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From Nonprofit Partner to Program Officer: The Pursuit of More Equitable Practices

In this installment of CMF Community Voices – a special edition as part of our year-long 50th anniversary celebration – Ashley Johnson-Varner, Ph.D., Program Officer at The Kresge Foundation and a 2023 Emerging Leader in CMF’s Leadership Development & Mentoring Program, shares more on her journey from founding executive director of Detroit College Access Network to her current role as a grantmaker at Kresge.

Ashley Johnson-Varner, Ph.D., Program Officer at The Kresge Foundation


CMF Community Voices features a series of conversations and insights from leaders across our community of philanthropy. This curated collection of blogs and Q&As lifts up inspiring voices from changemakers providing reflections in the areas of Equity, People, Practice and Policy, with equity at the center.

From Nonprofit Partner to Program Officer: The Pursuit of Equitable Practices

By Ashley Johnson-Varner, Ph.D., Program Officer at The Kresge Foundation and a 2023 Emerging Leader in CMF’s Leadership Development & Mentoring Program

About two and a half years ago, I began my journey as a program officer at The Kresge Foundation. Prior to that, I was the founding executive director of a nonprofit called Detroit College Access Network (DCAN). The mission of DCAN is to promote higher education in Detroit and to make a college degree or credential a reality for students. One of my responsibilities in that position was to raise money to fund the organization's mission and operations. 

Throughout the nine years, I served in that capacity, I interacted with several funders in Michigan. Today, I humbly serve as a grantmaker, helping organizations like DCAN and many others across the country working to make a degree, certificate, or credential more accessible.  

During my recent participation in the CMF Leadership Development & Mentoring Program, the cohort was encouraged to reflect on our roles in philanthropy. While I don’t consider my journey atypical, I believe that my lived experience as a first-generation college graduate turned higher education grantmaker, with many different titles in between, adds a rich perspective on how I view the field and contribute to it.  

Community is paramount to crafting methodology. 

I have found that participation in fellowships, cohorts and affinity groups, like the CMF Leadership Development & Mentoring Program, has been a great opportunity to meet others in similar roles beyond my organization and to learn more about philanthropy. Grantmaking is an art, and every funder and grant maker within an organization has a different approach. Through fellowships and affinity groups, I have been exposed to several styles and methods of application, which has allowed me to begin to craft and hone my own style. I plan to participate in more affinity groups as my career in philanthropy progresses. 

If a system isn't working, make the effort to change it.

The grant application and reporting process is cumbersome for both the grant seeker and grantmaker. As a grant seeker, I found navigating multiple grant applications and reporting systems confusing, cumbersome, time-consuming and extremely redundant. At one time, I had over 10 different logins to different systems that consisted of about 80% of the same information I had to enter separately. Now, I can’t help but think there must be a more streamlined way to collect some of the basic information from partners. These inefficient processes often took me away from the important work of helping young people achieve their education dreams. Now that I can see what we do with all the information, content and documents we gather from nonprofit partners. To be frank, some of it is unnecessary, especially if the information isn’t being assessed or utilized. I encourage all of us to evaluate the information that we are requesting from grant seekers and ask ourselves what information we need to inform our decision-making and its value, given the burden that it places on our partners

Be an active listener.

People will tell you what they need... ask them and then act on what you hear. As a grantmaker, we are often not experiencing, nor do we have close proximity to, the same daily lived experience of those whom we seek to partner with and support. Listening and acting upon what we hear from community and partners creates an invaluable level of trust. If the mission is to support and partner with specific people and communities, then we need to prioritize listening to those communities frequently (creating opportunities for two-way dialogue beyond surveys) and quickly act upon what they tell us. Too often, I’ve heard from former colleagues and past nonprofit partners that funders disregard the feedback provided to them. 

Kresge’s Education Program partnered with a consultant to survey more than 20 Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) postsecondary nonprofit leaders to learn firsthand about their leadership and diversity, equity and inclusion challenges and opportunities with the goal of using this information to help inform how our program could best support nonprofit partners. In response, the Education Program launched the Thrive Leaders Network with a $500,000 grant in unrestricted funds to support leaders of color. 

Access to funders isn’t an equitable landscape.

In this field, relationships are currency. As a grantmaker, I now understand why some philanthropic organizations use an invite-only process, given how overwhelming it would be to review hundreds of concept ideas. However, when we employ an invite-only process, it automatically excludes groups of people, primarily historically and systemically marginalized people who do not have existing relationships with funders or the networks that would broker an introduction to a philanthropic organization. This is contrary to many of our equity-centered missions.

Several philanthropic organizations utilize open RFP processes or other similar mechanisms to provide more equitable access to funding. At The Kresge Foundation, we seek to provide more equitable access to funding through initiatives like KIP: D, which engaged a selection committee of a majority of residents, artists, and nonprofit and community partners to evaluate and select the KIP:D awardees. The Kresge Innovative Projects program is just one example of how we might provide a more equitable process for grant seekers.  

My journey from grant seeker to funder has been an eye-opening one. I am deeply appreciative to those who have helped me inform that journey, the shared insights to support shaping my view of how to go about more equitable practices and the courage to use my voice to plant seeds for change.  


We are thrilled to share these installments of CMF Community Voices as we continue our year-long future-focused 50th anniversary celebration.
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