How my nonprofit formed an unlikely partnership with the Hewlett Foundation

By Debra Watkins

Editor’s Note: Every nonprofit’s relationship with a funder is different, and we want to hear yours: the good, the bad and the ugly. In this story, Debra Watkins of NCRP member organization A Black Education Network shares the surprising origin of her relationship with the Hewlett Foundation and what that partnership has yielded.

It was an inauspicious beginning. In 2012, Larry Kramer began his tenure as president of the Hewlett Foundation — one of the largest foundations in the country. He had written an inaugural blog asking his constituents to candidly share with him their views about the foundation’s philanthropy.

As founder of the California Alliance of African Educators (CAAAE), I flippantly wrote back that he did not want to know what my organization thought of Hewlett’s giving. Assuming that my reply would land in spam or be ignored by someone charged with monitoring responses, I was shocked when Larry answered and encouraged me to please share more.

Debra Watkins
Debra Watkins

Not long before he joined the foundation, the Greenlining Institute had published a scathing report about how very little California grantmakers, including Hewlett, the James Irvine and the David and Lucile Packard Foundations, gave to organizations run by non-white people, so I suggested that Larry start by reading it.

Being the consummate knowledge-seeker, Larry read that report and wanted to learn more. He invited me to meet him in his offices in Hewlett’s state-of-the-art building in leafy Menlo Park. I agreed on one condition: The CAAAE was in the process of creating a brand new national organization called A Black Education Network (ABEN) and I wanted him to give me feedback about it and, by the way, did he happen to know Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, because he was the funder I was hoping would invest $1 million per year for 10 years in the creation and support of ABEN, just as Packard had done in its creation and support of Preschool California. Larry told me in an email that he would be happy to make that introduction.

I sat in Larry’s office on Friday, Dec.13, 2013, and liked him instantly. Affable, self-effacing and brilliant, Larry was the perfect audience for ABEN’s 14-page, glossy, full-color and spiral-bound vision for its future including that $1 million budget and narrative. Because I was going to school Larry about racism in philanthropy, I brought along a favorite PowerPoint that I had created for a presentation in a colleague’s political science course at San Francisco State University that I entitled “The Color of Philanthropy or Why the Black Panther Party Did Not Get Systemic Funding.”

After Larry listened to my spiel, he turned to me and casually said, “I would like to seed this.” Remember, I was not there to ask Larry for a dime. I was there to teach him and garner access to Darren. He said he could probably give me $100,000 per year for 3 years or, at minimum, $50,000 per year for 3 years, but he would give me the $150,000 all at once if he could only give me the lesser amount. I carefully gripped the side of my chair so that I would not fall off as this magnanimous gesture sunk in.

Larry Kramer

Fast forward. About one month later, Larry confirmed the $150,000 general operating grant for ABEN. I told him that I planned to write to Darren to request a meeting for when I was going to be in Manhattan that March and could I mention the $150,000. “Of course,” Larry said, “and openly copy me on it.”

As soon as I walked into Darren’s office and saw the African masks on his wall (I have been to the continent 7 times and love it) and Michelle Alexander’s book “The New Jim Crow,” I knew that I was going to like him, too. We were high-fiving within 10 minutes of our visit. While that same shiny document did not convince Darren to invest $10 million in an unapologetically Black woman’s dream of education for liberation, Darren did give CAAAE a grant for $100,000 to continue our work. I was grateful, but crestfallen. What I do know is that Larry continued to invest in ABEN (we are at about $1.2 million now).

The story of Larry’s commitment to racial justice well before so many new people started chanting about the Black lives far exceeds anything he has done for ABEN. He has helped transform Hewlett into one of the most exemplary foundations in the country when it comes to hiring and promoting non-white people and re-assessing how to pour millions into nascent, Black-led nonprofits and others focused on racial justice.

It’s a commitment that sometimes might seem to exist hidden in plain sight. Larry is modest to a fault. He never wants to stand in the limelight. However, I finally convinced him to allow me to share our unlikely partnership with the philanthropic community so that other leaders can learn and grow. It’s one of several stories that have to be known to help inspire others to do the deep work needed to create systemic change in this George Floyd historical moment.

That is not to say that journey is over. No person — nor foundation — is perfect. My experience with Larry doesn’t negate the continued work with Black organizations that Hewlett and other well-intentioned philanthropic leaders have to do in working to resource our communities. But leadership — and relationships — matter.

Ultimately, the road to lasting change runs through real people who are committed to being true partners with communities and each other. We can’t do better if we can’t be better with each other.

Debra Watkins is founder emerita and director of strategic partnerships for NCRP nonprofit member A Black Education Network.

For 40 years, the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy has served as the country’s independent watchdog of foundations.