Funders, Your Grant Application Process May Be Perpetuating Inequity

Illustration depicting a computer screen capture with a grants concept.

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).


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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 clock-474128_640gladly 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.

Are You or Your Org Guilty of Trickle-Down Community Engagement

A while ago, I was talking to a friend, another Executive Director, and he said, “Have you noticed that everyone is getting paid to engage us communities of color except us communities of color?” Sigh. Yes, I have noticed. I’ve been thinking a lot about this, and have come up with a term to describe it. Trickle-Down Community Engagement (TDCE). This is when we bypass the people who are most affected by issues, engage and fund larger organizations to tackle these issues, and hope that miraculously the people most affected will help out in the effort, usually for free.

In Seattle, if you’re a person of color and you walk down a dark alley late at night and you feel like you’re being followed, it’s probably someone trying to do some community engagement.

“Psst…hey buddy—Go Hawks!—you want to attend a summit? It’s about economic inequity. We need your voice.” “Daddy, I’m scared!” “Stay calm, Timmy; don’t look him in the eye.” “Come on, help a guy out! Here, you each get some compostable sticky dots to vote on our top three priorities! You can vote on different priorities, or, if you like, you put more than one dot on—” “Run, Timmy!”

This is why you should never take your kid down a dark alley in Seattle.

Needs Assessment, Ownership and Community Engagement

There are several reasons why TDCE happens. First, the nonprofit sector has all sorts of unwritten rules designed to be successfully navigated only by mainstream organizations (See “The game of nonprofit, and how it leaves some communities behind.”) Second, 90% of funding in the nonprofit world is relationship-based, which screws over marginalized communities, who have much fewer relationships with funders and decision-makers. Third, due to existing definitions, many organizations led by marginalized groups “don’t have the capacity.” They’re “small and disorganized,” they are “not ready to be leaders in these efforts.” Fourth, community engagement has been seen as the icing on the cake, and not an essential ingredient, so it is always last to be considered. Fifth, many funders and decision-makers focus on sexy short-term gains, not effective long-term investments.

Look, I’m not saying anyone is intentionally trying to discriminate against certain communities. Everyone is well-intentioned. Diversity, equity, inclusion, and cultural competency have risen to the front of people’s minds. Organizations are scrambling to talk about these issues, to diversify their board, to get community input. That is all great and all, but it has only been leading to marginalized communities being irritated and frustrated. Every single week, we leaders of color get asked to provide input, to join an advisory committee, attend a summit, to fill out a survey. Because of this well-intentioned mandate to engage with communities, we get bombarded with requests to do stuff for free.

Trickle-Down Community Engagement is pretty dangerous, for several reasons. When people who are most affected by issues are not funded and trusted to lead the efforts to address them:

It perpetuates the Capacity Paradox. The Capacity Paradox is when an organization cannot get significant funding because it has limited capacity, so it cannot develop its capacity, which leads it to not being able to get significant funding, which means it can’t develop its capacity. This greatly affects organizations led by communities of color and other marginalized communities. And then they can’t be as involved, which leads to ineffective efforts to tackle issues. (See “Capacity building for communities of color: The paradigm must shift.”)

It’s annoying as hell. In every single issue, I keep seeing larger, well-connected organizations getting significant funding but are not effective at engagement. So they pester us smaller ethnic-led orgs to help. I was asked by a collective impact backbone org to be involved with planning a summit to engage communities of color. I advised them not to do it, and told them that I’ve been to far too many summits that suck (See: “Community Engagement 101: Why most summits suck.”) Next thing I knew, they organized the summit anyway, asked my organization to help with outreach, and asked me personally to translate their outreach material into Vietnamese! All for free, of course! (“Run, Timmy!!”)

It’s intrinsically wrong. We, above any other field, must act on the belief that people most affected by inequities must be leaders in the movement. It is the right thing to do. Imagine a group of men leading an effort and making important decisions on women’s issues like reproductive health, and then asking women to come give feedback at a meeting. Or a bunch of idiots who don’t know anything about science leading a committee on climate change and asking scientists to come testify about global warming. These scenarios are ridiculous, which is why they happen in Congress.

Most importantly, it doesn’t work and is even counterproductive. If TDCE actually works, then we’d have little to argue about. But it does not. Well-intentioned but useless and sometimes even harmful stuff get voted on and implemented. For example, at a meeting I was invited to someone said, “We need to put 100% of funding into early learning instead of splitting it among early learning and youth development” and I had to remind them that “Many immigrant and refugee kids get here when they’re older than 5, so they’d be screwed if you only invest in early learning. We need to support the entire continuum of kids’ development.” (See “Youth Development, why it is just as important as early learning“) Unfortunately, by the time a mainstream organization finally gets to that community feedback forum or summit to get feedback on their well-intentioned but crappy plan or policy, it is too late.

Trickle-Down Community Engagement sucks and is insulting. The sector needs to stop only supporting major organizations and hope that magically the people disproportionately affected whom we don’t fund will join in. Or at the very least, we should stop whining about it when they don’t. We organizations led by marginalized communities are tired and irritated at excuses like “We can’t invest in you guys because you’re too small,” coupled with the constant requests for us to be involved. Don’t just give three drops of water to your rainbow carrots, wonder why they aren’t growing, and then whine about the lack of color in your salad.

As I said, everyone is well-intentioned. But Trickle-Down Community Engagement is harmful, and we need to all be aware of it and put a stop to it:

Funders: Review your investments for every priority. Are the issues you are trying to address disproportionately affecting some groups? Are those groups getting equitably funded and supported or are you just giving them token funding? Are they leading the effort or just playing bit parts on the side? If you are funding mainstream organizations to address challenges affecting marginalized communities, look at their budget request to see how much of it is to be shared with partner organizations that are led by affected communities. Stop being fooled by well-intentioned mainstream efforts that claim to represent marginalized communities but that are only tokenizing and using them. I’ve seen a well-funded coalition list over 80 diverse organizations as member, but on closer examination, several of these groups aren’t aware that they are members, or they no longer even exist!

Donors: See above paragraph. In addition, know that organizations led by marginalized communities tend to be smaller, so they need your support more. Unfortunately, they don’t have the same relationship with you or the same marketing and development capacity as bigger and better known organizations. Seek them out. Your support matters.

Mainstream organizations: Sorry, it seems like I’ve been beating up on you a lot. That’s not my intentions. You guys do awesome stuff and play critical roles. But review your projects and budgets, and examine your role and the dynamics you are contributing to. Are you building in funding to share with community partners, or are you just asking people to do stuff for free in the name of “community engagement”? Are you siphoning funding to address issues that other nonprofits should be tackling but they don’t yet have the capacity? Are you mentoring smaller nonprofits through strategic partnerships? Are you serving as an advocate for these groups, since you have better relationships with funders?

Organizations led by marginalized communities: Learn when to say yes and when to say no. I’ve seen too many small nonprofits agree to do outreach, to be partners, to even run programs for tiny amounts of funding. I’ve done it myself. My last organization, when it was much smaller, partnered with a bigger org who could not reach students of color. They asked us to organize a 2-hour workshop for over 100 diverse kids each month for a year. You know how much we got to do that? $2500 total, and we had to itemize and have receipts for every pencil we bought! The big organization who “partnered” with us got all the credit, of course. All of us can be so naïve, signing on to coalitions without researching first, lending our names to summits without due diligence, doing outreach and translation for free. It just perpetuates a terrible and ineffective system that continues to leave our communities behind. Learn to say no, to give feedback firmly, and to build strategic relationships.

Equity, diversity, inclusion, community engagement, etc. those are all good, but they can also be irritating, misleading, and even harmful if not done right. Trickle-Down Community Engagement is an example of good-intention poorly executed. If we want marginalized communities to be engaged, we need to fund and support them directly to be engaged. Community Engagement cannot be the icing on the chocolate cake of equity and social justice. It is the chocolate!

HUD Awarded $7.5 Million to Assist Disabled & Elderly Americans Live Independently

Wheelchair in Front of Adapted Home 1In late September, HUD’s Secretary Julián Castro made the announcement that nearly $8 million in grant funding will be used to assist thousands of people with disabilities and senior citizens receive healthcare, meals, and other daily living activities and services in the comforts of their own homes, arranged by service coordinators.  Living independently as a disabled person or senior citizen, if possible, is important to one’s psyche, sense of well-being, and being afforded the opportunity to be fully comfortable in your own living quarters.  Becoming aware of the $7.5 million grants HUD awarded through its Multifamily Housing Service Coordinator Program (MHSC), I knew that I had to share this positive move towards increasing independence opportunities with the SWH readers.

Secretary Castro made the following statement about how the use of service coordinators will be vital to these particular populations:

Service coordinators connect senior citizens and those living with disabilities with the services they need to live independently … These grants will go a long way toward ensuring these vulnerable populations are well served and allowed to age in place.

The 39 grants awarded will be bestowed upon 39 owners of private housing developments that receive rental subsidies from the Department to house those who are low-income in 21 states.  The grant awardees are subject to hire or contract service coordinators who will be responsible for providing social services and assistance to residents who are disabled and elderly.  The grant money will cover costs related to salary, benefits, quality assurance, training, office space, equipment, and other related administrative expenses needed to retain and support these coordinators working for the grant awardees to provide these resources to residents.

Why is this grant award announcement so important?  Having the ability to stay in one’s home while conquering severe medical conditions has been proven to be beneficial to one’s overall health and improvement.  There is truly no place like home, and when you have chronic illnesses or disabilities, being in familiar surroundings eliminates the issue of having to recover in cold, foreign, unfriendly, sterile environments such as nursing homes and hospitals.  Being comfortable, location wise, is a priority for those with disabilities and our seniors, just as pain management and effective medical treatments are.  Being a helping professional, I have seen clients’ health and will to fight deteriorate when they were removed from their homes, and I have witnessed the complete opposite – clients’ health stabilized or deteriorated at a slower rate because they had the opportunity to remain at home.  Of course, remaining at home may not be the opportune choice in certain circumstances, but if it is favorable, it should be heavily considered as a possible option versus being institutionalized or hospitalized.

Another key point to note is that it is more cost-effective and cost-efficient for someone to remain in their home instead of being placed in an institutional setting; the latter would cost thousands of dollars each year just to house one resident.  The need for more federally-supported programs to assist in allowing individuals to live independently will undeniably reduce the financial strain on our healthcare system when it comes to this aspect.

Seeing that the well-being and quality of life of disabled and elderly Americans is on the consciousness of federal entities like HUD is imperative to ensure that everyone has a fair chance of living independently to the best of their abilities in our communities.

(Featured headline image:  Courtesy of The Little House Company.)
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