Creating equity in Brooklyn through a community-centered approach

Jocelynne Rainey hopes to lead the Brooklyn Community Foundation with more trust in nonprofit leadership

Bryan Tarnowski / Inspired Storytellers

The Brooklyn Community Foundation is the only foundation that focuses primarily on Brooklyn, and it is led by someone who was born and raised in the borough: Jocelynne Rainey. As president and CEO of the foundation, she aims to grow the number of nonprofits the foundation serves by centering on community and ensuring that the foundation commits to grant making through a racial justice lens. 

The nonprofit veteran also hopes to lead with trust in leadership through the foundation’s Spark prize, which awards unrestricted funding. 

New York Nonprofit Media sat down with Rainey to speak about what brought her to the foundation, what makes the foundation unique and what she hopes for the foundation in the future.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Before leading the Brooklyn Community Foundation, you had an extensive career in nonprofit leadership positions. Tell me about your background, and what compelled you to apply for your current position.

I have worked since I was 15 years old, I’ve  worked in fast food restaurants, and other places. But I think that what would always be the thread that ran through my belief that there is an inequity in our country and the question of how I can bring equity to any work that I do, whether it be nonprofit or for profit. My career brought me to working in the nonprofit sector for many years with people who had developmental disabilities. I grew in that organization to become an executive there. And from that, I had a short stint in the for-profit sector where I worked in human resources. And I really think that I did a lot to bring real diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives to those organizations before there was all that talk of DEI initiatives. I realized at some point that I wanted to go back to the nonprofit sector where I felt like there was more mission-driven work and where there was work I could be doing in my community. I ended up at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, where I was the chief administrative officer. While I was there, I started as the head of human resources. I realized that there was this workforce development program going on. I didn't know much about workforce development, but what I knew was that I could use my HR background to help to connect people to work and people who live in my community. I live in Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, I raised my family here. I helped to really expand that program and helped us go from employing about a hundred people in jobs a year to helping to employ well over 1,000 people between jobs and internships. So that's kind of where I realized, I could use my professional and my personal passions and they could intersect and make a difference in communities. I moved on and at some point I realized I wanted to run an organization that was focused on racial justice and racial justice for people who come from communities that are like my community. I went on and ran an organization called Getting Out and Staying Out, where we work with young men who were formerly incarcerated. I realized that I was able to help to get them the resources they need and connect them to the labor market in a meaningful way that would not only change their lives but change the lives of their families and their communities. That organization was in Harlem. I knew I would be coming back to Brooklyn at some point. I've lived here all my life, I love Brooklyn, but I didn't know what was going to happen. When this role came up, I realized that this is the intersection of all the things that I believe in. I've had a long relationship with the foundation. I know that they do the work that's important to Brooklyn, that is the intersection of Brooklyn philanthropy and racial justice and that I would be able to help to elevate numerous nonprofits. This is actually the dream job that I never really knew was going to become available. 

It has nearly been a year since you joined the Brooklyn Community Foundation. Can you talk about your transition to the organization, and what you’ve been able to accomplish since taking on your new role?

The Brooklyn Community Foundation is the first and only community foundation focused on Brooklyn. I'm really proud of the work that we do because we've been able to, since our founding in 2009, provide over $75 million dollars in grants to nonprofits across Brooklyn. What I think is so interesting about this organization is that even before I came on board, there was this participatory grantmaking process where the community is making the decisions on where our funding goes. And when we say community, we mean people who are doing the work, people with lived experience, people who live in the communities, they're actually making the decisions of where the funding goes. I’m approaching a year here and I feel like we have been able to accomplish quite a bit. We have completed listening tours across Brooklyn. We want to hear from who's doing the work to make sure that we're supporting the right work. What are the strengths of the communities? What's happening in those communities? What are your challenges in the communities? What is it that you need in your community? It has been eye-opening and it has been refreshing. That has been one thing that I'm really proud of. We've completed a Spark prize since I've been in this role. I’m really proud of the work of the Spark prize. It’s a prize that goes to 5 nonprofits who receive $100,000 in unrestricted funds and I'm excited to say that we're back in that process again. It's also participatory grant making, it's all community members. I'm continuing this work but I'm also thinking about how we cast a wider net.

What is the Brooklyn Community Foundation’s mission? What does it mean to be a community foundation?

Our mission is to create a fair and just Brooklyn through a racial justice lens and we understand that in order to do this work  – and do this work well – that we need to make sure that we are supporting the most marginalized communities and that we're doing it in a way that is really true to what communities are trying to accomplish. At the end of the day, what we are trying to do is to spark change and not just change in Brooklyn, but change across our city, our state, nationally. Also we are thinking about how we can spark change in philanthropy as well, and work to create a philosophic model that is more inclusive of people.

The Brooklyn Community Foundation operates through a 100% participatory grantmaking model. Talk to me about this approach to grantmaking, and tell me about the benefits of this model.

The benefit is that we are giving the power to the people who are actually impacted by the work and we're not using a hierarchical kind of process where we believe that we know. We're actually giving all the power to the people. The other thing that I think is really interesting about this, is that our board is completely bought into this process at 100%.  Every grant is determined through this participatory grant making process and it's not an easy process. Our team has to work with advisors, that's what we call our committees that actually make the decisions. They have to facilitate these meetings in order to make sure this happens. 

Why is racial justice particularly important to Brooklyn Community Foundation and how does it inform your work?

Racial justice is really important because we understand that there needs to be a redistribution of power from people who have been powerless for so long. And we realize that if we're not part of the solution and if we're not creating opportunities for this power to be redistributed to the people who actually have not had power, then we're not going to be able to get to a place, particularly in Brooklyn, where people are going to have the same opportunities as others. So for us it's really important to redistribute that power and redistribute that power through our grant making by looking at this work through a racial justice lens. We are always thinking about how we deconstruct racism in Brooklyn through our grant giving, in order to create a more fair and just place where people who have not had power, now have power in order to be able to live the American Dream.

What are some of the unique challenges that small nonprofits face and how is the foundation using its voice and resources to address those?

One is just being able to get the funding that they need in order to do the work that they do. That's really important and making sure that they’re able to invest in the staffing that they need in order to do the work that they do, the resources that they need every day in order to do the work that they do. And having the platforms that they need to be able to tell their stories. One of the ways the foundation supports them is that we elevate our work through elevating our nonprofits' work. So creating platforms for our nonprofits to be able to talk about their work is hugely important to us. The other piece is getting resources to nonprofits that are unrestricted so they can make the decisions on where they want to put those resources. That decision, even if it just means paying staff or keeping the lights on, we want to make sure that they have those resources because we know that they need them. We understand that. We also want to create opportunities for our grantees, and for the nonprofits that we serve, to be able to have an audience with other foundations as well. We create that by making sure that their work is being told to donors who can also support their work as well. So we look at our work as being able to lift up our nonprofits, to be able to support them with resources that are not restrictive and allow them to make decisions on their own.

Tell me about the takeaways from your listening tour this summer.

It's been refreshing to see that there are people in communities who care about their communities who want to do the work in the communities. I think that the other piece is that every community in Brooklyn is different and they are grappling with different challenges and it's really interesting to hear from them. I think the other thing that I've walked away with is that what communities are looking for is more connectivity amongst each other. The other thing that's really important is this desire to work together, for nonprofits to work together and create programming where they can support each other as well. What I've been encouraged by is that there's just so many people who care deeply about their communities, and want to support their communities. We're just so excited to have this opportunity to be in space with each other and talk about what's important to them.

How can the philanthropic community help nonprofits in times of crisis?

One is to listen to the nonprofit. I think that's really important to listen to the nonprofits and get out there and hear them. I think one of the things that the foundation did really well long before I came on board is that they were able to get donations towards COVID-19 relief and were able to get out over $6 million to nonprofits in a very short amount of time because they didn't ask for a lot of information through an application process. Another is trusting nonprofits. Trusting them that they're doing the work and getting to understand their work and then trusting them to do it without a lot of requirements around where that money goes and how they use that money. 

What does your vision for Brooklyn Community Foundation look like?

My vision for the nonprofit is to cast a wider net and that we're serving all of Brooklyn. We fund about 100 grantees. I want to see that doubled in the next year. I think that there's so much opportunity for us to do so much more. There's so much work in Brooklyn that is being done that we should be supporting. My other vision is to be able to create more programming that will support all Brooklyn nonprofits that do not yet meet our threshold for funding, to support them through training and other other resources as well. I think that my other vision for philanthropy is that we're able to partner more with others to help them reach those small nonprofits throughout Brooklyn that could really use their support. That's my vision for the fund.

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