify community voices. In 2019, my colleagues Joseph Asunka and Pat Scheid from our Transparency, Participation, and Accountability partnered with the Center for Democracy Development (CDD) based in Ghana to evaluate their I am Aware program. In the process they worked closely with CDD-Ghana to develop the evaluation questions and timeline, and financially support a series of outreach events to gather input from local community residents. Building inclusive and transparent relationships with local partners and grantees that are based in-country is important to us and we will intentionally seek to develop strong funder-grantee partnerships.

Last fall, you spoke about Hewlett’s new $2.5 million grantmaking portfolio to support young people to lead, mobilize, and engage in U.S. reproductive rights, health, and justice issues—issues deeply personal to you. As you look back on that work—and these efforts to apply diversity, equity, and inclusion in international grantmaking—what lessons will you take with you?

I opened this by stating demonstrators around the world are standing in solidarity with Black people and #BlackLiveMatter leaders following the police killings of George Floyd, Breanna Tyler, and Ahmaud Arbery. Young people, particularly young Black women like 16-year-old Shayla Avery, organized and participated in their first protests in the days after George Floyd’s death. Young people are using technology and social media platforms like Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok to mobilize across borders and lead a new movement to inspire their peers to vote, get politically and socially engaged, and run for office.

Time after time, young people of color have demonstrated their power and resiliency in driving policy changes. Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA) recipients joined with immigrant grassroots organizations to push for and celebrate the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the program that has protected 700,000 individuals brought to the United States as children from deportation, blocking the Trump administration’s attempt to end the program. The work continues as Black, Brown, Indigenous, and LGBTQ young people lead efforts to shape the policies that affect access to health care, fair wages, housing, healthy and affordable foods, and to fight climate change. And they are mobilizing young people to get out and vote in the 2020 elections

In the grant portfolio I worked on at Hewlett, we centered the lives and experiences of young Black and Brown individuals and communities of color to lead with a racial and gender justice lens. Our focus was on increasing youth engagement in access to reproductive health care, but the youth organizations we support work across a much wider range of issues that affect their lives. The Alliance for Youth Organizing, for example, leads voter registration digital campaigns and supports climate justice, immigration justice, reproductive justice, economic justice, and racial justice. The Funders’ Collaborative for Youth Organizing supports Black youth and youth of color- led grassroots organizations across the nation to strengthen their social media advocacy campaigns to expand their reach and impact. Organizational partners such as SPARK for Reproductive Justice Now and Youth Advocates’ Young Womxn of Color for Reproductive Justice Leadership Council lift up the voices and lived experiences of young Black, Brown, Indigenous, Queer and Trans people, who are fearlessly leading advocacy efforts and campaigns to improve access to good quality reproductive health services and clinics in their communities.

As my three-year fellowship at Hewlett ends and I reflect on the power and influence of philanthropy, I urge funders to prioritize and center racial justice and equity in their institutions and grantmaking, and invest long-term in Black, Indigenous, and communities of color.  We have a lot of work ahead of us to fight structural racism. No one thinks this work will be easy or fast. As the magnificent Angela Davis said, “Freedom is a constant struggle.” We must all commit our heart, soul, and financial resources to undo these historical wrongs and write a new future where Black, Brown, Indigenous, LGBTQ, and young people have the resources, support and attention from all of us to create the solutions.


[1] The DEI in International Grantmaking task team was coordinated by Leticia Corona and Ruth Levine, and included Althea Anderson, Joseph Asunka, Aimee Bruederle, Jodie Clark, David Sasaki, Pat Scheid, Jennifer Shipp, Anupama Tadanki.

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