Danielle Reyes is a Senior Program Officer at the Meyer Foundation in Washington DC and newest addition to the Taproot board. She specializes in grant making related to law, justice, immigrants and refugees and workforce development. Prior to joining the Meyer Foundation, Danielle served as Executive Director of the Latino Student Fund. I spoke with Danielle recently to find out a little bit more about her ba ckground and about what brought her to Taproot.
What are your favorite things about Washington DC and why do you live there?
I live here because I get an amazing place to work and play, because of the environment and because of the people here. I lived in New York after the Peace Corps, and that move from Morocco to Manhattan was kind of a big jump. I prefer DC because you can do tons of stuff every day, the most amazing museums, events, concerts, all sorts of stuff going on that’s free. That’s what I love about it, there are points of interest, rich stories and interesting culture embedded all throughout the city in all different neighborhoods. I have such a better perspective of history now that I live here.
When people come to the city, they always want to have a picture in front of the White House or Capitol, but then we can go do Sunset Kayak or go out on the Potomac or Anacostia River. People don’t realize how cool these things are – you have really easy access to monuments, history, culture, art and then some really funky quarters that have evolved over the last 10 years for dining and hanging out.
Let’s switch gears to more pertinent work stuff. You have been a big proponent of capacity building for nonprofits. This is still a rare point of view in philanthropy. Why do you believe in it?
I used to be the Executive Director of a DC nonprofit, and like many in the nonprofit sector, I was one person who wore every hat. We would get foundation grants and did a great job delivering programs, we had some really good structures in place, but we were constantly thinking about how to do more and better with every dollar that came in instead of how to build our infrastructure. We were so focused on taking pride in this lean and mean infrastructure and budget that we didn’t realize how the approach was really undermining our ability to grow effectively.
I had to pull on the breaks at this point and say that until we are the premier organization doing this type of work, we can’t restrict ourselves like this. It was great coming to Meyer Foundation after that and seeing that that story resonated with so many of the grantees we served. I was able to hear about how their own experience led them to figure out that it’s okay to use a grant to build capacity so that we can do deeper, better and higher quality work that will eventually serve more people.
So, as someone who has personally managed pro bono resources, what advice do you give Meyer Foundation grantees when they’re working with Taproot?
Well, one thing I would tell any group, going through any consulting process, is to reach out and really talk to two or three other folks who have gone through a similar experience. It’s important to hear their story, learn about what went well and learn what questions they should have asked at the beginning and didn’t. It’s the same as when I hire a contractor for my house. At the end I would think, “why didn’t I think to ask those questions at the beginning? I would have saved money or avoided an uncomfortable situation.”
This is also important because you have to remember that these pro bono consultants are really skilled at what they do, but many of them have never worked with a nonprofit before so they’re just kind of parachuting in. You need to do a little research to know how to best communicate with them and say what it is you need instead of taking whatever they think might be a good idea. There is sometimes a little bit of an imbalance between nonprofits and consultants, especially doing work pro bono. They don’t always feel as empowered to speak up, there’s sort of a culture within the nonprofit sector that if you’re getting it for free, you have to be happy with what you get, and that’s not true. I think that’s actually a good distinction between the service branch at Taproot as opposed to someone just working with a consultant who’s a friend of a friend and said they’d do something for free. They have the value and benefit of Taproot as an intermediary, making sure that the relationship is strong and that both sides are connecting.
How would you like to see Taproot grow and increase our impact in DC?
I would love to see Taproot grow but I’d also really love for people to know that it’s here and what is has already done. I think a lot of important stakeholders don’t know the important role that Taproot plays in DC, both nonprofits seeking assistance and funders who would sponsor them. I think there are some exciting opportunities for events to pull these communities together, having folks share stories and experiences. Not only to inform prospective grantees for Taproot but also for some of them to say what they learned and how that may be informing their future consulting projects. There’s also a great opportunity here to pull in the rest of the foundation community to hear about how Taproot grantees have been beneficiaries of this model and leveraged grant investments in their infrastructure to maximize community impact in DC.