Dawn Oliver Wiand, Executive Director, Iowa Women’s Foundation

The Iowa Women’s Foundation serves women and girls throughout the state with a mix of grantmaking, advocacy, education, and collaboration. These efforts provide pathways to economic self-sufficiency for women and girls in Iowa.

Dawn Oliver Wiand is the Executive Director of the Iowa Women’s Foundation. We chatted with her recently about their grantmaking supporting the varied refugee populations of Iowa and why listening to the community and responding to ideas is an important strategy.

The Iowa Women’s Foundation improves the lives of Iowa’s women and girls through economic self-sufficiency. With research, grantmaking, advocacy, education, and collaboration, we work to break down the barriers that are keeping women from being successful.

Our grantmaking is responsive. Each year, we have one grant cycle and accept proposals from across the state. To be successful, proposed projects must focus primarily on serving the needs and aspirations of women and girls. To this end, six specific areas have been identified as the most critical barriers for Iowa women and girls and all grant applications must address one or more of these barriers: employment, child care, housing, education and training, transportation, or mentorship.

All of our work, from research to grantmaking to advocacy, is informed by the needs of women and girls in our state. In 2015, we traveled the state and heard from women and girls in 18 communities about the key barriers they face, which is how we identified the six areas listed above. We also learned that leaders in the state lack awareness of issues facing women and girls; that women and girls don’t feel empowered to create change for themselves or their communities; that systems – educational, business, child care, housing, and social service providers – lack flexibility to best meet women’s needs; and that entrenched poverty passing from generation to generation makes it particularly difficult for women to gain economic self-sufficiency. That is why the Iowa Women’s Foundation works to raise awareness, empower women, create systemic change, and create meaningful paths out of poverty.

The organizations serving the varied refugee populations in Iowa are fabulous. Our focus with refugee women is economic self-sufficiency. We’ve learned that many immigrants and refugees come to Iowa with skills and knowledge, but they need some help matching that knowledge base with opportunities here. For example, the University of Northern Iowa’s Community Producers Program offers Burmese refugee women training, resources, and support to become agricultural entrepreneurs and sell their produce at local markets. This helps support their families and is an entryway into the broader workforce.

Similarly, NISAA African Family Services helps African refugee women buy sewing machines. Classes provide instruction on how to tailor and how to open a business. The African refugee women voiced this as a need. In Iowa, they felt more isolated and dependent on their husbands than they were in their home countries. This program gives them not only skills, but a network for social support.

Another program IWF supports is Lutheran Services in Iowa. Over the course of three years, Lutheran Services trained refugee women in Des Moines to become licensed child care providers. There wasn’t enough culturally sensitive child care, so women weren’t comfortable enrolling their children. Now, women in the program have opened over 40 child care centers serving children speaking 19 different languages. Other refugee mothers have been able to go to work. There are child care deserts in Iowa, so these refugee women have become a solution to this problem. Now, we are working with Lutheran Services to expand the program beyond Des Moines to serve other refugee populations throughout the state.

From our listening tour of the state, we know there is a huge need for programs supporting the many different refugee populations in the state. Each year, we fund programs that are geographically diverse and varied in their approaches. These programs are compelling because they are innovative and they address a need. Some of them also address more than one issue – economic self-sufficiency and child care. We also know that the organizations have track records of success. They’ve done great jobs with grants in the past.

The organizations have track records of success. They’ve done great jobs with grants in the past.

We know our mission – to improve the lives of Iowa’s women and girls. What makes us unique is our focus: we use research to uncover the biggest barriers to women’s success and their greatest needs. We invest our passion and resources accordingly. Being open to new strategies and listening to our community help us be successful, even in areas that we don’t think of ourselves as experts, like supporting refugee women.

We don’t think of ourselves as immigrant or refugee funders – we just fund our community where they need it most. We just responded to the need by listening to the experts – women and organizations that serve them.

I’m always curious to know what others are doing and what’s working. What hasn’t worked? How are other funders listening to their communities and specifically to the immigrant and refugee communities? We think successful ideas come from within the community and within the groups being served. We can’t tell someone what we think will work, they need to tell us what will work. We know it has to be community-led and to come from the women themelves.

We’re also curious about best practices to help small communities better serve immigrant and refugee populations. There are small manufacturing towns in Iowa with large immigrant populations, but the towns aren’t ready to serve this population at all. They don’t have enough interpreters, affordable housing, child care, etc. It’s not divisive, because everyone knows that immigrants and refugees are economic drivers for these towns, but it does create challenges. What are others doing to create open and welcoming towns that are able to help immigrant families succeed in the long-term?