A few weeks ago, a fellow Executive Director of color and a friend of mine, “Maria,” was nearly in tears after failing for a second time to get a small grant. She doesn’t drink, or else I would have offered access to the personal minibar that I keep in my office. A shot of Wild Turkey and a brisk walk always cheer me up after a grant rejection.
“I’m so tired,” Maria said over the phone, “I can’t continue putting in my own money to keep this afloat. Maybe nonprofit is just not for me. It’s too hard.” She had spent over 40 hours on these two grants, and I had spent over 12 hours facilitating part of a board retreat, helping develop the logic model, revising the budgets, editing the narratives, and providing moral support.
The grant was a one-time award for less than 10K, and she had been told repeatedly, by different people at this foundation, that her work was important and much needed.
The purpose of this story is not to call out a particular foundation, but to highlight the fact that the standard grant application process needs a deep overhaul because it is leaving behind too many communities.
This past year, my organization assumes more and more the role of a quasi-funder. Rainier Valley Corps (RVC), was formed to build the capacity of communities-of-color-led nonprofits while simultaneously developing leaders of color. We do this by selecting host sites and then sending emerging leaders of color that we train (and whose wages we pay) to these organizations, where they work full-time for one or more years to build these organizations’ capacity. The ethnic CBOs increase their capacity and effectiveness and ability to be involved at the systems level, and the field has a slew of awesome future nonprofit leaders of color that I will personally help to train to be kick-ass nonprofit warriors. Our inaugural cohort of ten leaders starts this September.
Because small nonprofits have to apply to be partners and host sites in our program, we have started being viewed as somewhat of a funder. (We have the best of both worlds: The joy of having to reject great organizations, and the fundraising-associated night terrors of being a nonprofit). I noticed the shift in dynamics when I was visiting these organizations as part of the review process, and some people seemed visibly nervous. As I mentioned earlier, program officers are instantly 27% more attractive than civilians. Suddenly, my wrinkles were marks of experience, my twitching left eye now charming, and this weird gap between my front two teeth a distinguishing feature. Not only that, but apparently my jokes on those site visits were 100% funnier too!
All of that is to say that I’ve been more sympathetic to the challenges that we brilliant, dashing funders are facing, as well as more cognizant of the elements that have been helping or hindering marginalized communities. (PS: I know the term “marginalized communities” can be controversial, and a future post may focus on this, but for now, let’s continue with this term).
For the past few years, everyone has been talking about Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, and Cultural Competency. This is good. But when these things do not actually come with profound changes in systems and processes, they can actually cause more harm. Equity, in particular, has been a shiny new concept adopted by many funders. A basic tenet of equity in our line of work is that the communities that are most affected by societal problems are leading the efforts to address these challenges. And yet, many foundations’ application process is deeply inequitable, leaving behind the people and communities who are most affected by the injustices we as a sector are trying to address.
Eight signs that your foundations may be inadvertently perpetuating inequity:
Your application takes more than 10 to 15 hours to complete: Some grants are ridiculously, hair-tearingly, wall-punchingly time-consuming. An ED friend, who is white, told me her team spent over 70 hours on a single grant once due to the dozens of pages of narrative, a complex budget template, and various attachments. 70 hours. This is a relatively large nonprofit with several staff who are all fluent in English. They didn’t get the grant and were very frustrated. Besides the fact that none of us have 70 hours to waste when there are so many community needs to address, if this grant is difficult for a team that’s fluent in English and in grantwriting, imagine how much harder it will be for an organization led by marginalized communities, who may not be fluent in English, or who may not have writing experience or outside support. If your application is basically a Ph. D. dissertation, you’re perpetuating inequity.
Your LOI is a mini application: An LOI is the first step for many grant applications. Its purpose is for the funder to quickly discern if an organization is a potential good match for its priorities, kind of like samples of naturally fermented sauerkraut at the farmer’s market. It is usually just a two-page letter. But some funders seem to think that this should be an entire grant application and ask for budget attachments, logic models, workplans, resumes, board chair signature, etc. This totally misses the point of the LOI, and an insidious effect is that it creates an extra barrier for grassroots organizations led by communities that are of color, LGBTQ, rural, disabled, etc.
You require more than five attachments: It takes little effort to require something—“Hey, we should ask them to submit three previous years’ budget-to-actuals reports and next year’s budget projections, so we can see how they’ve been growing”— but the repercussions for many communities are significant. For instance, it takes you all of 30 seconds to ask for and look at a Logic Model, but Maria and her team had to spend 10 hours to develop this, since they had never heard of it before. Yes, it was good for them to have it, but the same information could have been obtained by asking “Please tell us about your activities and how they will lead to short-term and long-term results for your clients and community.” The more attachments you require, the more inequitable your process is, because marginalized communities have less time and resources to create the various documents you require.
You require organizations to translate their budget into your format: Yes, there are organizations with crappy budget formats. But a part of the problem may be that funders each require their own budget formats to be used, leading to all sorts of confusion. Most of us in the field would love one standardized budget template that all foundations use. But that is not what’s happening; for every grant application, no matter how big or small, we have to take hours to recombine and move numbers around in order to conform to varying templates. And again, organizations led by communities of color and other marginalized communities will be disproportionately affected, since they have less time. Not every organization has a CFO, one trained in using arcane Excel voodoo magic to get numbers to align perfectly in order to increase their final application score.
You overly rely on a scorecard to determine funding decisions: Score cards are a quick and simple way to distill complex information: 40 points possible for the narrative, 15 points for the budget, 10 points for the Theory of Change, etc. However, there are critical elements of an organization’s work that cannot be quantified: The value of the organization to its clients, historical traumas the communities it serves have faced, cultural elements of leadership, etc. These things are complex and messy, so we prefer not to deal with them at all. The score card gives us an illusion of objectivity, but it is an illusion, as well as a crutch. Use the score card as a tool for discussion, not as the primary means to make funding decisions. Equity requires us to take the harder path and deal with the messy stuff.
Your grant is invitation-only: I know some funders are well-meaning, trying to reduce admin costs of processing endless requests so that more funding can go to the community, and trying to save potential grantees’ time. However, organizations led by communities of color, for example, will rarely have the same relationship with you, or run in your circles to eventually build a relationship with you, or have a big enough marketing budget to get noticed by you. The relationship-based funding model is inequitable because marginalized communities in general have fewer relationships with those who have power and resources. Unless you are specifically focused on finding and supporting these communities, your invitation-only process is likely leaving them behind, and you may not know it, because you are invitation-only.
You are rigid in the percentage of an organization’s budget you will fund: Some foundations will fund no more than 15% of an organization’s budget; some only 20%, or whatever. But organizations led by marginalized communities will tend to have smaller budgets, so they will likely get less funding in general. If an organization led by communities of color has a budget of 100K, and you only fund 10% of any budget, then they cannot hope to get over 10K, whereas an organization with a budget of 1 million will be able to get 100K. Applying a rigid fixed percentage means organizations and communities that most need funding will get the least funding.
Your application takes more than six months to process: I know grant processes that take nine months to a year before applicants hear anything. Usually this is because the funders want to do a really thorough job considering every application. That’s commendable, but a lot can happen in nine months: Strategies change, cashflow dwindle, staff get laid off, babies are born, critical programs fold. The bigger, stronger organizations may be able to weather these various tumultuous changes, but many smaller organizations led by communities most affected by inequity, they in general have less buffer. The longer you take to make a decision, the less accessible and helpful you are to communities that are most affected by inequity.
Making the grant application process more equitable
In many ways, our grant application process is very similar to our hiring process, but it seems to be even more complicated: “We have a job opening available. To apply, please submit your cover, resume, credit history, personal budget, diploma, copy of driver’s license, professional development plan, three writing samples, work plan for your first 12 months on the job, your family tree, and five letters of recommendations.” We have archaic and inequitable hiring practices, and we wonder why we don’t have enough people of color in the field. We have archaic and inequitable grant processes, and we wonder why we don’t have enough organizations led by marginalized communities at various tables.
So, what should you do? Here are some suggestions, gathered with help from some of my hair-pulling, rapidly-aging, occasionally wall-punching colleagues:
Require most attachments AFTER you’ve decided to fund an organization. Once we organizations know we have a high likelihood of getting funded, we will gladly polish the logic model, create a theory of change diagram, compile 12 years of budget reports, make a shoebox diorama of our relationships to other orgs, write and perform a puppet play explaining our evaluation model, or whatever else you need. This will save everyone’s time and sanity and will greatly help organizations led by marginalized communities, since they don’t have much time to spare.
Provide technical assistance throughout the process: Help organizations make their case. Give feedback and provide support, especially for stuff you require. You might be thinking, “But, that’s not fair to organizations that don’t get the feedback and support.” I would say that fairness often gets in the way of equity. If we want to support communities of color, and LGBTQ, disabled, and rural communities, we must focus more attention and resources on them.
Segment your grant into two or more tracks, one for larger organizations, one for smaller organizations: It is inequitable and ineffective to expect small organizations who have few staff and likely no grantwriters to compete with established organizations who have dedicated grantwriting support. They will always be left in the dust. Have the big orgs compete with one another, and the small orgs compete with one another. (Note: Do not give less to the applicants in the smaller-orgs track; if anything, give more.)
Fund a larger percentage of smaller orgs’ budgets: Nonprofits founded and led by marginalized communities tend to have smaller budgets, so the funding they receive is critical. Dispense with the whole “we only fund 10% of your budget” thing. If an organization led by marginalized communities does important work, if it’s fulfilling a need that no one else is addressing, why not fund 30% or 50% or even 100% of its work? This support, especially in the beginning, is critical to ensuring these organizations gain their bearing, create infrastructure, develop a track record, and survive long enough to get other funding.
Create a simple renewal process: You already have a relationship with a grantee. Why make them jump through the same hoops and waste time when they should be focused on delivering services.
Ask applicants how much time they spent working on your grant: Maybe ask this instead of the irritating sustainability question. Analyze to see if there’s a pattern between organizations led by marginalized communities and those that are not. Or run through your own application process by creating a fictional nonprofit and actually writing a grant. I’m willing to bet that most foundations have never had to experience what it’s like to apply to their own grants.
And of course, stop being invitation-only. And give general operating funds, and give significant amounts that can help organizations grow. (Check out last’s weeks list of 12 awesome things funders are doing as they all help increase equity)
Less paternalism, more partnership
Overall, our grant application process needs to change. As much as we say that individual donors provide the largest chunk of funds for nonprofits, the reality is that this does not always apply to grassroots organizations led by communities that are of color, LGBTQ, disabled, rural, etc. These organizations usually have a stronger reliance on foundation support until they can establish a strong base of individual donors, which may take several years.
After I hung up with Maria, I chugged a small bottle of Wild Turkey from my mini bar and called up the program officer, who has been a great advocate for communities and leaders of color. The review team didn’t find some of the things she wrote to align with the grant’s priorities, I was told. That’s fine, I said, but why make a small grant so hard? Well, she replied, this is usually one of the first grants that small orgs seek out, and we want to make sure they develop some grantwriting skills; trial by fire, etc.
After venting to a colleague about how exhausting another grant was, I was told that the foundation designed this process to be challenging on purpose, in order to “help” nonprofits gain experience with difficult grants.
In each of the above scenarios, funders are well-meaning. But honestly, you’re just creating a self-fulfilling prophecy, where you perpetuate a difficult system and get others to navigate it, instead of questioning why it needs to be so difficult in the first place. If your foundation prides itself on a tough application process, it is priding itself for perpetuating inequity. You are proud of inadvertently leaving the communities most affected by injustice behind. If your process causes good people to want to quit nonprofit, something is wrong. And if these good people also happen to rank among the few leaders from marginalized communities doing this type of work, something is seriously wrong.
To achieve equity, we must focus on both content as well as process. The content in philanthropy has started shifting more and more toward equity, diversity, inclusion, etc. This is really great. But if the process doesn’t simultaneously shift, we’re not going to get anywhere. We must dispense with the belief that all organizations and communities have the same amount of time, and a full-time finance person, and a professional grantwriter. We must start to treat nonprofits, especially the ones led by leaders from marginalized communities, as partners, and support them to grow. The well-meaning paternalism of many grant application processes needs to stop.
These are all tall orders, and I am learning it the hard way, as my organization figures out our own process. We decided to accept handwritten applications, for example, and actually got an applicant who hand-wrote the application! But, I am positive we can do it. After all, we funders and quasi-funders are good-looking and smart, we can figure this out.