This blog post is by President and CEO Tiffany Donelson, about a new grant application process we undertook this year.
Making the grants process more accessible and equitable has been a topic of conversation in philanthropy for many years. If seeking a grant from us requires employing a grant writer or having the time to fill out an extensive application using the jargon of foundations, we miss the opportunity to support smaller organizations doing fantastic work and our funding will not be equitable.
A few years ago, at a Grantmakers for Effective Organizations conference, I learned about an approach that attempts to remove some of these barriers: holding a “pitch day.” The idea is to open our doors literally and figuratively, to allow potential grantees to share information about their work through conversation, rather than having to convey it in an application.
We decided to hold our first pitch day this year, as we embarked on a new grant program known as the Patricia Baker Awards for Health Equity Policy and Advocacy, named and in honor of our founding president and CEO. Our goal was to build new relationships with grassroots organizations whose work aligns with advancing health equity. Instead of having them start with a concept paper or written application, we began with a (virtual) conversation.
The results were phenomenal. We got to know people doing fantastic things in their communities, and laid the groundwork for what we hope will be lasting partnerships. We also learned a lot – about what works and doesn’t with this approach, about our organization, and about what we still need to do to make our grants process more accessible.
Here are a few things we learned.
Think broadly about what you will fund.
We initially envisioned this funding opportunity as a way to support capacity-building work for grassroots organizations, and detailed it in the request for proposals. Some organizations sought funds for work that would fit our definition, but others had different needs that would also help move their work or their organizations forward. Since our goal was to build relationships with organizations that can help to advance health equity, we recognized quickly that it was more important to support the work they thought was important than to make sure it checked every box in our definition of capacity-building. Next time, we’ll begin with that understanding.
Emphasize relationship-building, not competition.
To some, the concept of a pitch day can evoke the show “Shark Tank” – a competition in which people coming before potential investors with an idea to sell. For us, it was more about an opportunity to build relationships and learn whether there was alignment between their work and ours. We made sure that we had the funding to support every applicant that met the parameters (in some cases, through other grant initiatives). We emphasized to applicants that this was an opportunity for us to learn more about them and for them to learn more about us.
We’re not as accessible as we might think.
We’ve tried to make our grant applications more accessible, but the things we heard during these meetings made clear that we still have a long way to go. We’ve tried to pare down our applications over the years, and have even included grantees in our application revisions. However, finding the time to answer all the questions can still be challenging for busy advocates or community organizers who are already overstretched addressing the needs of their communities. For this process, we required organizations we funded to fill out a brief application (shorter than our usual application), but for some, that remained a challenge. We’re thinking about how to further refine this part.
Technical assistance is an important resource.
These experiences also helped us recognize the importance of tailored technical assistance for grantees – whether it’s funding time with a grant-writer, connection to assistance to become a 501c3 organization, or support building a strategic plan.
Holding meetings virtually had unexpected benefits.
Experience suggests that meeting people in person is most conducive to building relationships. Because of the pandemic, we held our pitch meetings via Zoom, and it had unexpected advantages. Nobody had to travel. In one meeting, we heard from a woman while she held her young child; had we met in person, she would have likely needed to find child care. Going forward, we plan to maintain the virtual option for these meetings.
Finding a way to support local work as a statewide organization.
Our foundation is statewide. We typically focus on policy at the state level, since most of the systems we address are primarily run by state government. However, there is a huge amount of strong grassroots advocacy and community-building work taking place at the local level. Meeting many of these advocates and organizers led us to recognize the need to better incorporate locally based advocacy into our work.
As with most things in life, this is a journey. We know that to truly transform community well-being, we must meaningfully and genuinely engage communities. We are committed to improving to make sure our processes are welcoming and accessible. This process is the start of a pathway. We continue to listen, learn, and grow.