The Importance of Funder Relationships: A Conversation with Jon Gilgoff of Brothers on the Rise

Jon Gilgoff is the senior director of programming and systems change at Brothers on the Rise. He founded the organization in 2008, with the mission of empowering male youth of color to achieve individual success, develop healthy relationships, and contribute to a more just and equitable society. When Gilgoff was founding Brothers on the Rise, he came to Foundation Center to learn fundraising basics. Michele Dilworth, director of Foundation Center West, sat down with Gilgoff to hear his story. This is an interview between Dilworth and Gilgoff.

Jon Gilgoff head shot

MD: As the founder of Brothers on the Rise, what was your inspiration behind starting the organization? What need were you trying to address?

JG: Working on male related-issues in an organized way started for me at Columbia School of Social Work, where a handful of male students and I would get together and jokingly question, “Why is there a feminist caucus but there's no men's caucus?” Of course, it was because men had never started one, so we began to wonder whether we should. 

We all felt that there were large, societal issues affecting males, and particularly males of color, which were not being adequately addressed. We knew what it was like moving from boyhood to manhood, and the various stressors you have to face. We also recognized that boys and men rarely have safe outlets for expression of vulnerability, or are comfortable asking for help. 

So after a while exploring these issues, we got serious and started an official student caucus – The Male Action Coalition. At first, we were a small group of men, all from different backgrounds and different cities, but then women joined too.  Our group did great educational work – which was important because there was no course work on working with males – and we took action around issues like domestic violence prevention, mentoring, fatherhood and incarceration. 

Though Brothers on the Rise was born years later and on a different coast, it came out of these efforts to develop awareness, programming and resources for males of color. Particularly, I aimed to create preventative and empowerment-based programming, as much of what I was seeing at that time was interventions for teen male batterers, young fathers, and juvenile offenders. These are all necessary services but they are reactive instead of proactive.

MD: When was Brothers on the Rise founded? What is your mission, and what services do you offer? 

JG: The organization was founded in 2008.  I started it after trying to embed services for males into two other agencies for whom boys’ and men’s services was not their primary mission. What I found in each instance was that since it wasn't going to be the primary recipient of their time and resources, the impact and sustainability was limited. So I started Brothers on the Rise, whose efforts are exclusively dedicated to this cause. 

Our mission is to empower male youth of color to achieve individual success, develop healthy relationships, and contribute to a more just and equitable society.

We have direct service programming for males of color ages 8 through 17. We have a manhood development program called Brothers, UNITE! It’s conducted out of school time, and develops literacy, life skills, and leadership. Lift a Brother Up is our career development program. We have a counselling program called Brothers Helping Brothers, and offer case management and parent engagement as well. Our newest initiative is Trail Brothers, which centers around environmental education and wilderness-based rites of passage.

We also provide community capacity building training for Bay Area schools and agencies. We help them figure out ways to more effectively and equitably serve boys and young men of color. This takes the form of training workshops, curriculum development, learning communities, staff coaching, consultation and convening.

We serve youth and youth allies in numerous Bay Area cities, mostly concentrated in Oakland, Richmond and San Pablo, with partnerships in Concord, East Palo Alto and other areas as well.

MD: How did you first hear about Foundation Center?

JG: My first connection with it was as a volunteer and board member with the Young Nonprofit Professional Network. I accessed the library, and Foundation Directory Online, and I came to some workshops.

MD: Was this in 2008 when you were first starting Brothers on the Rise?

JG: It was around that period, yes. I was what I call an “accidental administrator.” I never had any interest in starting an organization. I've never studied business or administration; I really had no desire to be in management at that level and deal with H.R., fundraising and finance.

So it's very humbling to be in this position. You're the executive director, and you're supposed to know what you're doing. So you need to learn from people who won't be judgmental, and will be friendly and patient. I remember feeling that when I came [to Foundation Center]. I needed funding and this is a place to help you get it. I remember spending hours doing research and getting grounded through those introductory workshops that are free, which is important when you're small and just starting out. I learned to speak the language and how to not sound like a fool, which is important in funding: you don't want to sound as green as you really are. 

What was most helpful was the Meet the Funder events. There was one early on where [after the panelists spoke], there was the time to approach the panelists, which of course I knew I had to do. I met this woman Mary Gregory from Pacific Foundation Services. And she was very kind and warm and generous, and said, “follow up, you know, feel free to check in.” And so I would. And I don't know how many years passed, but we would check in. And there comes a point: maybe the funder tells you when you're ready to apply for a grant or maybe you just know. Because we weren’t ready at the beginning – but at some point it seemed like maybe we were. And so she directed me to one foundation within their portfolio that she thought might be a good fit. We applied the first time and didn't get it. But they were encouraging to keep trying. It was really nice. And so we tried the next year and we got it. And in fact the foundation moved us to general operating even though we weren't quite in their wheelhouse. But there was something about us that they really appreciated. And so that became a relationship. Which is one of the things you learn in [Foundation Center’s] intro workshops. Fundraising is all about relationships.

We had three years of funding with the foundation, and then cycled off this year. We knew we would try to approach them again, but figured additional funding would be at least a year away. Thankfully, it turned out different than that. 

The way it happened is I was sending a message out to everyone at the foundation thanking them since I will soon be stepping away from Brothers on the Rise. I wanted them to understand that I still believed in the organization and hoped they would continue to support us, when the time came for us to be considered again. As luck would have it, I just happened to send that e-mail the morning before their board meeting. So they read the letter aloud and the next morning, a board member calls me to say, “We want to show the organization we still support them, and to invite Brothers on the Rise to submit a transition grant in your honor.”

MD: That’s great, Jon.

JG: It’s more of a happy ending than I could imagine. I wouldn't have found out about them if I hadn’t come to this [Meet the Funder] event, because this isn’t a foundation that's on everyone's radar. It's a smaller group and you have to build a relationship with them.

MD: That’s great! Thank you so much for sharing your story, Jon. I wish Brothers on the Rise continued success and good luck to you on your next venture.

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