This interview with Ryan Easterly, Executive Director of the WITH Foundation, is part of a series about disability-inclusive grantmaking.
The following Q&A has been lightly edited for clarity.
Why did your organization choose to center disability inclusion in your grantmaking initiatives?
Disability inclusion has been at the core of the WITH Foundation’s mission of promoting comprehensive healthcare for adults with developmental disabilities since our establishment in 2002. However, over time, the Foundation has grown in its understanding of the issues that people with disabilities experience in regard to true inclusion in society. We’ve become more intentional about including perspectives of individuals with disabilities who are multiply-marginalized.
The WITH Foundation believes the true impact comes from being inclusive both in what we’re funding and the way in which we’re funding it. Having people with disabilities in decision-making positions within grantmaking assist in fostering an inclusive and equitable society.
What steps does your organization take to ensure all of your grantmaking is fully disability-inclusive?
The WITH Foundation ensures that disability perspectives are represented by including people with disabilities in all levels of our organization (at the Board, leadership and staff levels). WITH also has a Self-Advocate Advisory Committee that advises our Board and staff. They’re a key part of the decision-making process for all grant applications. They make sure we’re working with the disability community, and not just for the disability community.
Some of the ways that we support disability inclusion through our grant application process are: we ask for demographic breakdowns of whether the leadership within an organization identifies as as marginalized (Woman, Person of Color, Individual with Disability(ies), LGBTQ+ Individual, Trans and/or Non-binary individual, and/or Veteran). We ask about the ways in which the work of an organization impacts multiply-marginalized communities. Then, within our follow-up meetings, we ask for breakdowns of the demographics of the organization’s staff and Board and how/if an organization’s efforts include a Disability Justice framework. Within our final grant reports, we ask for current changes in the demographics of self-advocate representation and racial diversity of the staff and Board.
As your organization focuses on disability-inclusive grantmaking, how are you also incorporating disability-inclusive principles internally?
The Foundation is intentional in ensuring that our leadership and staffing reflects the diversity found within the disability community. WITH actualizes “Nothing About Us, Without Us” within our internal practices.
Our Self-Advocate Advisory Committee also holds us accountable. Each member serves a period of 2 years (and they can choose to serve additional terms). They advise on the Foundation’s grantmaking and keep WITH attuned to current perspectives and expertise available within the disability community.
WITH recognizes that no one person knows everything about the disability experience. For example, I’m a Black, gay, man with disabilities and I have my own perspectives and experiences. I still learn things every day from other people with disabilities that I work and partner with. Just because I happened to be born with a disability, doesn’t make me an expert in all aspects of the disability experience. By WITH incorporating a variety of perspectives from the disability community, within all levels of our work, it enhances our efforts.
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?
Inclusive grantmaking results in stronger, more effective philanthropy. Regardless of an organization’s individual mission, incorporating the community they seek to benefit into the process of grantmaking is what matters most. For grantmaking to be truly disability-inclusive, we as funders must be intentional in involving multiply-marginalized people with disabilities in the decision-making process. Otherwise, we are imposing beliefs regarding what a community(ies) need or might benefit from without actually including that community in the process.
Around 1 in 4 people in America experience disability, if we hope to live in an equitable society and/or foster effective change for all, we must be intentional about disability inclusion. WITH Foundation has a track record of more than 17 years of disability-inclusive grantmaking, yet there are ways in which we’re continuing to grow in our understanding of disability inclusion. If you are waiting to start your organization’s journey in disability inclusion until you have all the answers, don’t wait – partner with the disability community in your area and reach out to the Disability and Philanthropy Forum for support. I know that if all funders started on a journey of disability inclusion, all philanthropic efforts would be better off.