Listening & Learning: 5 takeaways from our community conversations

May 5, 2022

From intersectionality and innovation to systems work and wellness, grantees shared how funders can support them. Here are 5 takeaways.

With the launch of our new strategic framework in 2021, The Denver Foundation has embraced being a “learning” organization, which emphasizes regularly and intentionally taking in community feedback to guide our decision-making and activities.

To better understand the foundation’s progress toward our strategic goals and vision of social change, we asked the community to help us create a learning framework. The learning framework outlines our “theory of philanthropy,” our hypotheses about how the work we are doing as a community foundation will contribute to movement toward our vision. It also articulates the information and evidence we will look to to better understand if our hypotheses are playing out (or not).

In late 2021, we invited grantees of the fall 2021 Community Grants Program (CGP), the first cohort of CGP recipients under our new strategic framework, to join us for a series of virtual facilitated conversations. Thirty-eight participants representing 30 organizations participated. Each conversation focused on one or more of The Denver Foundation’s priority funding areas: economic opportunity, environment and climate, education, housing, and transportation.

In the spirit of collective learning, here are five key takeaways that we hope might spark new insights or implications for other funders, nonprofits, and philanthropic institutions as they think about and tackle their own work.

Insight #1: There are clear intersections across issues and challenges in Metro Denver.

Each conversation highlighted how barriers and successes within a given priority area — economic opportunity, environment and climate, education, housing, and transportation — have a direct impact on others.

For example:

During a conversation on economic opportunity: Participants emphasized that workforce development is not just about job availability, but also pay equity because “just having a job doesn’t get you housed.” Participants noted further that when striving for true economic prosperity and independence there must be consideration of the role of education, not only in terms of equity and access, but also in terms of the type of education being provided around financial literacy, management, and empowerment.

During a conversation on education: Participants discussed funding inequities across districts and geographies related to the tax base, the likelihood of mills and levies passing, and the ability to have teachers and school leadership represent the same community as the enrolled students — all connected to housing costs and economic opportunities.


Insight #2: Transformational change must include systems-level work.

Funders must intentionally focus resources on addressing systems-level changes. To really address the root causes of inequities, there is a need to target policies and practices that have created inequitable systems and structures in the first place (e.g., “don’t get too focused on the symptoms as opposed to the disease”).


Insight #3: Engage, elevate, and incorporate community voice.

Funders must examine who is being excluded from conversations and work designed to address social inequities within Metro Denver and across the priority areas. We must think critically about strategies to better incorporate constituents. Specifically, participants highlighted that in some cases, more focus and additional resources need to prioritize those who have been historically excluded and marginalized:

“We have to understand that in some instances we have to do a bit more than other places to get everyone on the same level”


Insight #4: Consider nonprofit staff.

Funders must consider the well-being, compensation, and leadership development of nonprofit staff. In short, several participants shared challenges associated with being a part of the nonprofit workforce and discussed not only how this affects organizations’ ability to do the work and do it well, but also the consequences for potentially perpetuating racial inequities within the sector. As one participant put it:

“Nonprofits need to model more… [We need to] pay our people instead of a lot of volunteerism. We need to set the example. It’s not a good economic model, it leaves communities stretched thin and unbalanced.”


Insight #5: Create spaces for innovation.

Funders must consider and promote opportunities that value new, innovative groups and ideas. Several participants noted that many groups face challenges in accessing funding and other sources of support without history or demonstrated “impact.” At the same time, there is a critical need to nurture new and different approaches.

We are so grateful to everyone who shared their time, insights, and expertise with us. So far, these insights have informed meaningful conversations with our team around how to better consider intersectionality with our grantmaking, lean deeper into our policy and advocacy work, and work with our network to consider the importance of supporting innovation. And we’re hoping you’ll have your own insights from these takeaways as well. Keep an eye out for future blogs that take a deeper look into some of the lessons and takeaways grantees shared with us.

For more information about The Denver Foundation’s learning framework, please contact Dr. Jill Iman, director of engaged learning,