Three Steps to Make Your Grantmaking Process More Equitable

A few months ago, I was working with a funder that wanted to address racial equity gaps in their grantmaking and I asked them to tell me about their process.

They sent me the link to apply for a grant on their website and a template their board uses to evaluate applications. After I pushed for more information, I realized that those two documents were the extent of their formalized process.

But these documents didn’t tell me anything about how they were creating their pipeline. What steps were they taking to ensure diverse candidates applied? How many conversations did they typically have with a potential grantee before inviting them to apply? Did they do site visits? How did they make their final decisions?

Answering these questions about informal steps in the process will help define your complete grantmaking process from start to finish. Once you’ve outlined your process, then you can begin to identify and eliminate equity gaps that make it harder for under-resourced organizations and efforts to receive funding.

How to find and eliminate equity gaps in your grantmaking process

1. Track diversity at every step of your pipeline

At any given time, another family foundation we work with typically has 80 to 100 organizations in various stages of its grant pipeline.

At the earliest stage, the foundation simply has a name, sometimes scribbled on the back of a business card, either of an organization or an individual who could become a future grantee. At the end of the process, the foundation invites an organization to apply for a grant. Between those two steps, there’s a series of meetings, deep dive discussions, and site visits to determine vision, mission, and values alignment.

Our client now tracks several diversity metrics at each stage of this process, and they also monitor the quantity and quality of time they spend with prospects. They recognize that a lack of diversity at any stage likely indicates an equity gap exists somewhere in the previous stage.

Beyond just tracking race and ethnicity, we encourage clients to track gender and factors specific to their field. In Colorado, our education-focused client tracks whether an organization serves urban or rural communities because these differing contexts require unique approaches.

The end goal of improving your grantmaking process is to remove barriers to funding for the leaders who are most connected to the communities they serve. That means it’s important to make sure the metrics you are tracking elevate and value lived experience in impacted communities and/or on issues of focus. Social issues cut across multiple identities, and effective solutions will take into account multiple diversity metrics.

2. Take a closer look at your application

Family foundations have the freedom to make their grant applications as formal or informal as they want. A funder could write a $10,000 check to their neighbor’s nephew’s nonprofit because they thought it sounded interesting over backyard beers. But if access to all of their grants required that someone had a personal connection to them, that presents an obvious equity gap limiting funding to those already in their network.

On the other end of the spectrum, some foundations make their applications overly complex, asking for extensive attachments or budgets written out in a non-standard format. For a startup nonprofit with a tiny staff, spending any more than 10 or 15 hours to apply for a $5,000 or $10,000 grant is just not sustainable.

Your application needs to balance your staff and your board’s need for information to make decisions with the organization’s need to gain funding while also running the programs they’re seeking funding for.

One way to figure out if your application is overly burdensome for grantees is to ask them. Surveying your grantees is a crucial part of the process of improving equity in your grantmaking. To get honest answers, you will most likely need to bring in a third party, whether that’s a local philanthropic consultant or a national organization like the Center for Effective Philanthropy. A local consultant can help you customize your survey and conduct it in a way that gathers qualitative data and feedback, while CEP’s standardized assessments offer the benefit of helping you benchmark your survey results against similar funders around the country.

When crafting your application, there’s a simple gut-check you can use to keep from getting too complicated. Ask yourself two questions: 1) How much effort will it take grantees to answer this? 2) Is this something we absolutely need to know or is it just something we would like to know?

Leave the “want to know” questions for future check-in visits with grantees after you’ve provided the funding, especially if they’ll take a long time for grantees to answer. Trim your application down to only the questions you must know the answers to before bringing an applicant to your board.

3. Evaluate who has access to apply for your grants

If your grant is invitation-only, it’s your team’s responsibility to make sure under-resourced communities have access to your funding. To find leaders from these communities, you have to make constant efforts to expand your network. That effort starts with a personal reflection about who you know and who you spend time with, both professionally and personally. When you identify gaps in your network, you have to do the legwork of identifying people to fill those gaps and then connecting with them. You never know who will introduce you to your next grantee.

My personal tactic for constantly expanding my network is to look at the authors of the dozens of articles on philanthropy and social issues I read each week. Sometimes I recognize the authors or their organizations, but if I come across an author I don’t know, and I appreciate the article, I try to find a mutual connection who could make an introduction or reach out directly to start to build a relationship with them.

If your application is online and open to all, you’re still not off the hook. Every minute that your grantees spend combing the internet for funding opportunities is a minute they are not spending in service of their mission. It shouldn’t be the sole responsibility of the grantee to find you. How do you make sure word gets to your desired applicants?

My advice is to take a cue from the college admissions world. To improve diversity on campus, universities must spend money and time recruiting directly from under-resourced communities or partnering with other organizations to do so. Foundations and their staff must also go to the communities where nonprofit leaders of color associate. Show up at relevant city or town meetings and community meetings. Ask your current grantees for recommendations. Proactively reach out to affinity groups and networks for leaders of color. All of these options are good places to start.

Breaking down barriers is a continuous process

Grantmaking happens in a continuous cycle, and so does the work to break down barriers to equity. You can’t go through this process once and expect to find and fix every equity gap. You have to commit to analyzing your outcomes regularly to see how the changes you make are affecting your results.

Tools like the D5 Coalition’s DEI Self-Assessment can help you systematically track your improvement from year-to-year. As you identify new gaps, make a few more changes, and track the impact of those changes. When you identify a change that breaks down barriers for under-resourced communities, keep doing it.

Evaluating your grantmaking process from the first contact with an organization or an individual all the way through the final funding decision and into your ongoing grantee support operations will help you provide every program in your field an equitable opportunity to receive funding and support. Ultimately, a more equitable process will transform your grantee portfolio until it more closely resembles the communities you seek to serve.

The views and opinions expressed in individual blog posts are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the National Center for Family Philanthropy.