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Community Impact team leader Pahoua Yang Hoffman reflects her first seven months on the job and the needs of the year ahead.

You started your position in a very unique year. What has it been like to jump into a position when community need was so great?

I started on May 18, 2020, so yes, it was a unique year given the pandemic and the murder of George Floyd that took place the following week.

Having been in the nonprofit sector in Minnesota for my entire career and having worked in partnership with so many, the biggest hurdle for me was to understand the internal processes at the Foundation. Right after George Floyd was killed (and week one of being on the job), we made significant grants to support community health and healing.

During that brief window, I experienced every aspect of the Foundation working seamlessly together. With several departments working closely together, funds were dispatched to community-based organizations within 48 hours, to provide needed community healing services.

A month later, the Community Impact team that I oversee changed our grantmaking to accept general operating requests for the first time through a new streamlined grants application. I credit all of this to the mission-driven people at the Foundation.

What surprised you?

We did all of this via Zoom. I have not met any of my Community Impact team members in person yet.

Because the pandemic had already disrupted so much of what was “normal,” perhaps it was easier to allow ourselves to try things we hadn’t done before. Looking back, I think we all surprised ourselves.

One of the Foundation’s strategic pillars is Investing in Community-led Solutions. What does that mean to you?

The world is full of well-meaning people with good intentions. And while I am thankful that they’re engaged, it is important for all of us — myself included — to constantly ask ourselves whether we are actively involving those we seek to serve.

For example, when I was working at the Citizens League, there was an operating principle that guided our policy work: “Those most impacted by an issue should be part of defining the problem and coming up with the solution.”

Here at the Foundation, we ask ourselves three key questions when we review grants or a potential project: Who is informing this work, who is forming this work, and who stands to benefit?

Growing up with immigrant parents who did not fully understand what was happening around them due to language and other barriers, I saw many good-hearted people — from social service workers to neighbors — making decisions for my parents. I was too young to interject then, but reflecting as an adult now, I know there were times when I felt my parents would have made different decisions if only they had a better grasp of the context and an understanding of the different options. This experience has guided me in every job I have held.

To me, community-led solutions mean that the people we aim to serve play a significant role in conveying the need and designing the solutions. Too often, community is brought in at the end to rubber-stamp, which is the opposite of community-informed.

Those who work in nonprofits weren’t happy with 'normal' to begin with, so it isn’t about going back to the way things were. It has always been about working toward what should be.

Pahoua Yang Hoffman

As we start 2021, what observations are shaping your approach?

What I observed through my first grantmaking round is that every application we reviewed was worthy of funding. One might presume that a Foundation such as ours would tend to favor nonprofits who provide direct services over organizations that work on systems-level change, but that is a false choice. The philanthropic community needs to support the entire ecosystem, the continuum of programs and services.

To do that, we need to talk to each other to learn where our support begins and ends so that we can complement each other’s investments, fund where there is a gap, and share what we are learning. These conversations are happening, and they are being supported by organizations like Propel Nonprofits, Minnesota Council of Nonprofits and the Minnesota Council on Foundations.

How do you see the Foundation investing in community-led solutions in 2021?

I read somewhere that if 2008 was “the big short” in terms of the financial crisis, then 2020 was the year of “the big float,” meaning that organizations were being supported by federal programs like PPP and some organizations experienced an increase in financial support as a result of donors stepping up to support their favorite causes. The answer to the question of whether this support is temporary is unknown, and many of us anticipate that 2021 will present a clearer picture of the financial needs of the nonprofit sector.

But the need is more than just financial.

During times of crisis, it is our nonprofits that go the extra mile. Many adapted their services to respond to new and different needs, such as community centers reconfiguring their spaces to provide socially-distanced tutoring. Another organization put their idle vehicles to work by delivering food to older adults in rural areas.

Being in direct contact with those in need and addressing them first-hand is satisfying but exhausting work. Those who work in nonprofits weren’t happy with “normal” to begin with, so it isn’t about going back to the way things were. It has always been about working toward what should be. To ensure that our nonprofits get there, they need healing too. They need crisis-free space to reimagine their work and capacity-building support to help them get there.

At the Foundation, we will continue with general operating support, knowing that nonprofits still need flexible dollars so that they can recalibrate their operations while continuing to advance their mission. In addition to grantmaking, I see the Foundation using its public policy voice more to advocate for systemic changes on issues like homelessness.

What do you want to be able to say when next year has come to an end?

I want to be able to say that we did not wait for “perfect” to make necessary changes.

One of the very best things about the Saint Paul & Minnesota Foundation is that it truly sees itself as a learning organization. The phrases “we take risks” and “learn from mistakes and successes” are in the strategic plan and should send a signal to every employee and community member that we are constantly evolving, and being informed by the community.

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