A Foundation Takes a Grassroots Approach to the Growing Border Crisis



Amid a crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border, the Seattle-based Marguerite Casey Foundation (MCF) recently made $4 million in grants to border-adjacent nonprofit organizations. This support comes from a foundation that has been paying attention to immigration issues at the border for years, starting long before the 2016 election. “Over these last 18 years, we have made over $100 million in grants through this work in immigration reform on the U.S./Mexico border,” CEO Luz Vega-Marquis recently told me.

I spoke with her about MCF’s support of grassroots groups, and the role philanthropy can play at the U.S.-Mexico border during this critical time.

Vega-Marquis was in the spotlight earlier this summer after a Chronicle of Philanthropy article criticized her management practices, reporting complaints from staff that she created a “culture of fear.” In a rebuttal, MCF’s board chair defended Vega-Marquis as one of the first Latinas to head a national foundation, and praised her pioneering approach.

That pushback wasn’t very convincing, and spurred other critics of Vega-Marquis to go public. But one point that nobody disagrees with is that MCF has been a vital philanthropic ally to marginalized communities under Vega-Marquis’ leadership. (She will step down from her position at the end of June 2020.) Tapping assets that now stand at more than $720 million, MCF has been a key player in the progressive foundation world—embracing ideas like inclusive grantmaking, intersectionality, general support and bottom-up movement-building. These themes have played out in its funding on immigration at the border and beyond, as well as its broader work to “help low-income families strengthen their voice and mobilize their communities in order to achieve a more just and equitable society for all.”

On the Front Lines of a Border Crisis

MCF’s recent grantmaking at the border includes $1.25 million to Adults and Youth United Development Association (AYUDA) near El Paso, which works with the detention center in Tornillo to connect children to daily recreation and activities. It also gave $1.635 million to LUPE in the Rio Grande Valley, which created a legal department to work with parents separated from their children.

LUPE traces its roots to the late 1980s, when it was founded by César Chávez and Dolores Huerta. The fact that Lupe has been an MCF grantee for more than a decade underscores the foundation’s longstanding work on border issues. “We haven’t gone away,” Vega-Marquis says. “We continue to renew our grants.”

The Austin-based nonprofit Texas Civil Rights Project is one new MCF grantee; the foundation gave the organization $240,000 in 2018. “PCRP attorneys attend court every day and share information with the government to try to find separated children,” Vega-Marquis explains, calling the Texas Civil Rights Project a leader in combating family separation.

Vega-Marquis says that foundations need to be better informed about border issues and the nonprofits working in this critical space. She mentioned the Southern Border Communities Coalition (SBCC), which brings together more than 60 organizations from across the southern border to promote policies and solutions that improve the quality of life of border residents. Vega-Marquis considers SBCC and its resources as vital for foundations (and individuals) who want to get involved.

Beyond dealing with the immediate crisis at the border, Vega-Marquis is thinking about longer-term solutions to migration. Drawing upon her roots in Nicaragua, where she was born, she tells me she’s heartened by certain political candidates who talk about a Marshall Plan for Central America. “I think Nicaragua is second-poorest in the hemisphere. Foundations need to learn that this is a vibrant area. The people are wonderful, and love the U.S. as much as they love their native land. This is what philanthropy needs to learn.” As IP has reported, however, few U.S. funders are engaged in grantmaking in Central America and Mexico, where violence, and increasingly climate change, are causing people to flee northward.

Related: Who Is Funding Solutions to the Root Causes of Mexican and Central American Migration?

A Focus on Marginalized Communities

A longtime community organizer, Vega-Marquis founded Hispanics in Philanthropy in 1983, and was a program officer at the James Irvine Foundation. She joined MCF in 2001, when it was just starting up. The late James E. Casey was a founder and former CEO of UPS, and MCF was born out of Casey Family Programs, which was launched shortly after UPS went public.

In a philanthropy world known for its political caution, MCF has long stood out for backing hard-hitting organizers looking to make structural change. And while many foundations are now scrambling to better connect with front-line advocates, share power with their grantees, and engage issues of racial equity, MCF has prioritized all of these goals from its early days.

Notably, MCF has long been a leader when it comes to general operating support, which Vega-Marquis says “is the most strategic form of grantmaking, because it forces you to know the entire organization—all its aspirations, goals and challenges they have.”

For Vega-Marquis, a key word here is trust: “It’s a critical question. One of the things we aim at with our grantmaking is to build trust with our community. They will tell you that when we started, it wasn’t the easiest thing. They were used to being disappointed. The first round of grants, everyone thought they won the lottery. We gave large grants with no restrictions, and we really mean that.”

She sees this trust working in both directions. Yes, MCF makes a commitment to an organization, but organizations also commit to engaging with MCF and its network of grantees.

Getting Out of Silos

As we’ve previously reported, MCF’s grantees convene in Equal Voice Networks that operate on the regional level to identify shared concerns and coordinate advocacy strategies. Vega-Marquis says there are 16 of these networks in the 13 states where the foundation works. Some states like California have four networks, and Texas has two. Those networks, and the name, trace their roots to around 2007, when Marguerite Casey’s Equal Voice for America’s Families campaign brought together over 30,000 families over the course of a year to hammer out a National Family Platform that’s subsequently been updated several times and informs the foundation’s work.

“We are doing what the community says is important, not just what we think is important for them,” Vega-Marquis emphasizes.

Vega-Marquis says that MCF’s Equal Voice Networks can ameliorate one of philanthropy’s biggest challenges—that foundations too often work in silos. And she’s convinced that because of such networks, much important policy has emerged and been passed into law, including work around criminal justice reform in California, bail reform in Chicago, and $15 minimum wage. “Our grantees are working together, helping families every day,” she says.

Recent revelations suggest that Vega-Marquis’ style of leadership has at times worked at odds with the foundation’s goal of creating trusting relationships through its networks. After the Chronicle of Philanthropy article in June, the founding director of the Equal Voice Campaign, Ludovic Blain, posted on Facebook:

“The bullying I experienced from Luz was more intense than any I’ve had as an adult. The obsequiousness of the staff who remained was endless but necessary. Luz was openly vengeful, and I was involved in discussions she led regarding financial repercussions for grantees not following her lead. I did my best to lessen those impacts within the foundation as well as with the grantees.”

Looking to the bigger picture, Vega-Marquis is keen to see more foundations funding the kind of work that MCF does, but she also sees a division of labor within the philanthropy world, and is appreciative of the roles that other grantmakers play. “I’m thankful for all the family foundations and community foundations. We do a lot of the organizing, while family foundations and others provide the services… I think this is the new hybrid. You need to provide the services for sure to attract families, but then you need to help them organize to push back against some of the policies that have kept them in those conditions in the first place.”

Related: Weaving Networks: One Funder's Model for Bottom-Up Grantmaking