Learning Together for Exponential Results: How Two Flora Family Foundation Leaders Activated Shared Knowledge

A recent journey brought Birdzell and Myers Hewlett to Los Angeles for a day-long series of site visits with reproductive justice leaders whose focus is improving health outcomes for Black birthing people. Kindred Space LA, South LA's only Black-owned birth center and hub for midwifery care, welcomed the team from FFF to tour the birth center and better understand what an empowered birth experience with culturally competent caregivers entails. From left to right: Jennifer Davis, Carrie Zeisler, Kimberly Myers Hewlett, Kimberly Durdin, Allegra Hill, Flora Birdzell, Noopur Vyas Anand, and Nicole LaCour-Wordlaw.

Flora Birdzell and Kimberly Myers Hewlett, both members of the Flora Family Foundation (FFF) Family Council, have participated in two NCFP Learning and Action Cohorts together. We talked to them to learn about the benefits of learning together and how they applied what they learned, particularly to FFF’s Black Maternal Health Initiative. 

Recent research from NCFP affirmed that continuous reflection and learning are critical to practicing effective family philanthropy. We sat down with Flora Birdzell and Kimberly Myers Hewlett, members of the Flora Family Foundation (FFF) Family Council, to explore why they prioritize learning in their roles and how learning as a pair has had exponential results when it comes to understanding issue areas and approaches, FFF’s work, their collaboration with other funders, and ultimately the impact they have as grantmakers.

Benefits of Board Member Learning and Learning Together

Learning is often the first agenda item to fall off the list during busy times. And even when foundation trustees have carved out time for learning, it can be challenging to share the knowledge with fellow board members, especially when lessons prompt difficult conversations or the need to pivot approaches and practices. Myers Hewlett and Birdzell attest to the benefits of prioritizing learning—and how those benefits were enhanced by engaging in the process together. Says Myers Hewlett, “In Flora, I found a strong thought partner to work through how we would apply what we learned to our own work. Sharing our ideas with our family members together gave us more confidence to propose next steps. Additionally, our family members were able to hear two distinct, but aligned perspectives which also helped them understand what we had learned more comprehensively.”

A commitment to learning has been ingrained in the culture of FFF since its founding. In addition to social impact, FFF was created as a training ground for the next generation of the Hewlett family to engage in philanthropy. While learning is built into the FFF culture more than it is at many foundations, Birdzell and Myers Hewlett have made an effort to learn and contribute to the family council’s collective knowledge.

In the past two years, they have participated together in two NCFP Learning and Action Cohorts: Trust-Based Philanthropy and Women’s Power and Influence. Engaging in formal learning opportunities together had many advantages. Over the course of these two programs the pair:

  • Built a shared understanding of the topic at hand
  • Reflected on what they learned together and asked questions of one another
  • Shared knowledge and recommendations with other family members
  • Felt supported to integrate what they learned into their work
  • Deepened their relationship with one another

Notably, learning together spread the onus of sharing and teaching what they learned with their family council peers and others in the field. And bringing what they learned back to their organization was critical to crystallizing the strategy of FFF’s new Black Maternal Health Initiative (BMHI).

The Black Maternal Health Initiative

When Birdzell and Myers Hewlett first participated in NCFP learning and action cohorts, Birdzell had recently drafted a proposal to the FFF board to establish the BMHI. The program “addresses the disparity in pregnancy-related death for Black women by exploring and strengthening the link between culturally competent care and positive health outcomes,” she says. Birdzell and Myers Hewlett had the opportunity to take what they learned in the cohort, reflect on how the knowledge was relevant to their own work, and share their takeaways and recommendations with fellow family members to hone the BMHI program.

Specifically, from the Trust-Based Philanthropy Learning and Action Cohort Birdzell says, “I was deeply impacted by the experience of learning about trust-based philanthropy, particularly the simple but difficult task of letting go of control.” Birdzell and Myers Hewlett carried those lessons with them when they joined the Women’s Power and Influence Learning and Action Cohort in 2023 where they had an opportunity to deepen their knowledge about issues affecting women and girls, sharpen their approach to the BMHI, access matching funds from Pivotal Ventures, and put trust-based philanthropy practices into action.

Collaborating Internally and Externally

To take full advantage of matching funds provided by Pivotal Ventures through the Women’s Power and Influence Cohort, FFF pooled funds with three other foundations. The four foundations had to come to consensus on where to direct the funds and Birdzell and Myers Hewlett applied what they learned in NCFP’s cohorts to “really listen to and value each other’s goals, constraints, connections, and ideas,” says Birdzell. With the help of the well-connected Ascend Fund, the four foundations were introduced to the Mississippi Black Women’s Roundtable and made a general operating grant in the amount of $150,000.

Together, they had practice wrestling with complex topics and building shared understanding and were able to bring those skills to the collective grantmaking process.

Continuing the Learning Journey

Today, BHMI engages fourteen members of the FFF Family Council and continues to evolve. Birdzell and Myers Hewlett have a continued commitment to learn and grow independently and together. Myers Hewlett is in a doctoral program on philanthropic leadership at Indiana University’s Lilly School of Philanthropy. Her research is on the effects of trust-based philanthropy on Indigenous island communities. She says, “this path only came about because a spark was lit through the cohorts I engaged in with Flora.”

Despite the deep learning they have already done, Myers Hewlett says her primary takeaway is that she needs to learn more. Learning prompts curiosity and, in turn, more learning. While learning collectively may be more challenging, the opportunity to build a shared understanding and meaningful relationships is worth the effort. As Myers Hewlett notes, “I think that the cost we invested in the learning not only helps our trustees, families, and friends be more active listeners and power sharers, but it helps our grantees by making us more effective funders who have a greater impact.”

Maggie McGoldrick is the Senior Manager of Marketing and Communications at NCFP.
Flora Birdzell and Kimberly Myers Hewlett are members of the Flora Family Foundation Family Council.