A Partner in Community

February 8, 2023

For Benny Samuels, executive director of the Denver-based AYA Foundation, philanthropy has the greatest impact when it’s led from the ground up – by people who represent and understand the challenges and assets of marginalized communities. For the AYA Foundation, this means supporting wealth generation in the Black community by investing in Black entrepreneurs. It’s a focused, straightforward mission fueled by relationships built on trust, transparency, and representative leadership.

“We are bringing decision-making power to the Black community,” says Samuels. The Denver Foundation shares the AYA Foundation’s commitment to lifting the agency of Black-led organizations and boosting the vitality of the Black community in Metro Denver, alongside other communities of color. The nonprofit is among a growing number of organizations led by people of color that have recently been funded by The Denver Foundation.

“Building the strength of these organizations is really an investment in communities of color themselves,” says Dace West, the foundation’s chief impact officer. “Organizations led by people of color are often left behind by institutional philanthropy, receiving fewer awards and in lower dollar amounts. We are challenging that reality by taking organizations’ leadership, board, and staff composition into account when making grant decisions. It’s a strong example of how the foundation is leaning into our two core values of racial equity and constituent leadership.”

Benny Headshot 2 (1)
Benny Samuels

Benny Samuels says The Denver Foundation’s support for leaders and organizations of color signals an emerging shift to “trust-based philanthropy.” When trust guides funding decisions, she says, the dynamic between a foundation and a grantee shifts to a partnership rather than a dependency.

“The AYA Foundation can’t do any of this on our own, and in many ways, we are in a traditional philanthropic relationship with the foundation community: I need your money, absolutely,” she says. “But it isn’t just money. It’s trust. I need you to root for us, however you can. I want to feel like you want us to win.”

“When The Denver Foundation gives us the money that the AYA Foundation then gives to an entrepreneur, the three of us are then in partnership,” Samuels says. “All three of us have an interest in seeing the entrepreneur go to the next level. It goes so far beyond the traditional model of, ‘Send me a report.’ We all share the same goals, and if we fail it’s a fail for the three of us. We are in a relationship, which is necessary for building trust in BIPOC communities.”

We all share the same goals, and if we fail it’s a fail for the three of us. We are in a relationship, which is necessary for building trust in BIPOC communities. - Benny Samuels

The Denver Foundation’s dedicated support for community organizations led by people of color first took root more than 25 years ago, with the founding of the Strengthening Neighborhoods program, which provided small grants to support grassroots community development and organizing in majority minority neighborhoods. People living within a community are best suited to understand and address the challenges facing their communities, and this approach supports that.

Francoise Mbabazi Photo by @armando_geneyro (Instagram)

Recent Strengthening Neighborhood grants reflect a new generation of leaders of color, such as Francoise Mbabazi, founder of My Skin Global. The organization works to eradicate the dangerous practice of cosmetic skin bleaching, which is rampant among young women of color all over the world, including in Mbabazi’s native Rwanda. My Skin Global is also an AYA Foundation client, illustrating the strong collaboration and connection within the community. Francoise says support from Strengthening Neighborhoods gave her a sense of legitimacy and confidence – feelings that are sometimes hard to come by for the founder of a small organization competing for resources in the white-dominated nonprofit landscape.

“I’ve encountered so many people in the community who have great ideas that often don’t come forward; they are not birthed,” she says. “It’s often because of a lack of visibility, and a lack of interest and support within the fundraising community.”

The Denver Foundation continues to support communities of color in other ways. In 2020, The Denver Foundation launched the Black Resilience in Colorado (BRIC) Fund, the first Black-focused fund in Colorado, which has since provided $2.7 million in grants to nonprofits across Metro Denver.

In 2021, when the foundation launched its new 10-year strategic framework, it formally prioritized giving to organizations that are led by and serve communities of color. With racial equity at its center, the framework affirmed a commitment to community-led change, with the foundation serving as a partner to those who best understand the diverse communities they serve.

“We’re really grateful that the foundation is creating opportunities for us as a people, and as a community, to realize the dreams that we have,” says Mbabazi.