Tower Foundation Advisory Team Hits Its Stride

Author: Nicholas Randell

Blog posts in this space have traced the evolution of the Tower Foundation Advisory Team in some detail.  In the fall of 2019, we told you about the initial formation of a seven-member advisory team, made up of young Western New Yorkers with intellectual disabilities. This fun and dynamic group helped us review applications in two grant cycles and featured group meet-ups at a restaurant/arcade and a bowling alley.  Sincere thanks to two agencies whose staff ably supported this team:  Empower and People Inc. The Advisory Team concept grew out of a staff-driven human-centered design project at the Foundation (which you can read about here) and our hopes to amplify the voices of the young people our grantmaking seeks to help.

COVID-19 slowed plans to expand our Advisory Team to more issue areas and communities, but only temporarily.  We realized we could tap into the increasing familiarity with virtual meeting platforms to bring young people together from different geographies and with lived expertise across our funding categories. In fact, we could even accelerate our timetable for doing it. In May of this year we tested this broader approach with a mix of young people and grant partners that knew more than we did about convening and listening to youth. You can read about that here.

That brings us to this August’s grant cycle and the convening of a ten-person Advisory Team that came together across four Wednesday evenings this fall. Team members all had roots in the Western New York and Eastern Massachusetts, areas where the Foundation funds. Their lived expertise spanned learning and intellectual disabilities, addiction recovery, and mental health challenges. Our time together with the Advisors focused on review and feedback of four grant applications, but also included an introduction to philanthropy and grantmaking, team-building activities, conversations with nonprofit leaders, and several games and fun activities. Advisory Team members took on leadership roles and led us through icebreakers, break-out discussions, and music selections.   Additionally, leaders from the four organizations whose proposals were reviewed joined us for the last session to talk about their organizations and what brought them to their work.

We surveyed our Advisors after each gathering, and adapted based on their feedback. Here are a few highlights:

  • “I liked how we were super focused on just one thing. Our role was clear, we had a lot of time in the breakout rooms, we had a short closing discussion–the session was straightforward and we put our energy into one project rather than a long agenda of tasks to be completed.”
  • “I really enjoyed having an opportunity to reflect on the proposal and have an open discussion about how to improve it moving forward.
  • I was really happy to be able to put my own perspective into something and share my opinion because I don’t get to have active discussions like this all the time.”
  • Everyone mattered. It was awesome.

We asked the Advisors, what do you bring to these conversations that is important? And they told us, “I make an amazing Advisor to the Tower Foundation because …

  • Because I provide different insight.
  • Because of all of my lived experiences and because of all the things I’ve done on behalf of learning disabilities and advocacy for children with learning disabilities …
  • To have a voice when others don’t.

We are excited to give our Advisors more opportunities to participate in our work in 2022, bringing their insight, experiences, and voices with them. Next year, we will bring the Advisory Team together again, with a few new recruits, to design and execute a soup-to-nuts grantmaking effort. The Advisory Team will work with the Foundation to develop grant application criteria, invite proposals, and lead the review and award decision process.  Other opportunities are under consideration too, hopefully with in-person options back on the table. We may ask Advisory Team members to help facilitate community focus groups, join staff and trustees in grant review processes, accompany us on site visits, or volunteer – alongside staff – with our grant partners for a day.

Our deep gratitude to our 2021 Advisors who have helped to challenge us and evolve our work, including:

  • Nissa Bisguier
  • Kaya Crandall
  • Alecia Cultrara
  • Niko DelValle
  • Kelly Evans
  • Antonio Hernandez III
  • Ally Johnson
  • Raichyl Rino
  • Frederick Shegog

Know a young person with lived expertise who might be a fit for the Advisory Team? Want to learn more? Contact Nick Randell for more information: