‘It’s Our Job to Open Those Doors’: New DEI Fund gives underrepresented communities a seat at the philanthropy table

A new diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) fund launched last summer has already distributed more than $30,000 in grants to 21 organizations across the five-county region.

Dave Mengebier, president and CEO of Grand Traverse Regional Community Foundation, sees those early impacts as just the first step in a much longer and more transformative odyssey – both for the organization he leads and for the community it serves.

“I firmly believe that, if our region is going to be successful – economically, (socially), environmentally –then we have to lift up all of the communities and all the people here,” Mengebier said. “Ideally, what would happen here is we would create an endowed fund, so that this DEI Fund can award grants year after year after year. And then, as we receive more gifts, the endowed fund grows and it can have an even greater impact in our region.”

Part of the goal for the DEI Fund – and one of the factors that Mengebier thinks will make the fund especially appealing to potential donors – is GTRCF’s mindset of thinking about DEI in a “really broad” capacity.

On the one hand, the DEI Fund provides support “for organizations led by Black, Indigenous, people of color, LGBTQ+, immigrant, neurodiverse, and/or disability community members.” That track enables GTRCF to lift up minority communities and help their organizations succeed.

On the other hand, the DEI Fund also provides funds to entities that offer “programs, trainings, initiatives, and opportunities promoting equity and inclusion across Antrim, Benzie, Grand Traverse, Kalkaska, and Leelanau counties.”

Even the team that GTRCF has assembled to review grant applicants and award funds falls under the umbrella of DEI. The advisory committee that makes decisions about the fund, Mengebier explained, includes representation from many of the communities and demographics the fund is trying to reach.

“So it’s not just the foundation staff and board that are looking at these grants,” he said. “We really wanted people from these communities helping us through this process and saying, ‘Where do with think this money is going to have the biggest impact in terms of DEI?’”

Mengebier is hoping that this broad-based approach to DEI will help GTRCF deliver change-making dollars to organizations that normally aren’t represented in the grant-making ecosystem.

“If you look at the history of philanthropy, what you see is that a lot of these non-dominant cultures and communities have not had the same access to resources from the foundation community that the more dominant organizations have had,” said Mengebier, the former president of the Consumer’s Energy Foundation.

At Consumer’s, Mengebier says challenges arose when mature organizations with a lot of capacity consistently submitted grant applications that were “really outstanding” in contrast to smaller, newer organizations.

“And those organizations, as a result, tend to be the ones that don’t receive (grant funding),” he said. “So, you have to be very purposeful about ensuring that everybody in the community, regardless of what community they come from, has the same fair access to these funds.”

GTRCF distributes $3 million a year in grants; Mengebier says the organization is committed to giving fair opportunities to organizations that are run by or serving people that traditionally have not had access to those funds.

“It’s our job to open those doors,” he said.

So far, GTRCF has executed three grant cycles for the DEI fund – in November 2021, February 2022 and April 2022 – and is in the process of considering grant applications for a fourth.

One early grant winner was Mnamaadiziwin Inc., an Indigenous nonprofit whose name translates to “live in a good way” in the Anishinaabek language. That grant, Mengebier said, is supporting the development of a program that will “educate non-Indigenous people about the culture, the history, and the teachings of the Anishinaabe people.”

Another grant recipient is Justice for Our Neighbors, which seeks to expand legal capacity to immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers in the area by funding a full-time Traverse City-area attorney. Other grantees include Northern Michigan E3, Up North Pride, the Women’s Resource Center, Michigan Indian Legal Services and Peace Ranch.

For JoAnne Cook, a member of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians who serves on the advisory council for the DEI Fund, GTRCF’s efforts in this space are refreshing in their push to bring visibility and support to overlooked organizations and initiatives.

“There are people from diverse backgrounds who have been out there doing this work for years, and there are people in the community that have been supporting these efforts,” Cook said. “But there hasn’t been collaboration on this level until now.”

Cook points to people in the greater community whom she thinks would be willing to provide financial assistance for DEI work but may have never necessarily known how.

“This fund provides an easy way for them to support that work,” she said, adding that grassroots organizations doing DEI work also benefit from the GTRCF’s support.

“It’s just really valuable to have an organization like GTRCF saying, ‘We support you and we understand what you’re trying to create,’” she said.