The Importance of Philanthropic Advocacy: A Conversation with Iimay Ho

Iimay Ho, Former Astraea Board Co-Chair and current chair of the Executive Director Search Committee

For 44 years Astraea has been the leading exclusively LGBTQI, global feminist funder. When COVID-19 hit, Astraea, like many organizations, needed to quickly pivot to meet the needs of the moment both internally and externally. We asked ourselves: What does it look like to create spaciousness and center staff wellness and sustainability in the midst of a global pandemic? How do we meet the needs of grantees who are struggling to remain open and grappling with the various impacts of the pandemic, which has disproportionately impacted marginalized communities? Former Astraea Board Co-Chair and current chair of the Executive Director Search Committee Iimay Ho discusses what the last year has been like and where Astraea is headed in 2021 and beyond.

Q: 2020 has been described by some as a “visionary year” in that the collective eyes have been ‘opened’ to the far reaching extent of systemic injustice; from racism and transphobia to climate collapse. How do you think Astraea has been positioned to meet this extraordinary moment?

Iimay Ho: Astraea, ever since its founding as a multi-racial, cross-class intersectional lesbian feminist organization, has always prioritized funding those most directly impacted to create the solutions that we needed. When I think about last year — it revealed who had been doing the work all along on racial justice, combating anti-Black racism specifically, and creating transformative change. Suddenly there was a reckoning and we saw all the corporate statements about Black Lives Matter or the apologies, especially from white institutions suddenly taking account of the harm or complicity. It exposed who hadn’t done their work and who hadn’t been accountable, or reflective about their work from a social justice lens. At Astraea, we had already been having a lot of these conversations but we also needed to double down internally.

Q: Astraea it seems has always been “doing the work”, right?

Iimay Ho: For over 4 decades Astraea has had that lens and has funded the grassroots LGBTQI movements and BIPOC-led work here in the U.S. and internationally. I think it speaks to the deep work that’s been done in the past that there doesn’t actually have to be a huge pivot of, “Oh, suddenly, now we have to think about racial justice”, as it’s already just been so integrated in Astraea’s work. That doesn’t mean that there’s not work for us as an institution to tackle, and always change and grow, and sharpen our own analysis, but I think it’s more about a deepening and a reaffirmation that the approach; for example, Astraea’s radical intersectional funding approach of no strings attached, multi-year general operating support has always been and is still needed now.

Q: How then does Astraea share its approach and funding philosophy beyond the organization, to reach those who may not yet have embedded racial justice into their work as an ongoing practice?

Iimay Ho: I think that’s where I really appreciate that philanthropic advocacy is actually one of the core pillars of Astraea’s work. Of course, there’s a grantmaking side, but Astraea always positioned itself as a funder that’s organizing other foundations and funders. Through being an intermediary we can take some more restricted dollars and channel them through Astraea and turn those into general operating support and actually fund grassroots organizations that many larger private institutions aren’t able to because they don’t have a relationship with, or don’t understand the field. Astraea also amplifies those voices of the people on the frontlines, and then through reporting, communications, and our own storytelling, also helps shift other grantmakers’ perspectives, who in turn see the value and the impact of Astraea’s advocacy strategy.

Q: Astraea is an extraordinary organization, it holds such a complex space. Knowing that you are in the midst of searching for a new Executive Director, what kind of person do you think is needed to lead Astraea in these challenging times?

Iimay Ho: Astraea needs someone who has experience helping organizations transform, scale and build infrastructure, an excellent manager who can inspire senior leadership teams and the organization at large, a skilled facilitator, listener and collaborator. That kind of internal capacity building is really critical. We’re looking for someone with all that complexity and nuance who can bring together lots of different voices and help articulate what the shared vision is.

Q: Finally, What do you think are some of the biggest challenges facing Astraea as we head into this unknown future, understanding the gravity of the kind of the moment we are living in?

Iimay Ho: There is a real need to take the time and the space to invest in our infrastructure. And as a 44 year-old organization, we have been reviewing our systems and operations structures to meet this moment. We have grown very rapidly in the last five to eight years from about $5m to become a $20m organization and we haven’t necessarily scaled up the infrastructure needed in order to lean into our global, multi-million dollar grantmaking, since our founding as a grassroots funder. We’re addressing all of that now. It’s definitely a challenge and I think it feels difficult to turn towards the internal work when there’s so much external urgency, and that is the critical balance we’re committed to. But I also think that taking the time now to really be thoughtful about our strategic plan is critical.

We’re strengthening and leaning into the team’s shared analysis of Astraea’s values, and deepening Astraea’s commitments to anti-oppression work, and addressing anti-Black racism and transphobia internally and externally. We’re looking at how the staff and teams live the values in a way that supports the external work, as well as supports the continued distribution of money to the LGBTQI frontlines. It’s definitely a mix of both the culture and the structure if we are to be stewards of collective queer liberation.

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The Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice is the only philanthropic organization working exclusively to advance LGBTQI human rights around the globe.