Minnesota’s largest Somali nonprofits are teaming up to present a unified lobbying front to the state this winter.
In recent months, the leaders of eight Somali community groups joined forces on several projects, hired a lobbyist and scored face time with the state’s lieutenant governor. Now, the new coalition is gearing up to ask state legislators for about $11 million for Somali community initiatives, building on $2 million Gov. Mark Dayton earmarked for such projects in this year’s budget.
“Why not combine our separate efforts and do a better collaborative effort?” said Mohamud Noor, head of the Confederation of Somali Community, a coalition member.
Spearheaded by the Minneapolis Foundation, the initiative is also a bid to nudge Somali-American nonprofits to better track and report results.
A University of Southern California study last year found Somali-Americans celebrate the work of some leaders of 35 registered nonprofits and a host of more informal groups. But they distrust others. Study participants perceived some self-styled community leaders — dubbed “the Pretenders” — as adept at applying for grants but with little to show for it.
The new Coalition of Somali American Leaders will host its first public event Thursday at a Minneapolis Event Centers fundraiser.
Last year, the Minneapolis Foundation convened a meeting of local philanthropists to discuss making smarter investments in the Somali community. Of roughly two dozen participants, Hamse Warfa, a program manager at the Cargill Foundation at the time, was the only Somali-American.
Warfa argued for tuning into the community to gauge its needs and entrusting community-based groups to do more of the work. That resonated with Catherine Gray, a leader at the Minneapolis Foundation, which supports several Somali nonprofits. When she learned Warfa was leaving Cargill a year ago, she enlisted him to launch the coalition and pitched in $44,000 for the effort.
East African nonprofits had weighed such a coalition before, but a sense of rivalry for limited grant dollars got in the way. Warfa says the fragmentation was undermining efforts to secure state funding for Somali projects.
“Legislators are very concerned about working with the right partners because there are so many groups, and there’s no vetting process,” said Warfa, a Bush Foundation fellow who has worked in philanthropy for almost two decades.
Warfa approached nonprofits with budgets of at least $100,000, offices and active programs, rather than what he calls one-person “suitcase organizations.” He also invited female-led groups with smaller budgets, such as the women’s health group Isuroon. Of the groups that fit the bill, Warfa says, just one opted out of joining the coalition.
The group gelled quickly, participants say.
“We looked at each other and said, ‘OMG, the possibilities!’ ” said Isuroon’s Fartun Weli.
The group rallied around broad “points of pain”: poverty, gang activity, extremist recruitment and religious discrimination. But the leaders also wanted to highlight Somali entrepreneurship, a growing professional class and other positive developments.
The coalition is already yielding better teamwork, participants said. This past summer, 70 high school students in the confederation’s Newcomer Academy landed summer jobs, thanks to a relationship another participant, Ka Joog, has with some local employers. Meanwhile, the parents of teens in the program got training in navigating the U.S. education system from fellow coalition members African Immigrants Community Services and Somali American Parent Association.
“When we duplicate services, it doesn’t help anyone,” Noor said. “It just creates unhealthy competition.”
A pitch to the Capitol
This year’s state budget includes $2 million for investments in the Somali community — part of Dayton’s package of $35 million for addressing racial disparities in Minnesota. The Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, and the nonprofit Youthprise each received roughly half of the money, which they will distribute in grants. The department is now weighing 30 proposals worth a total of $6.7 million for its half.
“The $2 million wasn’t even close to being sufficient,” Warfa said. “We are asking for more money.”
Weli says the group also wants to push the state to entrust Somali-led nonprofits with funds directly, rather than steering resources to state agencies.
“The system is not structured so that people of color serve themselves,” she said. “They are always the recipients of services.”
For now, the idea is that the Minneapolis Foundation could serve as a clearinghouse for the $11 million in state money the coalition is seeking. The proposal comes during a session when the Legislature is poised to welcome its first Somali-American member, Ilhan Omar, a DFLer running in a staunchly Democratic Minneapolis district.
The group is calling for investments to encourage entrepreneurship and homeownership, expand mental health services, provide culturally sensitive prenatal care and spur youth leadership.
A more specific proposal is still a work in progress, leaders acknowledge.
“I don’t think they are there yet,” said Gray, “but they have been engaging the community about their ask, and they are getting there.”
The coalition brought in Shep Harris of the law firm Fredrikson & Byron, a lobbyist who helped Ka Joog secure $200,000 from the state in 2015 for youth engagement programs. They met with Lt. Gov. Tina Smith.
Mohamed Ahmed, a creator of cartoons lampooning extremists, who is not part of the coalition, says many in the community feel acute mistrust of local nonprofits and community leaders.
“You can literally throw a stone and hit a nonprofit in the community; there are so many of them, God help us,” said Ahmed, whose Average Mohamed initiative recently became a nonprofit as well. “Accountability and monitoring effectiveness are big issues.”
Ahmed says Warfa is well-respected, and a group of nonprofits that will hold each other accountable is a promising step.
Warfa says he is aware of the issue: He says members of the coalition must become better at tracking their spending and results, including the number of people they served.
As word about the new coalition has started getting out, Warfa said, other nonprofits have questioned why they were not invited. He says he hopes the coalition will expand down the road, even beyond Minnesota.