Toward Transformation: Equity-Centric Philanthropy in the Pacific Northwest

Filed Under: Philanthropy - Posted @ 4:27pm

Repainting the letter “A” in the Parkland mural after it was damaged, Friday, Aug. 17, 2018. (Photo: PLU/John Froschauer)

For the first time in her professional career, Elena Pullen-Venema can say that her personal racial equity values and those of her employer are coming into alignment.  

Elena Pullen-Venema, Director of Gift Planning, Community Foundation of Snohomish County

Elena, who’s been with the Community Foundation of Snohomish County since 2012 and now serves as Director of Gift Planning there, says the foundation began “deep-dive” equity discussions as a staff a few years ago. As Director of Gift Planning, Elena’s work with professional advisors has grown to incorporate the Community Foundation’s expanding commitment to racial equity. Creating equity-focused resources and opportunities for professional advisors and their clients has been one of Elena’s top priorities in her work with financial advisors, attorneys, and CPAs. Her webinar, “Legacy with Impact: Using a Social and Racial Justice Framework in Estate Planning” as well as her podcast “Looking Forward. Giving Back.” are playing important roles as she continues to build resources and respond to a growing awareness about racial and social equity in the community.   

We’re asking how our mission of ‘educating students for lives of thoughtful inquiry, service, leadership, and care’ shows up for diversity, justice, and sustainability. 

Elena was part of a panel discussion with Pacific Lutheran University’s George Zeno and Washington Women Foundation’s Maria Kolby-Wolfe at the September 24 South Sound Philanthropy Summit. The panelists shared how a focus on equity and social justice has changed the way they talk about and conduct their work, and how they need donors to come along.  

Part of what drew George Zeno to PLU in late 2020 were the diversity, justice, and sustainability goals embedded within the university’s 2000 strategic plan. Now PLU’s Associate Vice President of Advancement, George is involved with the most recent reaffirmation of the strategic plan. 

George Zeno, Associate Vice President of Advancement, Pacific Lutheran University

“What I really appreciate about what PLU is doing,” George says, “is that we’re asking how our mission of ‘educating students for lives of thoughtful inquiry, service, leadership, and care’ shows up for diversity, justice, and sustainability.” 

Building on a full generation of PLU’s commitment to equity, George is now bringing donors further into the conversation: “On the front line, ‘charity’ is not sustainable,” he says. “We need to work with donors to be more intentional about long-term outcomes.” 

We need organizations, especially in this predominantly white state, to bring people together and convene with diplomacy, active listening, and empathy. 

For instance, “The short-term outcome of a scholarship program is that student debt is reduced,” he says. “Long-term, so much more potential is unlocked because of the way those students are now contributing as members of the community.” 

George and his PLU colleagues see the South Sound community as an “amazing lab: shoreline, urban, suburban, rural, native, military and veteran, and other communities, families who’ve migrated here. What if all of PLU’s resources—students, scholarships, internships, capstone projects, faculty research, undergrad research—were all aligned toward diversity, justice, and sustainability in this community and beyond?”  

In the same breath, George emphasizes the power of, “equity-centric design. When we’re designing things and not centering community voice in that design, we are using the supremacy of our imagination, making assumptions about the nuances of people’s lives that we don’t understand because we don’t share the same experiences.”   

“We need organizations,” he continues, “especially in this predominantly white state, to bring people together and convene with diplomacy, active listening, and empathy.”  

When we changed our criteria, the number of organizations we funded that were led by women of color jumped by five times. We’re public with that. 

George urges his fellow fund development professionals to “build a prototype, test it out, and ask those people it will impact most how not to create harm. Then evaluate from their perspective and take their insights back to your next cycle before you just reload.”  

Maria Kolby-Wolfe might call that type of thoughtful inquiry and alignment, “putting your mouth where your money is.” Maria is the President and CEO of Washington Women’s Foundation, where staff and board believe in asking tough questions of themselves around equity and not shying away from the answers. 

Maria Kolby-Wolfe, President and CEO, Washington Women’s Foundation

She relates one example of how digging deeper into equity has worked in her organization: “When we changed our granting criteria in 2018, we found that in the 23 years we’d been granting, despite our passion for organizations that address need in our community, we had somehow managed to grant to only two organizations run by and focused on women of color. We were Washington White Women’s Foundation. When we changed our criteria, the number of organizations we funded that were led by women of color jumped by five times. We’re public with that.” 

Maria goes a step further: “We were funding things but didn’t wanna make any noise about it. If we wanted to get serious about transformation, we had to get serious about advocacy.”  

Maria says she and her staff, board and members believe, “If you’re not willing to get close enough to the problem to know what the issue is, you’re still working within the old paradigm of philanthropy. We must get to a place where our dollars are changing the need for us to even exist. We can’t do that if we don’t look at it differently.” 

That shift is particularly needed here in the Pacific Northwest, where one of the biggest obstacles to making change stick, Maria says, is the white liberal, “who is convinced that ‘Because I vote this way and give money to certain causes, my giving can’t possibly be biased.’”  

Come in humble. 

“But your giving is just the first step,” she says, and then she quotes Dr. Martin Luther King: “Philanthropy is commendable, but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary.”  

“The work we do is hard, but it is also joyful and honorable,” Maria says, adding that the only way to bring lasting change to the world is by building strong communities and working collectively. This is the advice she subscribes to, “Come in humble.” 

This work is all about growing trust and building relationships. 

Back at the Community Foundation of Snohomish County, a deeper collective understanding of and commitment to racial equity is changing how CFSC sees its role in the community.  

That makes Elena’s job as liaison to professional advisors more satisfying and impactful than ever. “I now feel more comfortable vocalizing my bi-racial identity and commitment to racial equity, and it’s resulted in some really meaningful relationships,” she says. “And this work is all about growing trust and building relationships.” 

She now routinely has conversations with advisors about their commitment to racial justice and related estate planning options for their clients. She has developed a reflective, resource-packed worksheet for professional advisors, and hosts a monthly podcast,  Looking Forward, Giving Back, for advisors and their clients. In the end, donors and fund advisors win, she says.  

When organizations like CFSC, PLU and WWF define, internalize and operationalize their commitment to equity, they are better equipped to help philanthropists and those who advise them realize greater impact in the community. Change begins from within. 


Recommended Resources

Elena Pullen-Venema: 

 George Zeno: 

  • The PLU Board of Regents and some staff are reading this book together as part of their DJS commitment: The Purpose Economy by Aaron Hurst 

 Maria Kolby-Wolfe: 

$482 Billion To Transfer Generations In Pierce County Over Next 50 Years (September 24, 2021) 


GTCF can support donors and Fund Advisors in developing a philanthropic strategy that supports a thriving Pierce County. Learn more by contacting GTCF’s Philanthropic Services Team.