Based in St. Paul, Minnesota, Northwest Area Foundation (NWAF) supports efforts by the people, organizations, and communities of an eight-state region to reduce poverty and achieve sustainable prosperity. The Foundation’s grants are awarded to groups in Idaho, Iowa, Minnesota, Montana, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, and Washington that work to build on the entrepreneurial spirit, strong community ties, and untapped potential within marginalized communities, including Native nations, communities of color, people in rural areas, refugees and immigrants who have fewer opportunities to thrive on their own terms.

Karen Appelbaum serves as the Director of Operations where one of her many tasks includes managing the vendor policy and compiling an annual internal report that evaluates the policy’s effectiveness. In 2016, Karen received some enlightening feedback from her colleagues that NWAF had an opportunity to better align their vendor policy with the Foundation’s core mission to serve underinvested communities in its eight-state region.

In response, Karen decided to formalize a policy review process and assembled a review committee that consisted of staff members from various departments at NWAF. This group allowed Karen to engage diverse viewpoints on the vendor policy, enabling her to leverage the strengths of the team to create a policy that more closely aligned with NWAF’s mission.

Together, the committee explored the question of how NWAF could adapt its policy to best serve and support those same communities that are funded through its grants. First, the group asked the question, “what would it look like to focus the vendor characteristics on our priority communities?” Eventually, they decided to break the vendor policy into two categories – preferred and highly preferred vendors. “Preferred vendors”, they decided, would include businesses whose owner identifies with one or more characteristic of their priority communities (Native Americans, communities of color, people in rural areas, refugees and immigrants). To be “highly preferred,” vendors would also have to be from one or more of the priority communities NWAF funds and be a small business (fewer than 20 employees), locally based in NWAF’s eight-state region and/or socially responsible – defined as vendors who provide livable wages and good benefits to their employees. On top of that, NWAFs policy seeks vendors with competitive pricing and terms, availability and capacity to meet product, material, or service needs in a timely manner, and the knowledge and experience necessary to complete the job.

The committee then addressed how best to support NWAF’s staff in finding the vendors that fit the new characteristics. This led to a healthy debate as not everyone was initially on board with the new vendor policy. Some thought the policy would ostracize vendors with whom the Foundation has had long standing relationships. However, through consistent and compassionate engagement, everyone in the group was able to add their unique perspectives from their lived experiences, and Karen was able to usher the vendor policy to a place where it more fully reflects the values and funding priorities of NWAF. This required multiple rounds of revisions, one on one meetings, and creating space for everyone’s voice to be heard and engaged.

“We’re not perfect, but we are getting there. We invited a good number of the staff to contribute to the creation of this new policy and that has created a sense of ownership and pride in the final outcome,” Karen reflected about the process of creating a new vendor policy. The process also helped emphasize that purchasing decisions should always be tied to the Foundation’s mission. In the process, Ms. Appelbaum learned that for policies to be most impactful, the have to be crafted collaboratively. “You might hold the authority to make decisions, but those decisions don’t live in isolation. So it’s important to engage the people who are impacted by those decisions, so the decisions are more equitable,” she said.

By creating an environment that was fair, equitable, and inclusive for all of the Foundation’s stakeholders including their priority communities, Karen ensured that the Northwest Area Foundation’s new vendor policy took on the same traits – becoming fair, equitable, and inclusive.

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