Cover Story

Scaling Up

New Director Wants to Take the Women’s Fund

COVER0914aElizabeth Barajas-Román says there are a number of reasons why she actively pursued the position of CEO for the Women’s Fund of Western Massachusetts (WFWM).

For starters, there was the opportunity to work in an attractive, challenging position much closer to her home in Northampton — she had been “commuting” to the nation’s capital for her work with the Pew Charitable Trusts as a campaign manager. There was also the chance to continue what had become a career in what she calls “high-impact philanthropy” (much more on her working definition of that term later).

But, perhaps most importantly, there was an opportunity to lead an organization that has more than come into its own over the past several years and is now at a truly critical juncture in its history.

It’s one that Barajas-Román summed up with a term generally reserved for startup businesses looking to get to the next stage — ‘scaling up’ — and she used it to describe not only the fund’s grant-writing work, but its strategic initiatives such as LIPPI, the Leadership Institute for Political and Public Impact.

“At the Pew Charitable Trusts, I was working on projects that are really focused in on a two- to three-year timespan, and working with partners to pick issues that were really going to move the needle over that time,” said Barajas-Román, who brings to her new position an intriguing résumé that includes everything from work in philanthropy to a stint as a reporter for the Daily Hampshire Gazette. “When I looked at this opening and what the Women’s Fund was doing and the way it’s doing its grant making, I saw a number of similarities to the work I was doing, and that was very attractive to me.

“A lot of grant making is done through funding one organization or another organization, in a piecemeal fashion, like drops in a bucket,” she went on. “But instead, the Women’s Fund has been interested in saying, in essence, ‘if we dump a whole bucket of water on a problem, how much more can we do?’ And that’s what they’ve shifted into over the past few years.”

As an example, she cited the WFWM’s recent announcement that it will be donating $240,000 over the next three years to intriguing initiatives in the four counties of Western Mass. These efforts will focus on everything from teen pregnancy to foster care; from Hampden County’s Prison Birth Project to something called the Franklin County Women’s GARDEN Project Collaborative.

That’s an acronym for Growing Agricultural Resiliency and Developing Economic Networks, said Barajas-Román, adding that the initiative, designed to break down the isolation that affects low-income women in rural communities by teaching them how to grow their own food and also sell what they produce through a food co-op business, is simply one example of how the mission of the WFWM is evolving.

“It provides a real solution to a problem, in this case a woman transitioning out of domestic violence,” she explained. “She needs skills, meaning leadership skills, access to education, and confidence. I’m really thrilled about it, and it exemplifies what we want to do with our resources.”

WomensFundSignAs she talked about the WFWM (which was named a Difference Maker by BusinessWest in 2012), its current initiatives, and prospects for the future, Barajas-Román made early and frequent use of the words ‘partnership’ and ‘collaboration.’ She said they are the keys to carrying out the agency’s mission to advance social-change philanthropy to create economic and social equality for women and girls in the region — and to improve overall quality of life.

“We’re really looking for people to come together and make an impact together,” she noted, adding that the four recently funded projects, and especially the GARDEN initiative, which includes four community partners, including Greenfield Community College, is a good example of this philosophy.

For this issue, BusinessWest talked at length with Barajas-Román about her latest career challenge, where she wants the Women’s Fund to go, and how she intends to get there.

Background — Check

As she takes on her new responsibilities with the WFWM, Barajas-Román has an array of intriguing career stops from which to draw both experience and perspective.

A native of Lincoln, Neb., she moved to Massachusetts — specifically, Harvard University — for her master’s degree in education. She concentrated on international development policy, and her coursework at the Kennedy School of Government included negotiation, regulatory analysis, and financial and strategic management.

Upon graduation, she took a job as a city planner in Cambridge and, among other initiatives, created girls’ programs that focused on academic, leadership, and social development. She also established partnerships with agencies working with children and youth, and served as a resource for other youth-oriented programs in the Greater Boston area.

From there, she became director of Policy & Operations for the Justice Research Institute in Boston, where, among things, she helped orchestrate a six-figure deficit turnaround, helped acquire several new grants, and prepared grant and performance reports for federal, state, and private agencies.

Desiring to be with her spouse in Western Mass., Barajas-Román’s career took a decidedly different direction in early 2005, when she joined the newsroom at the Daily Hampshire Gazette, covering politics, health, and education. She then shifted gears again, becoming associate director of Hampshire College’s Population and Development Program in 2008. In that capacity, she developed outreach strategies for national and international population-policy projects and co-edited policy publications, including a monthly academic paper series called DifferenTakes.

She then took a job as director of Policy for the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health in Washington in 2009. There, among a host of other duties, she developed and advanced successful national policy positions on a range of issues involving women, infants and children, immigration, health, and human and civil rights.

At the Pew Charitable Trusts, which she joined in 2012, she managed a portfolio of partner contracts totaling more than $450,000. Her work included writing grant agreements, acknowledgements, and partner work plans.

Summing up all that work experience, Barajas-Román said her previous stops have provided her with a firm understanding of the importance of creating and strengthening partnerships to create positive change in the community, however that term is defined.

She said the role of CEO at the WFWM, which “spoke to me on a number of levels,” will give her an opportunity to generate such partnerships to move that needle on a host of issues involving women and girls.

Though not directly involved with the WFWM while living and working in this region, Barajas-Román said she was well aware of the agency, its mission, and specific initiatives through her circle of friends, and has attended several of its events over the years.

“It was always on my radar,” she noted, adding that, when the CEO’s position became available, she investigated it more and determined it was something she want to be part of.

Impact Statement

As she talked about the Women’s Fund and its mission moving forward, Barajas-Román said the agency is taking its work to the proverbial next level, and has been doing so for some time now.

Elaborating, she said the focus at the WFWM, now 17 years old and with more than $2 million in grants to its credit, is no longer on specific needs — although that’s still part of the equation — but much more on “what it wants the community to look like,” and then taking necessary, and rather involved, steps to make that vision become reality.

And this brings her back to that notion of ‘scaling up’ and the various forms this process will take.

Director Elizabeth Barajas-Román

Director Elizabeth Barajas-Román

She started with LIPPI. Launched five years ago, it has now equipped more than 200 women from across the four western counties to become civic leaders in their communities; to impact policy on the local, state, and national levels; and to seek and retain elected positions, said Barajas-Román, adding that the agency’s goal is to increase both the number of participants and their collective reach and impact.

“We have 200 women who have gone through this program,” she said. “That’s a significant pipeline of women who are poised and trained and ready to mobilize on these issues, and we’re ready to activate them.

“That’s one example of the scaling up that we’re doing,” she went on. “We have a cadre of really strong women leaders that we’ve helped train, and we want to grow those numbers.”

And as a step in that direction, the WFWM is investing an additional $12,000 into the partnerships involved with the latest round of funding, by giving each grantee the opportunity to select two of their staff, constituents, or board members to be participants of LIPPI.

As for its grant-writing efforts, Barajas-Román said the WFWM is now more focused on that aforementioned high-impact philanthropy — the full bucket rather than drops in one — and added that the latest round of funding provides some good examples of this.

“The Women’s Fund is looking at these grants and these different issues, and saying, ‘what are the bold goals we can set for the next three years that will make things different for these people and really make an impact?” she said. “The Women’s Fund is now extremely results-driven, and is well-positioned to deliver those results.”

The GARDEN project is such an initiative, she said, noting that this is a partnership between Greenfield Community College’s Sustainable Agriculture and Green Center for Women in Transition, Seeds for Solidarity, the New England Learning Center for Women in Transition (NELCWIT), and Montague Catholic Social Ministries.

Each organization will recommend women who show potential for success through the project, she said, adding that more than 40 women will participate over the next three years. They will each have the opportunity to take courses at GCC in organic gardening, permaculture landscape installation, food preservation, and farm and food cooperatives.

The Women’s Fund grant will pay for instructor costs, allowing participants to take the course free of charge, and GCC will arrange for instructors to attend a one-time training with NELCWIT and Montague Catholic Social Ministries on how to understand trauma triggers, how to recognize signs of physical and emotional domestic violence, and other factors affecting women in transition.

“This program tackles all the different comprehensive pieces that are involved with helping a woman who is transitioning from a domestic-violence situation,” she explained. “It will give her all the tools she needs to be successful. And it’s a perfect example of the high-impact philanthropy that is our focus.”

On a Grand Scale

One of Barajas-Román’s many priorities moving forward is creation of a new strategic plan for the agency. There is no set timetable for the project — although she did say only that the “time is now” — but what she does know is that the plan will involve all the various types of partners the fund has.

“This isn’t something we’re going to do in any kind of silo,” she explained. “We’re getting a lot of feedback from the community about what they’d like to see from their Women’s Fund over the next three years or five years.

“This idea of community ownership is emerging,” she went on. “This is the community’s fund; that’s the message we’re getting out.”

And it’s a fund set on making an ever-deeper impact, not only on women and girls, but on society in general.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

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