#144 How to Measure Success in Philanthropy with Cathy Lehman Senior Program Officer The Harder Foundation

Sep 04, 2023

We are joined by Cathy Lehman, Senior Program Officer for the Harder Foundation, to discuss how to help communities who have not previously had access to philanthropic funding. How do you build conversational spaces? What happens if your efforts are unsuccessful? 


Episode Highlights:

  • How to move money to move power
  • Creating space for productive conversations
  • How to change course when you identify what you are doing isn’t working


Cathy Lehman Bio:

Cathy is the Senior Program Officer for The Harder Foundation, a private family foundation that supports biodiversity and ecosystem health across 5 states in the Pacific Northwest. She has spent the last 20 years working in various roles of community and economic development, environmental policy, grassroots organizing, social impact, and philanthropy. Cathy has served on dozens of community boards and commissions – including the local City Council, and as a governor-appointed commissioner for the state’s volunteerism initiative, Serve Washington. She has a BA in Communications from WWU, a master’s degree in social Entrepreneurship and Change from Pepperdine University, and a Certificate in Sustainable Business from Presidio Graduate School. She lives just outside of Bellingham, WA with her husband and animals on a shy acre near the Lummi Nation on the Salish Sea.


If you enjoyed this episode, listen to these as well:

#143 Sybil Speaks: Measuring Impact

#129 Giving Well to Indigenous Communities, with Jim Enote CEO of the Colorado Plateau Foundation

#62 Amazing Story of How to Fund Indigenous Communities Well with Geneva Wiki, Senior Program Manager, The California Endowment


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Kathy, I am really, really excited that you're on my podcast. You're just such a dear friend, and we have been colleagues’ funders for so many years now. I can't believe you've been on a harder foundation for three years. It feels like... I don't know. It's just so fun with you. 

There are always refreshing conversations. The trustees of the Harder Foundation are and have been friends with many of the trustees of many of the clients I work with as well. We've partnered with the two foundations for many years. The person who was the executive director at Harder before you came on was also a dear friend of mine and my husband. She actually married us. Kay did. And I'm so sad to say she's passed away now, but, oh my gosh, she had big shoes to fill. And you've filled them plus some. So, I just so appreciate your friendship. 

I wanted to have you on the podcast because our theme for this month is to think through how to be an effective funder and to be able to monitor your effectiveness and really think about it. And how do you do that? 

And I just find you an amazing thinker about this kind of stuff. Before we go there, though, can you tell my audience how you became a philanthropic person? Working for the Hard Foundation, helping them give grants out in the Pacific Northwest and beyond. I know you work in Alaska and a lot of other places; you'll tell us about that, too. But tell me a little bit about yourself. So that my listeners know who you are.

The first half of my career was involved in nonprofits, and you know everything from the very beginning: doing grassroots organizing, moving on up to a Chief Operating Officer role, and along the way, most of that work was in environmental policy and grassroots organizing like I said. I also did a little stint in a local elected office that kind of stemmed from that activity and a lot of community economic development and just a social safety net and social fabric in the local community.

One of the things I was involved in more recently was with a statewide policy organization in Washington that was advancing a climate initiative on the ballot. It was going to be a carbon pricing initiative, and I gave up my elected office role to go work on that because I felt so strongly about needing more progressive solutions to climate change, and that's a story for another day. That effort sort of tanked gloriously well before it got on the ballot. The version I was working on, and another carbon pricing initiative did go to the ballot and didn't pass, but years later, the legislature—not even that many years later—passed that. That policy even made it stronger, so it was a great lesson for me. And, you know, sometimes these things take a few years to get over the finish line, and that's OK.

But in that process, I was introduced to working hand in hand with communities of color. BIPOC leaders in the state of Washington, and I was the outreach director for a coalition that was working to get that effort off the ground and running. And I got to build a lot of relationships in the trenches doing that tough work, and that's what stuck with me, ultimately, along with, you know, the gift of learning on the job about racial equity and the environmental space. We can have all the solutions in the world to these problems that we're trying to solve, but if they aren't funded, they aren't going to exist. And a lot of times, these solutions are coming from frontline and impacted communities that aren't necessarily connected to the funding community or haven't been in the past. And so that was a lightbulb moment for me—I wanted to be part of changing that part of moving money to move power and have new solutions. So anyway. Long story short, after that kind of 20 years of work, the first half of my career culminated in my realizing I wanted to step into the philanthropic side of this work. 

So, I did and went to work for an organization called Social Venture Partners, which was an engaged donor circle network. It was SVP International. So, I got a lot of exposure to philanthropic practices and donor organizing globally. And then, after a few years of doing that, I realized, Yeah, I want to work more closely with the philanthropic entity and see how we can move this money. You know, how can I be part of moving this money, not just talking to donors about moving their money? And I stepped into a role with a harder foundation as a program officer. And yeah, it's been three years. Part of that was the pandemic. So, you know, time is weird in the pandemic. It feels a lot longer. This has been a great three years, and I've learned a lot and still have a lot left to learn.

So, let's talk about one of your main interests here: how do we move money to support communities that may not historically have had access to philanthropic dollars, and how do we measure our success there as donors to make sure that that's happening on the ground? Can you tell me some of your thoughts about that? Have some advice you might have for us who you know. We genuinely want to do this kind of work.

This is an art, not a science, right? So what works for me might not be what other people resonate with, but I do find there are some basic best practices to this kind of work, and probably very familiar with them, and many of your listeners would be too, but, beginning to fund differently with communities that aren't necessarily, historically white led or mainstream community groups requires a real engagement in relationships and everything that stems from relationships You know, the concepts of trust-based philanthropy obviously have a keyword: trust, and you only get that when you've invested time and energy into a relationship.

And so, you know, it's maybe in a way more time-consuming, but I find that time well spent and enjoyable. I think being open to different, you know, different solutions that look different than what we've seen before and not just reacting to them with sort of a knee-jerk that I haven't seen work before. And so, I don't want to fund it, but I haven't seen that work before. I'm curious if it is more of an orientation I've tried to lean on.

Longer-term time frames because we're talking about systemic and structural change in society. Tough stuff. Often, it's amorphous and takes a long time, and knowing that going into it, I think, helps. set expectations.

I want to just underline the first three because they're really important, Kathy. Is it asking us as donors to redefine how we define success if we're genuinely interested in supporting communities that historically have not had access to the donor base in the way that some of the NGOs that have enjoyed that access for years can do so? And that's something that I think through.

And so, I appreciate you making sure that we, as donors, are thinking about that when we think about measuring success. I also want to cover something else. You talked about it a little bit. Which is, sometimes the idea of success for a donor can be different, or maybe even conflict with the community. Should be funded to find a solution to the problem the donor wants to solve, but the donor may not realize that yet because they only have education from their world, their place. Where they are.

And so, talk to me a little bit about how we, as donors, can create good spaces for conversation to help open up ideas. Maybe with your social venture experience, how did you create these kinds of good conversation spaces in the past? I'd love to hear some examples. Of that.

I think, as SVP of Social Venture Partners, a lot of what my role was I thinking of a program director and then a chief operating officer. So, I had a lot of visibility into the global network and a lot of relationships across chapters on multiple continents and different cultures. So those are fascinating things about education and how philanthropy is sort of thought of in different spaces. 

But one of the sorts of streamlining concepts through all of that, I think my role at the time was to try. And create and hold space in a way like leading with some vulnerability, like asking a lot of questions and stating right from the get-go, I'm not an expert, and sort of setting the tone that we don't have to be experts and we don't have to swoop in with solutions as therapists, I think there's an unspoken assumption sometimes in the philanthropic community, having this power and accumulation of wealth that represents power in our society, or the different societies we operate in, sort of connotes that we should also have answers so that we're responsible for solutions. 

And you know that can get warped and become destructive. taken too far, but it can be, you know, spinning, turning that on its head, and assuming maybe I don't have any answers and I can't personally operate power in this situation and expect an outcome to follow in the way that I dictate can open up more curiosity and vulnerability, which brings forward answers from more people that are relevant to the culture or the place that you're operating in.

So, one of my favorite things to do, I guess, and I don't even think about it that much, but reflecting now, I'm realizing one of my favorite things to do is just sort of lead by example with vulnerability. And stating clearly that I don't have the answers and I'm not an expert, but that can open up space for us to get curious in different ways that can illuminate answers and help us become experts which is fun.

Yeah, I like that. And for somebody who's listening, though, who is very measurement benchmark timeline-oriented, which I honor too, right? Because you do want to know, over time, if we're helping or working through the work that we're trying to do, how do we measure it? How do we measure success if we're doing a lot of listening? That's important. 

But then, how can we translate or change that? OK, let's say we're doing a spend-down, or what? Let's say we have 10 years to focus on issue X. A problem we want to solve. How can we make sure we do that with an open mind, bringing in and supporting the diverse voices that want to work in that area while we still have some of those benchmarks? 

So first, you're saying to go in with an open mind. Because maybe the pathway to solving that problem isn't the one you thought it was because the folks that you're sitting down with are saying no, no, no. This is what we agree with. You are the same problem: We want to solve that same problem, but the solution is to focus on how. Uselessness and not the other thing that you think you need to do. It may not be a technological solution; maybe it's something else. That kind of thing could be really helpful.

And so, I think that what we're doing here in our conversation is challenging my listeners to think about the fact that, yes, you may want benchmarks, you may want measurables, but be clear. The problem you want to solve is the result, so be open if you If you're very sincere about wanting to bring in diverse voices and make sure that you're funding groups that may not have easy access to you, you're already open to a variety of ideas about how to solve that. How to solve that problem. I love that. You're helping. Put that into focus for me, It's the end goal, but it's also how we get there. We can be a little more flexible about that. And I see you nodding. Yes, to that, but.

Yeah. And I mean, you're right. We do need to be able to mark progress, generally speaking, so that we're not spinning our wheels or wondering what we accomplished after long periods or large amounts of money.

Yeah, Kathy, that's something else you talked about in your email. Your sort of career discussion, who you are, everything you talked about, the climate initiative, initiatives, plural, that failed, and then the legislature stepped in and created their solution that was sort of reflective of some of the pieces.

And I know there was a lot of tension and conversation around that, and there still is now as we push back the other way. So, there's always going to be that ongoing push and pull.

So, can we just unpack that a little bit more? If you, as a donor, have a problem you want to solve—in the case of this conversation, it was around climate change—it can be anything. And you probably want to solve it, and the folks in the room in one year say the solution is that we need to create an initiative. 

Of course, as a funder, you have to be very careful. There's a whole bunch of legal stuff around that you can't fund certain aspects of, but there's public education. You can support me, so let's just say that out loud. You have to be careful about all that. 

I have taken a mini-course called Be Legal. In my portfolio, so people can check that out on my website. 

But let's say folks are saying, OK, in the near term, we need significant system change. Here's how we're going to do it: Here's our pathway: But the idea sort of fails. And then there's a lot of tension around it for me. You know, let's talk about that again. That is the argument. For having a very clear north star. But a one- or two-year time frame may seem like it doesn't work. It doesn't mean, overall, it's not going to work if you're your north star. 

This is the solution. Is X the problem we want to solve? Even if in the first two years you can't get there yet, maybe you can just sort of rejigger. Maybe you're not listening to the right people. Maybe some people have been marginalized in the conversation about who has the solution. Maybe there is some different kind of structure that the group needs than the one you put together.

So, if you have the North Star there, maybe the first thing you're doing isn't working. Doesn't mean you need to run away from it. Anyway, sorry I got on my soapbox there, but you got me going there, Kathy. You can see these. Kathy and I have had long car rides where this is what we do. Talked about it, but anyway.

I should stop. As the interviewer, I want to hear from you. Tell me more of your thoughts about this, the campaigns or campaigns and work that you have the North Star, but it's not always working every couple of years and not trying to succeed. 

I mean, since I'm me, I've already said this, but I'll double down. I mean, I think philanthropy works best as a relationship. And given that, I think that one of the most important questions to ask in situations like this is, who am I accountable to? 

For funders who are accountable to themselves, their board of trustees, or whatnot and think that's it. I would probably just challenge them to consider the purpose of a charitable organization is, you know, to move forward solutions to social ills and environmental harms, whatever the purposes of that foundation. 

What a great point. What a great point. Yeah, great point. Who are they accountable to? Who are you accountable to? And being honest with yourself about that.

It's kind of compact, right? And if that community to which you are accountable is the kind of impacted community on the front lines of this issue you're trying to solve or progress on, if that impacted community says we're making progress, you know, progress is not perfection. I operate from

And if that community to which I'm accountable says it's accountable too and says this was progress, you know, maybe we took two steps forward and one step back, but we know more now and we can come back at it from another angle. Angle may be more successful. Then I personally, you know, wipe my hands, go to bed with a clear conscience, and be able to look myself in the mirror and say we did our work today because we made progress in the community, I'm accountable to, which has reinforced that concept to me. 

If I'm kind of alone in a vacuum and I'm wondering how we do it, and this seems like we're going around in circles and not necessarily moving toward the goalpost, or the goalpost keeps moving, it would be a lot harder for me to sleep well at night. I think that accountability is one of the most important things that can keep us focused on real success.

Yeah, I love that. 

I remember, in the early days of my philanthropic career, doing research on a project and making a mistake. I did in-depth research. That wasn't the mistake I made when I went out to the field. I talked to lots of people, but my report came back to me. 

My foundation's advice to my client was, Let's not invest in what you care about. Let's not invest in it because I don't see it. That was 13 years ago, and actually, that project has now seen success specifically in the way that that client would have liked. But at the time when I was looking at the issue in that particular couple-year window, no one was getting along. It was contentious. It was a smaller foundation. We couldn't have funded everything to make it work. There were just a whole host of things.

And I was like, oh, it's never going to work. That was a mistake because I really should have asked my client. How invested are you in that North Star idea? If this is the thing that wakes you up in the morning, the problem you want to solve, then give yourself a 10/15-year window and create measurables that can be movable. Between now and then, and I just love what you're talking about, where it's like, OK, Sybil, there are a lot of relationships, there are changes in tactics, and there are changes in things that happen. There are, you know, people who move on and people who stick with it. All those different things 

And if you're invested and go deep into an issue, a problem you want to solve, if you're a campaign kind of funder, and you care about it, then that can work well. And if you want to, if you're more of a kind of funder that wants to sustain groups year after year on a general issue you care about and want to leave it to them, that's a more sustainable funder.

I would challenge you as a sustainer funder to still have that North Star concept of what you want, so, you know, I think that's important in this conversation. Thank you for emphasizing.

Oh absolutely. And I guess that yeah, because you have a lot of people. Yeah. 

You have a lot of people. Saying like measurables, people will say you're one, you're two… etc.… but you know, the ultimate result is around the North Star anyway. Kathy, go tell me what you're going to say.

Oh, I was just going to say that I am happy to report that I know what you mean when you say campaigner and sustainable funder because I've been listening to your Podcast. 

And for anyone who doesn't, I have a little mini-course on that too, so you can learn. They're all very short videos to explain the differences in Similarity.

They're great. Yeah, they're cool.

That's awesome. OK, Kathy. So, before you go, do you have any questions? high-level words of wisdom for my listener.

Oh boy.

I guess you know that's a tough question. High-level words of wisdom for your listeners—I guess you know, just doubling down on what I've been saying. I like how you say North Star because there has to be kind of a driving purpose to what we're doing: we're trying to move money to move power and create these solutions, or else, we can kind of lose focus and fritter away a lot of resources, sort of biting around the edges and not being clear about what we're trying to accomplish.

But that being said, staying flexible and accountable through really healthy, trusting relationships with the folks on the ground again, I think not only is it probably how we achieve the most effectiveness as funders, but on a personal note, for me, why is this work all worth it? Because then it's not sitting in a room, you know, remotely, occasionally getting on a plane and going to see someone or driving across the state to do a site visit. But it's real-life relationship stuff where you're suddenly in the trenches with folks, you know, theoretically, literally putting ourselves fully into the work and being able to be adaptable and in relationship with those who are also working on it with the funding is transformational. And yeah, I guess I love that North Star concept.

So, I'm going to be holding that as we wrap this up. Thank You so much.

Thanks, Kathy. It's been delightful, and I can't wait to see you again soon. 

Thank you so much.