Funder Dialogue: Henry A.J. Ramos, Mauer Kunst Consulting
Henry A. J. Ramos is the newly elected Chair of the Nonprofit Finance Fund Board, bringing a wide-ranging set of experience in social justice advocacy, philanthropy, and nonprofit leadership to this position. He sat down recently with NFF CEO Antony Bugg-Levine to share more about his background, motivations, why he believes our country is in crisis, and how nonprofits and foundations can work effectively to repair our community bonds. This is an edited and condensed version of their discussion.
Antony Bugg-Levine (ABL): Thanks for taking the time to reflect on your career and experience. And thank you for stepping up to Chair the NFF Board. We are so excited to work with you in this new role. You have seen the social sector from all sides, having worked in foundations, ran nonprofits, and served as a community activist. What do you wish funders and nonprofit leaders knew better about the other side?
Henry A. J. Ramos (HR): Going back and forth between the two sides is a tough adjustment. But the two sides badly need each other; and they need champions that can effectively traverse both sets of needs. When they align and forge honest and transparent partnerships, remarkable things happen. That is why strong and grounded nonprofit intermediaries like NFF are so important to help bridge the funder/grantee divide, lift up shared lessons and imperatives for better social investment, and generally champion the efforts of local and regional nonprofits.
ABL: In our work at NFF to build more mutually insightful and trusting relationships between funders and nonprofits, we’ve found that it is possible to create the basis for both sides to have open and honest discussions about money. But it takes a clear understanding of why this is necessary to reach our mutual goals. What would you say to nonprofit leaders about how they can be more effective working with funders? And what do you say to funders about what they need to understand about nonprofits?
HR: Nonprofits need to be very forthright with funders about what they actually need. Constructively challenging some of the assumptions that funders bring to the work is an important price of admission to be a leader in the space. When we are forthright about what’s actually required to make the differences we all want, then it’s more likely that we’re going to make those differences because the resourcing will be channeled to the community in ways that respond best to what needs to happen as opposed to what funders, at a greater distance, might think or assume is appropriate.
At the same time, I think that grant seekers need to be responsive to where funders are trying to go. Funders talk to a lot of different people in a lot of different places, giving them a valuable perspective that nonprofit leaders sometimes don’t have.
ABL: You mentioned that the power dynamic between funders and nonprofits makes open and honest conversations hard to have sometimes. This being the United States in 2019, structural racism is often at the heart of these imbalances. Understanding how race dynamics affect our work is an increasing focus at NFF. You have previously led work to create better inclusion of diverse voices and perspective within the philanthropic field. What do you see that’s encouraging on that front these days?
HR: I think there has been some significant progress in recent years. I wouldn’t say it’s where we would like it to be. But there has been a real thrust in the nonprofit space around inclusion over the past decade. Having more people in power who understand the experiences of struggling communities and the nonprofits that support them is a way to cut through a lot of the bureaucracy and a lot of the uncertainty that typically characterizes these relationships. When inclusion is real, communities can have more confidence and trust that decisions being made in our larger institutions are optimally informed and responsive. The more progress we see in leading social investment anchor organizations to advance representational gains in nonprofit governance, talent deployment, and programming, the more quickly we will see the kind of game changing developments we badly need to set in motion in order to transform our society and economy for the better.
ABL: Congratulations on the publication of your new book. In it, you say that America is facing its greatest challenges since the Civil Rights Era. Why do think it is such a pivotal moment?
HR: Thank you for that kind acknowledgement! We have been dominated for 40 years by a highly marketized bent in our public policy and all of our social investment practice. The net effect has been to diminish many of the common bonds that have historically tied us together as Americans. Frankly, our growing racial, gender, class, and cultural divides are killing us. We cannot be a successful society without modifying our approach, particularly given our demographic trajectory. We need to develop a more sustainable social economy in which there is work and purpose for all Americans, where all are included in the benefits, and where more of our resources are invested in social and community capital assets rather than mere vanity investments that really do nothing to solve our major civilizational challenges.
ABL: You are clearly compelled by the urgency of the moment and there are lots of places you could be sharing your time and talents. You have been on the NFF Board for a few years. Why are you stepping up as Board chair now?
HR: From an internal standpoint, the integrity, dedication, and devotion of our team to improving society and the common good is a source of great inspiration. I think the organizational commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion issues, which has been growing in recent years, has been exciting and timely. Most of all, I really resonate with our innovation in thought and practice. Our ability to see the whole landscape and not just a piece of it, and our growing capacity to advocate on behalf of nonprofit sector leaders and the communities they serve are our biggest areas of value. And the types of investments we have been making for years offer a model of what we need to do more of to build a more vibrant and inclusive economy. To my knowledge, there is no organization quite as comprehensive or progressive in its approach as I see NFF being, and that’s why it is such a great source of pride for me in a really, really critical moment of transition for us, for our field, and for our country, to step into this important role.
ABL: Well, it is an honor to do this work. You mentioned your despair at the erosion of community. Repairing that erosion is a core motivation for us at NFF. When I sit down to hear our clients' origin stories, it is usually some version of a simple impulse of people to take care of each other. With our loans and advice, we seek to remove some of the barriers that stand in the way of that basic impulse. And we find opportunities to enable these inspiring clients and the communities they represent to be heard in places they would not otherwise access.
Where did the impulse to want to be someone who repairs broken systems, people, and communities come from in your life?
HR: I grew up right in the main thrust of the crisis of the 1960s when in my backyard in West Los Angeles students at UCLA were out in the streets protesting the Vietnam War. I remember the day the Watts riots happened in Los Angeles, watching it on television. As a five or six-year-old kid I was asking questions, “Why is this happening? Why are people so angry?” Through the process of growing up in those times, watching a lot of the violence, having many of my early heroes, like Dr. King and Robert Kennedy assassinated right before my eyes, really inspired a sense that there had to be a better way. It made clear to me that the ultimate solution is not violence or business as usual. It’s looking at ways that enable us to join hands, to co-create, and find a common path forward that really works for everybody. So, since my earliest years in formation, I have committed all of my public life to that proposition and it’s taken me to great places, including the Nonprofit Finance Fund.
ABL: Can you share something interesting about you that we wouldn’t know from reading your official bio?
HR: One thing many people may not know about me is that I’m a visual artist. I produce original works of acrylic and collage that comment on the issues of our times, like the plight of newcomers and immigrants, the import of democracy, and the imperatives of environmental sustainability. I often work in community with at-risk kids, mostly teens, who have faced homelessness or issues with substance abuse, issues with the law and crime. I have assembled these kids to paint murals, build and paint teepees, and otherwise to do all kinds of public service activities involving art. And, in the process, we engage them as well in discussion about social and political issues that are important to their families and their communities. We try to find jobs for these kids, in and around the creative economy. The art has been a great form of personal expression, but it is also a part of my arsenal of social change investment. I try to use it instructively and productively to those ends especially when it can involve younger people still in development.