When MacArthur Fellow Lateefah Simon joined the Oakland-based Akonadi Foundation as president in 2016, she realized the organization lacked a complete picture of what was happening in the communities it served. Despite long-term, year-over-year commitments to select nonprofits, the foundation was not investing enough in key neighborhoods that were experiencing high rates of violence, unemployment, and gentrification that resulted in displacement of longtime residents. Additionally, the Foundation lacked mechanisms for gathering community input or feedback: “We were a black box,” Simon acknowledged. She began holding daily “office hours” for community leaders and grantees to meet her for lunch at a nearby restaurant, and soon discovered that nine local family foundations were not coordinating with each other or with the community. “We were all making funding decisions without an analysis of the city’s movement infrastructure. Our subsequent analysis allowed us to coordinate with other funders and to move money to where the resources were most needed.” The Foundation began to focus on unemployment among formerly incarcerated Black men, the criminalization of youth of color, and policing in Oakland public schools while providing funding for emerging opportunities that responded to what community leaders said was needed.
With $3.5 million in annual giving, Akonadi Foundation is tiny relative to regional philanthropies—and yet it punches well above its weight. “We want to work as if we were running a $200 million foundation,” Simon says. To magnify the Foundation’s efforts to address systemic racism, Simon collaborated with five other foundations, aggregating millions to fund local organizing and supporting legal, research, technical assistance, polling, and data needs that were not being funded. On the recommendation of its current grantees, Akonadi and its partner foundations also made five-year grants of more than $1 million to five organizations leading the region toward inclusive prosperity and safety for all.
“We activate our funder networks and other donors to fund the things we believe are critical but that we can’t fund,” says Simon. Each staff member at Akonadi has a “leveraging goal.” For example, Simon worked with colleagues to catalyze the launch of the California Black Freedom Fund (CBFF), managed by Silicon Valley Community Foundation, partnering with nearly 20 foundations to raise $100 million to fund Black-led organizations working to eradicate systemic and institutional racism by enhancing grassroots power in Black and brown communities.