Building For Permanence:
A Call for a New Founder’s Syndrome
In honor of the Black Equity Collective's three-year anniversary, our Founder and Chief Architect, Kaci Patterson, has shared her reflections about our journey together over the past few years as well as lessons she's learned as a new founder along the way. Below is part one of this three-part reflection.
Most nonprofit founders don’t start an organization because it was their childhood dream. Let’s just start by naming that truth. Most are called to serve. To address a need that may have been born out of their own personal experience or the experience of someone they know, often several someones. Most nonprofit founders start their organizations to “fix” something. Most are not trying to build.
Black Equity Collective Beginnings
When I founded the Black Equity Collective (BEC) three years ago, my heart was in serving: I wasn’t necessarily thinking about building. Or at least I didn’t think so at the time. I launched the BEC after having created and managed its predecessor initiative for four years. As an independent consultant, I was hired in 2016 by The JIB Fund to help them figure out how their philanthropy could address what they saw as a profound injustice: the killing of unarmed Black men. Little did they (we) know that eight years later, the initiative I created and ran for them would catalyze two other efforts, the Black Equity Collective, and BEI-IE Fund, that combined, comprise the largest philanthropic investment in Black-led organizations in Southern California. It’s a remarkable story actually.
When I was in the process of discovery back in 2016, I remember the moment when a clear choice had to be made—would the scope of my discovery focus solely on Black people, or would it widen to include a larger people of color frame? Some of my early stakeholder interviews raised this question so I felt compelled to return the question to my clients. They were clear and unphased in their response: Black people have a unique history in this country and while all people of color are mistreated by oppressive systems, the Black experience is the one that was unfolding (again) before our national eyes. It was Tamir Rice, Travyon Martin, Mike Brown, Sandra Bland. The world had never heard of Ahmad Aubery, Breonna Taylor or George Floyd at that point.
So, my discovery continued with Black people as the focus. After a year of design, the Black Equity Initiative (BEI) launched in January 2017. It funded 15 Black-led and Black-serving organizations in Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties. I was its Chief Architect and Strategist. While a couple of organizations shifted over the life of the initiative, there were at least a dozen organizations that were part of the BEI from start to finish, all of whom expressed that prior to BEI, they had never had a chance to focus explicitly on the Black communities they serve. It was not only rare, it was a first. It was, for them, not just the funding but the sense of community and camaraderie among the group that gave them great strength and inspiration. It was the ability to be vocal about their work with Black folks without fearing funding would be pulled. It was a breath of fresh air, life-giving even. But, as with most initiatives, there was a shelf life.
Planning for BEC's permanency
I’ll never forget the moment during one of our grantee convenings at LA84, when then-Executive Director, Lola Smallwood Cuevas, said: it’s not enough for JIB to get it, we need other funders to get it too [the importance of funding Black-specific work]. She went on to say, with everyone else agreeing, that JIB should talk about its investment to other funders to encourage them to also get on board. Though the funders never attended any of the grantee convenings, it was as if they were already in the room. Not long after that meeting, JIB started to express wanting to create ways for other funders to support the work. We began by introducing the Black Equity Initiative to about 45 funders in March 2019. In October 2019, during our last grantee convening of the year, I remember organizing the session around one question: if you could create a ten-year vision for Black equity in our region, what would it be? Their answers became the framework for the Black Equity Collective. But still, someone needed to create it and move it from a desired state to a realized state.
Between late October 2019 and February 2020, I floated the idea to funders. I convened a small kitchen cabinet of Black funders in the region and while all of them were personally compelled by the vision of the BEC, none of them felt they had the institutional buy-in to launch such an effort internally. If BEI was going to live on, it needed a life source. That source was me.
I started by leveraging my network to secure seed funding for a planning process, which was set to launch in March 2020. Little did I know the planning process would turn into an initial pilot after COVID began ravaging the Black community and the summer of George Floyd led to the greatest awakening around systemic racism our sector has ever seen. While I was in the middle of leading a 17-member steering committee through a detailed planning process, we ended up launching a microgrant program and funded 32 organizations to stabilize their operations during the height of the pandemic. My small, two-person consulting team also commissioned a report to study the flow of PPP dollars to Black-led organizations. I should have known then that the Black Equity Collective would be bigger than the ten-year project I initially envisioned.
We were clear about a few things, namely which elements of the Initiative should be maintained, and which needed to evolve. Keeping the legacy of BEI was essential, non-negotiable, in fact. But there were limitations to the initiative that BEC needed to address. We expanded to include an additional county to focus on LA, San Bernardino and Riverside counties. We moved from focusing on structural racism in three issue areas to creating a mission focused on the long-term sustainability of Black-led and Black-empowering organizations regardless of issue area. We evolved our language from Black-serving to Black-empowering. With that, I launched the Black Equity Collective as its Founder & Chief Architect, using the same methods and strategies I used to create and launch the BEI four years prior.
In our first three years, the Black Equity Collective grew significantly. Our initial vision was to double the number of organizations that were in BEI over a ten-year life. By the end of two years, we surpassed that goal by 35% with a current network of 54 BLOs and a growing wait list of 80+. I’ve raised over $20M to support its programs and operations, outpacing my own ambitious fundraising goals. We created a new lexicon of terms that several others have started to adopt. Our work around the Principles for Black Equity was named in the Chronicle of Philanthropy in 2022 as a model to watch, and the Collective has also been featured in The Sacramento Bee (May 2023) and the LA Sentinel (December 2023). As it stands, the BEC is the largest Black-focused entity in Southern California. There are now 12 full-time staff managing the work. All of this in just three short years.
When was the moment I realized this ten-year vision couldn’t operate like just another initiative with a start and end date? Maybe in some ways, I always knew but if I’m honest, I doubted philanthropy would support Black equity work beyond that. If a four-year initiative was pioneering, a ten-year effort felt especially audacious. Even so, ten years felt actionable, achievable, not too Black for too long.
But the demand for our work has been enormous; the response so overwhelmingly positive from the BLOs we serve. The impact is already so clear and measurable. In January 2023, I made a shift. As part of my Aspen Institute Civil Society Fellowship, I traveled to the Middle East, where the international headquarters of the Baha’i faith is located. Known as the Baha’i Gardens, the beauty of the space was breathtaking. What struck me even more than the grounds was what it represented as a place so many call their spiritual home. A place where the founder, though long deceased, was still able to have his vision of community preserved. A place of shared identity, where the values, beliefs and practices they hold in common are regarded as sacred and worth protecting. It made me think: the same is true of the Black Equity Collective. It’s worth protecting. Its impact, worth preserving. Its ripple effects, worth amplifying. Its legacy, worth naming.
Over the past two years, I’ve been leading yet another planning process. This one has been focused on the Collective’s expansion. Our work is too important to play small. Now, as the BEC prepares to launch into a multi-year, multi-pronged expansion plan focused on its permanency, I’ve thought a lot over the past year about what I’ve started to call a new founder’s syndrome, a way of designing your organization to outlive you. Black organizations are particularly vulnerable to dissolution after a founder transitions.
Building Beyond You
Like most founders, my footprint is everywhere. From naming the Collective and its signature programs to designing their implementation strategies, to leveraging my network to cultivate relationships with partners and donors and being its principal fundraiser and spokesperson, I am synonymous with the Black Equity Collective. While that’s important to securing a solid foundation for BEC, in the long run, overattachment is the main ingredient in the recipe for founder’s syndrome.
Therein lies the tension. How do founders avoid overattachment while keeping their legacy alive? In my opinion, no one has mastered this paradigm better than Mayor Karen Bass. The nonprofit she founded over thirty years ago still bears her soul, teaches her organizing strategies, uses her blueprint, speaks her name. Thirty years later, you can’t think of the Community Coalition without also thinking about Karen Bass. While I have no plans of leaving the BEC anytime soon, I am already thinking beyond me. It may seem strange that someone only three years into their tenure would discuss founder’s syndrome. However, I encourage all founders to begin thinking beyond themselves early in their organization’s life cycle as a necessary sustainability practice, and in this multi-series article, I will offer three ways how to do that, starting with part one below.
Be clear about what your organization is and what it is not
Early in the BEC’s launch, I started to receive the “when are you going to be statewide?” questions. At the same time, we got a few inquiries from other Black-focused efforts outside of California asking if we’d be open to sharing our model so they could do the same thing in their jurisdiction. Then came the questions about becoming a fiscal sponsor entity because “we need a Black-led and Black-focused one.” Indeed, we do.
All of this signaled that the BEC was destined to be bigger than its three-county catchment area. While we were clear about that, we didn’t know how to expand or when. We’ve spent the last two years interrogating each of these questions and with the support of our executive advisory committee, made some strategic decisions about how to expand in a way that protects our model and its values, paces growth so as not to overwhelm the BEC’s culture or capacity, and continues to pioneer new ideas and practices in our sector.
As a founder, it’s easy to acquiesce to external pressure because of funding or fear, but don’t be driven by either. Be principled. Be disciplined. Be open-minded and inquisitive but most of all, be honest with yourself about what feels right for your organization.
This article was written by Black Equity Collective's Founder and Chief Architect, Kaci Patterson. Stay tuned for part two by subscribing to our newsletter at the button below.
In Case You Missed It! Check out our three-year anniversary recap video, a special reflection of our journey together.