A feminist philanthropy interview with Lauren Domino

In my interview with Lauren Domino, Assistant Dean for Advancement & Innovation at the Evans School of Public Policy & Governance at the UW, we discuss supporting young people in shifting policy, our role as white women philanthropists and how an arts education creates empathic, creative and adaptable leaders. Enjoy!

Edited for length and clarity.

KC: First I just want to ask you a bit about your background as a teaching artist and performer, because it’s not an immediate leap to get to where you are now. How do you see your background in theatre arts informing the work you do today?

LD: I think that a creative arts background is incredibly valuable and important … (and) there are three key skills or ways of thinking that come to mind: creativity, adaptability and empathy.

Creativity gives you the ability to imagine futures that do not yet exist. To ask, Where are we headed? What is the vision? What are we trying to achieve? In theater, you envision these different worlds and craft all of the pieces to bring that world to life for the audience. And if you do it well … it creates this cohesive experience and vision. As a leader in any organization, in any field, that’s what you’re tasked to do –hold the vision of where we could be, and then bring the team together that can shape the pieces.

In terms of the adaptability piece, I pull a lot from my work as an improviser. No matter what job you’re doing, I can guarantee it’s never going to go as planned, at least not all of the time, right? We all know things change, fast or slow, a global pandemic hits, whatever it may be – within these challenges, where are the opportunities? It’s my default to say, what can we do to solve the problem or find a new way?

And then empathy. Even at young ages, the research shows that students who do theater education have higher levels of empathy than their peers who don’t. As a white woman, who also holds a number of other privileged identities, this is a particularly important thing because I do not have the lived experience of having faced a lot of oppression or racial injustice. In the theater world you’re literally putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. You’re trying to understand the character’s motivation, or what has happened to shape them, to lead  them to behave in this way, in this moment. That’s an important skill to bring to your life, too, because we’re not all going to have the same experiences, and we need to be open and understanding and supportive of other ways of being and knowing.

KC: Your focus on connection and community building as the core of philanthropic work is something we share: what are some of your favorite community centered philanthropic strategies?

LD:  It’s about creating space for connection, genuine connection, and vulnerability. So I think any kind of activity that’s gonna get folks together that’s a shared learning experience to create connections and bonds is important. With any kind of team (ask yourself), How are you bringing people together and building moments of connection into that? 

We shifted our big fundraising gala this year (traditionally a three course sit down dinner in a ballroom, looking at a stage, hearing a podium speech) to become more of a community celebration – we had multiple opportunities at the tables with a guided question for guests to dig in and share. We had a panel of great community leaders talking about their leadership work, and then reflection time to debrief with table guests. We also offered a tiered ticketing structure, from fully hosted tickets to buy-one-give-one to make the event more inclusive and include a more diverse range of perspectives. So where are you shaping these connection opportunities beyond just listening opportunities?

In terms of this community centered philanthropic strategy work, a huge piece of my work (at the Seattle Foundation) was trying to actively undo the historic power dynamics that exist between funders and communities who are doing the work.  Pushing for approaches that shift away from the donor as expert, because the experts are the people on the ground, doing the work every day, close to it. The space I was in was this unique go-between, where I understood the community side, had been at community-based organizations, knew the challenges, and now could use my position of influence with a donor to advocate for trust-based approaches. That was a real responsibility and privilege, to be able to try to shift some of those historic donor-centered practices and help the donors understand that they are not the experts, and that they need to be learning from the people they’re funding, they need to take time to show up to the things those organizations are already hosting and listen–don’t ask them to do extra work for you. These are important shifts that donors have a responsibility to keep in mind: how can they authentically show up as a partner, and not as somebody who’s pushing the org to do more work or do something that’s outside of their goals.

KCB: Do you feel like that was well received most of the time? I mean, you had relationships with the donors, which makes a big difference. You were in a position to advocate for the nonprofits and the people receiving the grants which, you don’t immediately think of donor advisors or philanthropic advisors as advocates for nonprofits. But there is that side to it …  

LD: This was a space I grew in a lot over the seven years at Seattle Foundation – building my confidence, self-reflection, and approach as an Advisor so I could meet donors where they were and more effectively move them along in their own journeys. And with that “Advisor” title, I often had a lot of influence in being able to guide them in not making an application process super complicated, to honor the time of the people on the other side, to make the funding as flexible as possible. Sharing emerging practices in philanthropy and stories from the field helped build credibility.  But ultimately, my job wasn’t to be a neutral advisor – I felt a responsibility to exert my influence to benefit the community, and specifically to address inequities.

Community Foundations are uniquely positioned to do this because they do actually have relationships with the community and are closer to that work and understand the nuance. Every single advisor we hired (at the Seattle Foundation) came from having worked with nonprofits on the ground, so they knew the dynamics. I’m very excited about the Community Centric Fundraising movement, and I encourage nonprofits to decenter the donor and value other kinds of giving or knowledge equally to how we are valuing gifts of money. But it can be very hard – I just want to acknowledge that. If you’re a staff member at a small community organization, it can be really hard to stand up to a donor. It’s really hard to do that work, but I think there’s safety in numbers, and as more organizations take on these emerging practices, it will reset what donors come to expect too.

KCB: So, I know you’ve only been at the Evans School for a few months, but can you share what you’re learning about the most pressing societal problems facing our world today? I’m making an assumption, that the younger people around you, the students around you, are looking at the future differently. What issues are you learning about in this new job and what is inspiring you?

LD:  Well, part of the reason I took this job is because policy is what got us here, policy as a tool of white supremacy and a number of other things, and we fundamentally have to dismantle and rebuild policy if we’re gonna seek better solutions for our community. And the process (of doing that) is really important … asking who is at the table is the important piece of that work. It’s a fundamental thing – without changing the policies, it’s like just changing the window dressing. We’re not going to see substantive structural changes in the outcomes for our communities without shifting policy.

And you don’t have to be a senator or elected official to be able to do this work. Within any system we’re operating in, for example, within the University of Washington system that I’m operating in. (You can ask yourself) where are my abilities to shift policy and practice, to move the needle in addressing inequities? That’s a fundamental component to what I’m learning. Moreover, the folks who’ve historically been most negatively impacted or marginalized, particularly by policy decisions or practices, have to be at the table to shape the solutions. We can’t do this work in these isolated centers of power within our government and within our organizations. These have to be shared, co-created solutions. That’s where you’re going to get the best, most relevant ideas to understand a better path forward. The folks who are experiencing it are going to be closest to those solutions.

KCB: And sometimes those solutions are really small. Sometimes the answer is so much more discreet and simplistic than the people designing the systems and the policies make them to be.

LD: Right. It’s like, is this application form easy to understand? And for whom? What are the items that you or I may not have any trouble navigating, but present a real challenge or burden for others? It’s critically important to have more diverse perspectives.

Being at Evans School, I will say it is exciting to be in a building where there are young people here. I started my new job in the summer and the Junior Summer Institute program was running. Rising undergraduate juniors from historically underrepresented backgrounds in the policy space come to the Evans School from across the U.S. for a seven-week intensive – it’s like a mini grad school experience. It’s fully subsidized, and they are paid a stipend to participate to increase access. I got to see some of the students’ presentations, and they were tackling things like climate policy and police reform.  Just in a matter of seven weeks, the level of nuance they had in thinking about the issues and providing a range of policy solutions to implement was really exciting. It gave me faith that there’s a more diverse set of leaders coming who will bring different lived experiences and  perspectives from where the majority is now in terms of our elected officials. It was really exciting to see how passionate they were. So we need to nurture and foster that. Young people need to see a path to civic leadership and service. We’ve got to foster interest in that journey early, because it’s hard work and it’s usually not for the big bucks. We need those next generation leaders.

KCB: That’s cool. That would give me a ton of energy, to be around young people and fresh perspectives. Along those lines, what advice would you give to feminist philanthropists as the most important step they can take to create change?

LD: There’s a few things that come to mind. I think you have to start with asking yourself, What am I genuinely interested in? What are my core values? Right? You have to start somewhere, and you have to find excitement in this work, otherwise you’re not going to stay in it. So it can be anything, if you care about theater education, climate change – whatever it is, that’s great.

Do that self-reflection piece first, but then really take the time to assess community need. I don’t think you’re going to get very far if you start funding an arts education program in a district where they actually have plenty of funding already, when a neighboring district may not have any. You need to do the assessment about who’s furthest from this opportunity right now. Who’s been most impacted or excluded? Who’s most harmed by this historically? Then focus your investments of time, talent, treasure, ties, all the above. Not just money. If it’s an issue you’re passionate about, you’ve got to think about who’s furthest from opportunity, so that you can be working to move our community to a more equitable place.

Then the other layer I’d say is funding organizations led by and rooted in the community and whose leadership is reflective of those they serve. Think about who’s best in the position to lead this work because they know the community, they’re authentically connected and part of that community. And if you care about direct service and you want to fund direct service programs, wonderful, but I’d also say, how can you support advocacy or community voice work? If we know we need to shift the system, how can we help make space for, support, and amplify the voices of those who are best positioned to lead the work, who have the on-the-ground and lived experience?

KCB: Yeah, and I’ve found for myself, as a white woman, as a white feminist philanthropist who is a doer, and wants to be out front and is comfortable with public speaking and all of that, it’s a circular practice, right? It comes back to the self-reflection you mention. I’ve started asking myself, do I need to be the one speaking here? Reflecting on my need to be the one who knows, right? 

LD: I hear you on that. Yeah, it’s understanding your positionality in that and who’s best positioned to lead – and it may not be you. It might likely not be you … us. How can we invest in and support others to play that role? Or use our positionality to influence others in our sphere? You can be out front with your peer group of other white women, to activate and engage in racial justice work or equity work. That’s an important role we need to be playing because we can’t ask our communities of color to carry that work by themselves.

KCB: Yep, we have to start close to home first. Start where we are, first. Lauren! I love talking to you. Thank you for taking the time to talk with me today, and for sharing your thoughts and expertise with this community of feminist philanthropists. 

If you enjoyed this conversation and are ready to dig deeper into your own philanthropy practice, my book A Generous Heart, Changing the World Through Feminist Philanthropy, facilitates a self-inquiry journey to determine your passions, your resources, the needs of the community and how to engage in a lifetime of joyful giving and receiving.