Eight Questions for Ryan Easterly of WITH Foundation and the Disability & Philanthropy Forum

Ryan Easterly. Photo Credit: Rick Guidotti

In July 2023, the Disability & Philanthropy Forum announced that Ryan Easterly had assumed the role of co-chair of the Presidents' Council of the Disability & Philanthropy Forum, a peer community of 17 foundation presidents disrupting ableism in philanthropy and supporting Disabled-led movements. Easterly succeeds Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, and joins Richard Besser, MD, president and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, as co-chair.

Easterly is the executive Director of WITH Foundation, a private foundation that’s given over $12 million to promote comprehensive healthcare for adults with developmental disabilities, including through a community-led participatory process. In September 2023, Easterly announced WITH Foundation will spend down and sunset its operations in 2028.

Born in Tennessee and raised in Alabama, Easterly received a bachelor of science in criminal justice with a minor in human services from Troy University. Prior to joining the WITH Foundation in 2017, Easterly’s career spanned from co-founder and director of Northern California community relations for tech startup MySupport, Inc., to manager of the National Youth Transitions Initiative at the HSC Foundation. 

IP recently spoke with Easterly about their story, their hopes for philanthropy, and the foundation’s plan to sunset. Here are some excerpts from the conversation, which have been edited for length and clarity.

Who are you outside of your work roles?

I grew up in Alabama and was born in Tennessee. As far as identities that are important to me, I identify as a Black gay man with disabilities. I have cerebral palsy, which is a physical and developmental disability that you can see, and then I also have a nonapparent disability in that I have a mental health diagnosis.

I also spent my early life in the foster care system. I was adopted in my early childhood into a family that was outside of my own race. We have a complex relationship because they are very religious. When I came out at 19, I was disowned, but like many in our community, we have rough patches and mine was no different. That being said, they did give me food, shelter, and helped me become who I am today. 

I'm also a Britney Spears fan, watch a lot of movies, listen to a lot of music, and am a big fan of sweet tea. I will never turn down a glass of sweet tea!

How did you end up working in philanthropy?

I didn’t grow up understanding philanthropy and grantmaking or thinking that there are people whose jobs are giving money away. How I ended up here is I interned in Washington, D.C., at the U.S. Treasury through a program that specifically looks to support students with disabilities with internship opportunities. That’s when I realized I liked D.C. as a more accessible city.

When I graduated, I applied for every sort of job under the sun, and like many folks, my journey was not easy. I applied for jobs to be assistants and secretaries and I, like many people with disabilities, was met with, “Can you type?” Part of my brain would be like, “I have a college degree, I think so.”

I had a great vocational rehabilitation counselor in Alabama that really helped me advocate for myself. They would contractually have to send me on these job placement opportunities and one of them was shredding paper. Luckily, with the support of my vocational rehabilitation counselor, I got to make the point that I could have gotten this paper shredder job without a college degree and asked for support to get a job that is worth the opportunity.

I eventually ended up going back to D.C. and doing an informational interview at the Department of Labor and then got hired to assist with logistics for the Workforce Recruitment Program, providing college students with disabilities with internship opportunities in the federal government. At the end of my temporary appointment, a colleague shared that there was a job at the HSC Foundation.

Looking at the foundation website, I thought they wanted support building youth leadership programs. I got the job, and in my second week during a meeting, it clicked that our job was to give money to organizations with existing programs, not build programs. Once that clicked and I started going into various rooms, and I realized that there weren't a lot of people that had my kind of lived experiences or looked like me, I felt it was important that I do this and stay in this. I've been hooked ever since then.

The WITH Foundation recently announced a plan to shorten the lifespan of operations, spend down and sunset in 2028. Tell us more.

Frankly speaking, we're a smaller foundation. When the foundation was established, it was only intended to exist for a single generation, for 70 years, which ultimately resulted in us giving grants around $30,000 to $50,000 to organizations. Although that work is important, and those dollars are meaningful, there's only so much change you can support with that grant amount.

Especially as a healthcare foundation, and given the last two to four years with everything we've seen across the country, it's only magnified the issues that people with disabilities have faced. I think it's critically important that we look at making bigger investments to allow organizations and advocates to take bigger swings at tackling the problems we're facing. And the way to do that in our case is to say we're going to shorten the operations lifespan and basically triple our grantmaking.

We know the issues we’re facing and we've already lost people; I stand on the shoulders of advocates that spent their entire lives and died in the process of [the American with Disabilities Act] coming to fruition. As a healthcare funder, we owe it to put ourselves in a position to be the strongest partner to organizations doing this work to foster healthcare equity for adults with intellectual or developmental disabilities (IDD). 

What does WITH Foundation’s community participatory grantmaking look like?

What makes us unique when compared to other healthcare funders is that we are very intentional in engaging people with disabilities as experts and leaders in the projects that we support. The Disability community is often viewed as recipients of care rather than having our own agency, expertise and lived experience that can assist in providing that care and creating a more equitable healthcare system.

We have a Self-Advocate Advisory Committee of eight individuals from across the country, and Yolanda Vargas is the current chair. There is an open application that prioritizes the lived expertise of adults with intellectual or developmental disabilities. We’re very intentional in operating the advisory committee like a board because beyond advising us on our grantmaking, we see it as a training ground to help individuals prepare to serve on boards for other funders. 

The advisory committee advises all of our grant cycles, raises questions to the applicants, and ranks the applications for the board to see. They are compensated for their time and expertise because we know, especially in grantmaking, you pay for the things you value and lived expertise has value. We're also cognizant that these are individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities and may depend on government benefits to survive and thrive, so we provide in some cases alternatives to cash compensation.

You were recently named co-chair of the Presidents' Council of the Disability & Philanthropy Forum. Tell us more.

I had been involved with the council since it started five years ago with the initial co-chairs Darren Walker from the Ford Foundation and Richard Besser from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The 17 foundations that have been on this journey are ultimately working to support the sector in being more intentional with disability inclusion. We've been on our own learning journey and it was through that in which Darren Walker understood the need to have Disabled leadership not only at the table but as co-chair so I was happy to be asked to step up in this way.

The Presidents’ Council is part of the Disability & Philanthropy Forum, which offers staffers working at various funders to receive support related to disability, whether they themselves identify as having a disability or are trying to learn more about disability. The Disability & Philanthropy Forum also has the Disability Inclusion Pledge which has around 70 signatories of organizations, funders, and philanthropic-serving organizations that have all committed to a journey promoting disability inclusion. 

I so appreciate the opportunity to be co-chair. Sometimes, I think people hear titles like “co-chair” and think this is elevated; to me it’s important to understand we're all in this together and on a learning journey, so I’m pleased to be on this journey with folks.

What are some promising trends you’re noticing in the philanthropic sector?

I’m around my 14th year working in philanthropy and it cannot be understated what a positive thing it is for so many organizations and funders to have made the commitment to disability inclusion through the Disability & Philanthropy Forum’s Disability Inclusion Pledge. I’ve never seen so many organizations willing to take this step.

Related to WITH Foundation, I hope that WITH can continue to be part of the conversation and support our peers in philanthropy at examining and continuing to embrace community participatory models. In my perspective, your grantmaking is only strengthened when you have members of the community engaged as grantmaking decision makers, working with them as partners versus for them.

There have also been many more conversations about racial equity and justice in recent years. I hope those conversations will continue and that there will be intentional space for the inclusion of people with disabilities. We know when we look at people with disabilities, communities of color are disproportionately impacted by disability. If you’re trying to foster an equitable, racially just world, you cannot do that without discussing and addressing disability.

What do you want to say to our readers who want to start their disability inclusion journey?

Number one: Please go to the Disability & Philanthropy Forum because that is a whole environment of peers who are also on the journey. They'll provide resources and a community of others that are learning alongside you. Also, though WITH is small, don’t be afraid to reach out to WITH directly, as I will help refer folks. But starting with the Disability & Philanthropy Forum, you will find a lot of people doing the work so you’re going to fit in somewhere.

Beyond that, start conversations in your local communities. There are disability organizations in your communities that, if you talk to them about what you're doing, they can help be a thought partner in how to be intentional addressing disability. Whether it's your local Center for Independent Living or University Center for Excellence and Developmental Disabilities, there are organizations in every community, city, county and state where there'll be thought partners for you.

When you're in this journey, make sure that you're accounting for the fact that disability is intersectional. The majority of people with disabilities are people of color, and communities of color are disproportionately impacted by disability. Acknowledge and address the experiences of people with multiple historically excluded identities with disabilities and be intentional to seek out those thought partners as well.

Anything else you’d like to say to IP readers?

If you are a funder, start on the journey of disability inclusion now. Don’t wait for a perfect moment. Reach out to the Disability & Philanthropy Forum, where other folks are on their journeys, and you will be supported.

I hope we can get to the day when people are approaching foundations and asking about disability, we no longer hear, “Oh, I don't do disability.” There is no issue, no identity, no way that you could be trying to impact the community that disability doesn't touch on. If you are saying that you don't “do disability,” you are actively making the lives and existence of people with disabilities, especially people with multiple historically excluded identities, much harder, and you're not effectively meeting your missions. 

And also, if you're on this journey and addressing the needs of people with disabilities, I hope you're also taking the steps to be intentional about addressing the experiences of individuals with disabilities who do have other historically excluded identities: women, people of color, queer, gender-nonconforming and LGBTIA+ individuals. Sometimes as a Disabled person with multiple historically excluded identities, we're forced to prioritize identities, so I hope organizations don’t force individuals to prioritize one identity over another.

For grant seekers at an organization that is intently doing the work of disability, keep doing the work. Know that there are many within the sector that are trying to open doors for you and highlight your work and we will continue to do that. Hopefully, funders will be reaching out to you to be thought partners in this work.

The work you’re doing at grant seeking organizations is so valuable, and I know it’s hard sometimes to get folks to understand the true impact of your work, but I am only here because of the word of hundreds if not thousands of people and the little ripples they created that helped me exist, survive and thrive.

Michelle Dominguez (they/them/elle) is a Queer and Nonbinary professional born to Colombian immigrants on Tongva Land, known post-colonization as Los Angeles. After a decade-long career in higher education student affairs, they switched to the nonprofit and philanthropy sector in 2021. What brings Michelle joy? Quality time with loved ones, mindfulness, chocolate desserts, and Disney magic.