Practicing What They Preach: the Hill-Snowdon Foundation’s Progressive Personnel Policies

When most people think about foundations, they think about grant dollars. How much money do they give? What causes do they support? However, there are many different ways foundations can create change beyond the money they give. One example is the ongoing increase in impact investing among foundations and donors, as more and more foundations make the decision to use the “other 95%” of their funds to support their mission. Another example is the increasing trend of foundations using their connections and influence to advocate on behalf of their grantees to achieve their missions.

While both of the examples mentioned above add to the influence of a foundation’s work, they are externally focused. At NCFP’s most recent Trustee Education Institute, we heard from the Hill-Snowdon Foundation. They recognized the need to look internally to ensure that their policies reflect the changes in society they seek to support. Taking that step, to look at their practices, required humility and honesty. Hard questions needed to be asked: How can our foundation avoid perpetuating some of the very problems we are working to fix? How can we create fair and equitable hiring practices? How can we develop people’s talents and passions? How can we look at our staff holistically?  How can we both preach and practice social justice to the fullest extent?

What follows is an interview with The Hill-Snowdon Foundation’s Executive Director, Nat Chioke Williams. He discusses the foundation’s commitment to progressive personnel policies. You will see that they don’t just preach equity, they work to live it daily. They care for their staff, their board, and their grantee partners. They are willing and open to sharing their approach with the field. 

(Interview edited for clarity)

Rachel OgorekHi Nat. Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today. I would love to learn more about your foundation, work, and how Hill-Snowdon became a social justice organization.

Nat Williams: Of course, I am happy to be here. My name is Nat Chioke Williams and I’m the Executive Director of the Hill-Snowdon Foundation. We’re based in Washington, D.C. and are a 60-year-old family foundation. We fund nationally and our core focus is on community organizing. Our first program area was supporting youth organizing nationally. We also support economic justice organizing. When we moved to D.C. in 2004 we also created a Fund for D.C. to help strengthen the infrastructure and capacity for community organizing specifically in the District of Columbia.

Over the past 20 years or so we’ve had an interest in supporting equity and justice work in the U.S. South. About 60% to 70% of our grantmaking portfolio is dedicated to youth organizing and economic justice organizing in the U.S. South. The rest of the funds are allocated for locations and cities outside of the South.

Additionally, a few years ago we started an initiative called the Making Black Lives Matter Initiative. This initiative is focused on supporting black-led organizing groups as a way of revitalizing the institutional political power of black communities. And finally, last year, we engaged with some other funding partners to create the Defending the Dream Fund. This is a rapid response fund to support grassroots organizing work in response to different policy changes in institutions in relation to the new challenges facing and making communities vulnerable under the Trump era.  That is the Hill-Snowdon Foundation’s grantmaking work in a snapshot.

Rachel Ogorek: You all are doing some incredible work and are trying to change some of society’s most pressing issues.  Would you mind speaking a little bit about how your internal staffing works?  How are you committed to equity practices internally?

Nat Williams: Twenty years ago we partnered with the Tides Foundation. At that time, the foundation started to surface these latent values and principles around social justice and social change.  Prior to that, we had been a pretty typical family foundation dealing with issues around mentorship and after-care programs for youth. We worked on a range of different things that were important but didn’t necessarily get to the root cause of why you need to have mentorship programs and after-school programs in lower-income neighborhoods.

So, when we partnered with the Tides Foundation, we started to define ourselves as a social change, social justice philanthropic organization. When I was hired in 2004, we had the first opportunity to develop an actual organization. Prior to that, we were managed by the family.  When we were managed by Tides we were a donor-advised fund so there was no staff that the foundation itself had to manage.

So, immediately after I was hired, one of my first tasks was to develop our personnel policies. We looked to the focus of our work, our values and principles of social justice, equity, fairness, and sustainability for families and communities, and developed something that we call  “People First Personnel Policies.”  The guiding theory behind these policies was to try to figure out what the personnel policies of a social justice organization would look like if an organization had the resources to actually put them in place?

So, we did several things that we considered to not only be supportive of staff but also to reflect these values around sustainability. For instance, we had part-time staff working with us. They just so happened to have been working mothers.  We wanted to create health insurance and other benefits to support part-time workers and we also wanted to create better work/family/life balance. We offered our part-time employees pro-rated health insurance coverage. At the time this was done sporadically throughout the country, but it definitely wasn’t the norm and definitely wasn’t standard. We also offered full family coverage for part-time staff as well.  Again, we wanted to lessen the burden on our staff by providing really good benefits for them and their families.

The other thing we really tried to do was to be supportive of growing families.  We had a relatively young staff at the time so we allotted for four months of maternity and paternity leave.  I was the only, and still am the only, self-identified male on staff. So, it was important for us to not just look at the leave but also who it was offered to and to try to erase some of the gender norms that de-legitimized the ability and need for fathers to be involved in their child’s lives; particularly in the early part of a child’s development.

And so that was something that we emphasized.  One of the things that we also put in place and all staff have benefited from, and I’m about to benefit from it again, is a sabbatical policy.  After five years we’re able to — eligible to– take a three-month paid sabbatical. And this is for all staff regardless of position or full-time status.  This was an important measure for us to take to create sustainability in the organization.   

We also implemented an equitable pay scale across the organization. We developed pay scales for all employees. We did this by looking at the salary surveys from the Association of Small Foundations, now Exponent Philanthropy, and also the Council on Foundations. All of our starting salaries were pegged at the 75th percentile of the area (Mid-Atlantic region) salaries from the reports.

We recognized that there are different responsibilities that staff have, and there are different kind of demands for each job. However, we all, every single one of us, work together to make the institution work. We’re a team, and every team member contributes what they need to in order for the whole institution to operate at maximum capacity. Because of this, we wanted to make sure that there was a level of equity across the pay ranges for the different jobs. So, from our entry-level positions as a staff assistant or a program assistant, up to Executive Director (all paid starting at the 75th percentile for the Mid-Atlantic region), each job has a $20,000 salary ranges for the position. These salary ranges overlap with the next successive hire position by $10,000.  Such that all of the positions that we have are relative to one another. There aren’t huge pay gaps between, for example, the executive director and the program officers.  We wanted to make sure that there was a level of relativity at the start of the position.

Over time, as people stay on and as new staff are hired, and salary increases happen, those specific ranges get — they’re more elastic and they expand.  But, to start, each position has a relative relationship to one another.

Also, in the last five years, we set up our internal operating systems and technology to allow for remote communication and telecommuting. This allows staff to spend their working hours focused on the work and not necessarily in crazy traffic or on a super long commute. This policy also promotes a work environment that is supportive of families. It is flexible because it allows employees to do their best work while also having a family life. Our telecommuting policy calls for everyone to be in the office for a mandatory one day a week. But, on the other four days of the week, staff can work from home.  This policy looks different for different levels of staff, but it ultimately supports everyone and allows for a better work life balance.

For me, I appreciate having just one day where I’m required to come in the office. This allows me to be more involved in my kids’ lives and to pick them up after school. It allows my wife to not have to stress out to try to make it to pick up the school kids when she’s trying to get back from her job. These policies are creating a foundation of sustainability and work/family/life balance.

Finally, we did a review of our policies and our practices a couple of years ago that our Board commissioned. We looked at salaries and benefits. We wanted to see where we fit in relative to similar foundations in terms of what they offered.  And we also wanted to see if our people first policies were having the impact we wanted to have.  In both cases, relative to some other foundations, we were similar in what we offered. However, things like sabbatical were relatively unique to the Hill-Snowdon Foundation.

There are some things we offer that are more normative or that have become more normative over time relative to our peers. Other things we offer still make the institution stand out. Ultimately, in relation to the impact we are trying to have, the point of people first policies is to create a sustainable work environment and to provide a work/family/life balance for our staff that allows us to retain committed and qualified staff.  These policies have accomplished that. I started 14 years ago. We hired our current Director of Operations and Finance a couple of months after me, and then we hired two program officers and a staff assistant. All but one of them are still here 12-14 years later.

Rachel Ogorek: That’s incredible.

Nat Williams: Thank you, we have created an amazing team. We have learned that it is not just about having progressive personnel policies; an organization should have a work environment that is also supportive of feeding people’s passions and their purposes in life.  That’s the other half of the progressive personnel policy puzzle – we all need to have the ability to do work that we find personally fulfilling. At the foundation we are trying to address some of society’s most pressing needs. We support organizations that are fighting every day to make a better world not just for themselves, but for their broader communities, and, by extension, the country overall.  That is something that is constantly energizing and enriching to be a part of every day.

Personally, the ability to have the flexibility to create and respond to new conditions as they arise is something that is really important; it keeps me excited about the job. The Making Black Lives Matter initiative was created in response to the killings of black males, black women, and black children by police officers that came to public conscience a few years ago. Similarly, the Defending the Dream Fund was created in response to the threats that we saw to our democracy and our communities.

Also, in response to the stock market crash, we created something called “A Rolling Blackout.” This fund reinforced our commitment to our grassroots partners, or what other folks call “grantees,” by saying that for the first two years after the market crashed, we were not going to change our grant sizes. At the time, a lot of the foundations were cutting back and trying to find ways to save their bottom line. At the Hill-Snowdon Foundation our bottom line was the work our grassroots partners did in their communities to create a more and fair and just society. So, that’s what we were trying to protect. This took some creativity on our part. The solution we came up with was to ask our grassroots partners to sit out of our funding for one year, over a 4-year period. This allowed us to reinvest those “saved” grant funds; the groups that sat out were able to come back after their year off. One of the most important parts of all of this process was that we were in dialogue with all of our grassroots partners as we were developing this policy. We were transparent in with our situation and in our descriptions of the new policies. We explained the why and the how of the policy  and asked for feedback. Additionally, we gave our partners at least 12 months lead-time before they sat out of the grant cycle for a year to allow them to find additional funding sources.  All of our partners appreciated us explaining our plans BEFORE we implemented them, and they felt they could trust us because of our prior relationships and partnerships.

I should note, the Rolling Blackout Fund was also possible because we made adjustments to our personnel policies; some of which our still in place. For instance, thus far we have kept our employer contribution for our 403b at 5% rather than where we started at 8%.  Additionally, we have suspended our professional development fund of $3,000. The Board’s discretionary pool of $15,000 per board member per year will remain at this level indefinitely (it was previously of $25,000 per member). While the personnel policies are generous, they are also expensive. We feel it is worth the cost, but we have to balance our desire to provide for our staff with our purpose of providing resources to the groups that are helping to make a fair and just society. So, after the compensation and benefits review we did in 2012, staff proposed to the board that staff merit increases be capped at 3% (the previous cap was 6%, not including bonus).  We did this in order to try to lower our administrative costs relative to our grantmaking budget (or our grants to admin ratio). All in all, the Rolling Blackout policies and the self-imposed caps on staff salaries (in addition to the stock market rebounding) helped us to fully recoup our losses and add about $5 million to our corpus. It should be noted that this is all the while using a socially responsible investing model for the overwhelming majority of our assets.   

When we lived our values, even in times of intense challenge and demand, we learned that this showed our staff and grantee partners that we are committed to practicing what we were preaching.

The final thing I will mention about the foundation is the board’s commitment to our work. Because we are a family foundation, our board consists entirely of family members. You are on the board by virtue of being a family member. That being said, the board is committed to creating frequent opportunities for them to engage directly with these incredible leaders in the communities that we support across the country. Board members find this enriching and we, board and staff, are all committed to seeing the world we occupy from different vantages points. We work hard to understand the vantages and viewpoints of the communities we support. This reminds all of us to have a more holistic way of understanding not just our world but also how democracy can and should work.

In support of this commitment, the board and staff have been engaging in training so that we can be much more aware of how anti-black racism affects every part of our lives; even those spaces where there aren’t people of color. Systemic injustices have been created because of anti-black structural racism. We are working to comprehend this and we are committing time to step back and develop the skills needed to consider, interrogate, and analyze this reality.  This will not only strengthen us as individuals and as a group, but it will also help us articulate the reasons we focus on equity issues, anti-black racism, economic justice, on so many other different issues. I mention this because this approach to our work from both the board and the staff helps us not just preach these things; we are actively working to internalize these principles and values by constantly being engaged in the work in new and different ways.

This all leads back to our progressive personnel policies. We look at our staff holistically and we want to develop their talents and passions. We hope the field of family philanthropy will join us. We openly share our personnel policies with our colleagues who are interested in learning about the way we do things at the Hill-Snowdon Foundation.

The Hill-Snowdon Foundation is a leader in the field of family philanthropy when it comes to care of their employees. They are advancing the mission of their foundation by creating an organization that is an example for all.  The board and staff not only trust one another, but they also entrust one another with the purpose and the mission of the foundation. Everyone is focused on the same goal of creating a fair and just society. I am grateful to Nat for taking the time to speak with me and for sharing the organization’s personnel policies. Please contact if you would like to learn more!