Tyler Nickerson, NFG Member and Director of Investments and State Strategy at The Solutions Project, was one of 33 funders selected to participate in NFG’s Project Phoenix. He shares his reflections on the year-long collective learning program developed for funders to explore philanthropy’s role in supporting a “just transition to a new economy” that promotes good jobs, local economic prosperity, ecological sustainability, and re-prioritization of capital in society.
Pausing and appreciating the important moments around me is something I’m intentionally trying to get better at doing. With a childhood-ingrained Puritan work ethic and first-child tendencies, I am close to the last person stopping to smell the roses. I understand now more than ever the fault lines here. In a world full of emails, travel, and competing priorities, spaces of solace, silence, and deep creativity are rare and fleeting. I was fortunate to have NFG’s Project Phoenix provide such an opportunity for me to take that pause and soak up those special, irreplaceable moments.
Project Phoenix was analogous to the gate of a beautiful French garden, full of rose bushes for me to stop and smell. Over the course of twelve months, the 33 members of the Project Phoenix cohort visited New York City, Eastern Kentucky, Boston, and San Diego and its adjacent border region to understand the rich local work happening to build a new, regenerative economy. We had the opportunity to sit in conversations with local leaders working to improve the health, economic security, and quality of life of their families and community.
The Solutions Project is a member of NFG because of the important work they do to organize funders, build relationships with a field of movement leaders, and mobilize philanthropy to move resources that address the systemic barriers to justice and liberation of marginalized communities.
This is precisely what Project Phoenix accomplished. We dove deep, stayed focused on the big picture, and invested a bit of ourselves in each place.
As funders, many of us have access to seemingly countless opportunities and vehicles for professional development and collective learning - some more impactful than others. So what was it about Project Phoenix that actually gave it traction? As I see it, Project Phoenix benefitted from a unique combination of the dedicated people, right process, focus on place and people, and adherence to NFG’s underlying assertions that made the experience so impactful to my own growth and the work of The Solutions Project.
The cohort bonded in a unique way that allowed us to have real conversations, soak up wisdom, and support each other as we ventured down our own personal paths. Deep relationships resulted in vulnerability and openness in a way that invested in our collective success and support for our individual journeys. We were allowed us to slow down and suspend our funder cat-like tendencies. Project Phoenix delivered a rare career moment for me in that I paused to smell the fragrance of each place’s strength and absorb the surrounding beauty through relationships and wisdom.
How Has It Transformed My Work?
The Solutions Project’s work has been deeply impacted by our partnership with NFG and my participation in Project Phoenix. As a new funder charged with values of boldness, having the opportunity to be in community with other great minds to think about the intersections of climate change, financial capital, and our democracy has shaped how we engage in grantmaking.
The time in Project Phoenix added both fundamental pillars in our work and important nuances to ensure that we were in the best possible relationships with our grantees. These relationships went beyond talking. For instance, Solutions Project collaborated with a few other NFG members—Surdna Foundation, Chorus Foundation, and Mary Babcock Reynolds Foundation—to move money together to support work in the American South. The Solutions Project named the American South as a region of focus, in part due to the relationships and knowledge developed through the Project Phoenix site visit in Appalachia, and codified “just transitions to a new economy” as a priority area for our grantmaking.
We are a better funder because of this experience. Without participating in Project Phoenix, I am not sure we’d be as strong and clear, or have the necessary relationships and information, to have the biggest impact possible.
I believe that Project Phoenix was a critical platform to develop the next generation of philanthropic leaders. Because of NFG’s network, Project Phoenix was connected to a tapestry of funders to build stronger relationship with a field of movement leaders and mobilize resources to support “just transitions” work. The process allowed The Solutions Project to more clearly understand the purpose of our philanthropy and how we support grantee partners as political and economic systems continue to inadequately meet most American’s needs.
Whether it be the feeling of militarization as we stood on the Mexican border with helicopters circling or the moonshine-influenced dancing at Eastern Kentucky Social Club, these types of moments are rare in one’s career. I was honored to have the chance to pause, absorb, and bond with allies ready to harness the power of philanthropy to support the change we all wish to see. These spaces are important and we need more of them if our work to be successful. Project Phoenix opened up the gates to a rare and serene space to stop and smell the roses.