Tower Foundation and INP: A Community-First Model of Partnership

Author: Yolanda Coentro, President and CEO, Institute for Nonprofit Practice

When the Institute for Nonprofit Practice (INP) received our first grant from the Tower Foundation in 2009, little did we know that this investment would blossom into a transformative partnership spanning many years and multiple communities. 

Last month, while attending the graduation ceremony for INP’s first-ever Western New York cohort of Core Program graduates through which we trained 33 community leaders, I realized that we were not only celebrating the impact of our alliance with Tower Foundation to make this first Western New York graduation possible, but also witnessing yet another expression of a particularly special partnership that has spanned more than a decade. Together, INP and Tower have served hundreds of social impact leaders, bolstered not just by our organizational missions, but also by a deep trust and admiration for each other’s work.

Reflecting, with immense gratitude, on our collective accomplishments over the years, I realized that there have been some specific characteristics of our partnership with Tower Foundation that have been integral to INP’s evolution and that have allowed us to equip social impact leaders for success in pivotal ways. Notably, we’ve been able to do this with joy, creativity, and a grounding in the humanity of those we serve.

In it together: Collaboration and shared experience builds a strong partnership

Our journey with Tower Foundation began during INP’s earliest years of offering our flagship Core Program for nonprofit leaders in Essex County, Massachusetts. We quickly discovered our shared commitment to elevating the social impact sector by supporting the sector’s leaders, while grounding in the distinct needs of communities. With Tower’s leadership and support among others, we later expanded our Core Program to serve leaders on Cape Cod and the nearby islands of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. And this past year, thanks to a major investment from Tower Foundation and with support from others, we officially expanded INP to Western New York. 

Each new location has required a shared effort to assess the needs, strengths, and attributes of the communities we aimed to serve and Tower Foundation was with us every step of the way. 

Collaborating over many years and in an array of locations has allowed us to take risks and learn together about how best to design and deliver programs for social impact leaders who are eager for resources, a community to count on, and ideas and inspiration to energize and expand their important work. Ultimately, the deepening of our partnership has kept pace with our ability to collaborate, take risks, learn, grow, trust, and appreciate each other. 

Trust and values alignment

While our partnership with Tower has deepened with time and experience, it has been strengthened in no small way by the example set by leaders like Tracy Sawicki, Tower Foundation’s Executive Director. I remember in one of my first meetings with Tracy, now nearly a decade ago and long before community-centered and trust-based approaches to philanthropy were topics of discussion, in which she shared that her team members held open “office hours” in local coffee shops. This was a way to be directly in the community, create accessibility, and demonstrate that she and her team were conscious of power dynamics. 

I recognized this as one of many powerful examples of Tower’s approach to shifting inherent power dynamics so that Tower could lean into their role as partners, above and beyond the funding they provide. Being accessible, inclusive, and authentically anchored to the needs and opportunities articulated by community members themselves powerfully resonated with our own values and approach at INP. 

In many ways over the years, we have seen in each other’s work these kinds of embodied commitments to the values of diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging in the social impact sector; this has led to the kind of trust and shared purpose that allows for the success we’ve experienced together.

Community-first approaches

Developing Western New York’s programming was a multi-year effort by Tracy, me, and our predecessors. We worked thoughtfully and strategically to ensure INP’s programs were brought to the area because of expressed community needs and led by community members; it was important to all of us that we not become an example of a national organization pushing into a community from elsewhere. This is something we’ve carefully navigated in all of the communities where INP has launched programs. 

As we began to consider offering INP programs in Tower’s own region of Western New York, for example, we worked together to authentically understand local wisdom, talents, and skills in program planning, design, and delivery. Tower Foundation made introductions, shared their local knowledge, and ensured that INP’s contributions could be understood as valuable additions to the local nonprofit landscape.

In a very real way, Tower’s thoughtful efforts allowed INP to become part of the community, before we were actually “in” the community. This approach extended to the convening of a local Advisory Committee to guide a successful launch of INP programming, and to facilitating connections to many local experts and vendors that would become intrinsic parts of how our partnership has come to fruition in Western New York.

An emergent strategy and partnership of peers

In ways that are becoming more prevalent in the philanthropic community, our collaboration with Tower Foundation has gone beyond what might characterize conventional foundation-grantee relationships. Ours grew into a true partnership very early on in our relationship, a collective effort of peers working together in common cause. By bringing our different strengths and assets together, developing a mutual admiration for each other’s successes, and by sharing values and a humanistic approach, we have achieved together more than either of our organizations could have accomplished alone. The benefits of this partnership will continue to have powerful ripple effects far beyond the individual leaders we’ve served; the experience, skills, and confidence gained by those leaders will impact whole organizations, communities, and entire regions, driving systemic change and better futures for all.

Closing thoughts

“I was exposed to ideas and concepts – that are invaluable to nonprofit leaders, particularly in small grassroots organizations like my own – that have helped me build a stronger, more resilient organization.” – 2023 Core Certificate Program Student, Western New York

Reflecting on our shared journey, I am filled with deep appreciation and gratitude for the ongoing partnership with Tower Foundation. We have learned much together, notably that the power of values-aligned partnerships and collective, community-driven approaches cannot be understated when it comes to making lasting systemic change in service to communities. I have no doubt that we will continue to grow, learn, and improve together. 

By combining our unique strengths, both Tower and INP have elevated our impacts and modeled a powerful way forward for the social impact and philanthropic sectors.