This interview with Belen Vargas, Former Senior Vice President of the Weingart Foundation, is part of a series about disability-inclusive grantmaking.
We thank Belen for her leadership in disability-inclusive philanthropy during her time working with the Weingart Foundation.
The following Q&A has been lightly edited for clarity.
Why was a move toward disability-inclusive grantmaking so important within your organization?
Since 2000, our work has been aimed at supporting organizations working with low income and disadvantaged communities. People with disabilities were always part of that lens and priority. Soon after our President and CEO, Fred Ali, and I began our work at the Weingart Foundation, we brought on a board member who had a personal connection to the issue and who was very committed to supporting disability organizations. I also have personal connections to disability that led me to ask to be the staff lead on our disability initiative: my sister is intellectually disabled, and I now have a son who is autistic. Inclusion is a personal passion for me. All of this led us to launch a capacity-building initiative that focused exclusively on organizations serving disabled populations.
The Disability Capacity Building Initiative provided close to $6 million in grants to 14 organizations supporting people with disabilities. This funding allowed the organizations to build capacity and infrastructure in their most needed areas from staffing and leadership to technology. We like to give organizations permission to invest in themselves and their greatest priorities. Additionally, we asked the grantees if creating a peer learning network to bring them all together would be of value. All of the grantees agreed this would be useful, and so we funded the network. From there, the groups formed a local coalition to advocate and fight on disability policy issues. This model of the peer learning network continues to inform our work.
What steps is your organization taking to ensure all of your grantmaking is fully disability-inclusive?
We’re on a learning journey in regard to disability inclusion, and that’s why we’re so glad to be part of the Presidents’ Council on Disability Inclusion in Philanthropy. We realize that while disability inclusion has always been part of our equity commitment, there are still things we need to do in our current grantmaking practices to more intentionally lift up disability inclusion, such as asking our grantees more about how they approach inclusion both internally and in who they serve. Our equity commitment means that we will support organizations who demonstrate a commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion in their programs and services, but also inside their organization.
As your organization focuses on disability-inclusive grantmaking, how are you also incorporating disability-inclusive principles internally?
This is the other key part of our learning journey. We’re working to ensure our internal policies and practices are more formally disability inclusive in our hiring and other personnel policies. The Disability & Philanthropy Forum has been a great source of resources and tools for our work to prioritize a disability inclusion lens.
We’re also very intentionally working to ensure our new community meeting space for nonprofits is fully accessible, and that we choose sites that are fully accessible when we hold meetings and convenings in the community.
What recommendations do you have for other grantmaking organizations to get buy-in from all levels of the organization to participate in disability-inclusive grantmaking?
Do your homework! There’s a lot of great work that has been done and there are folks ahead of us in the disability inclusion learning journey who we can really learn a lot from.
Remember, the disability community is still often invisible to funders. Step back and examine why your organization has yet to include disability and move forward from there. Everything starts with listening and learning from people who are doing the work, especially those who identify as having disabilities. The best strategies center communities who you are seeking to support. Have a learning day with your board and leadership to hear directly from folks in the disability community.
And of course, you can come into this work at any place in the journey. Get started and keep going.