What We Learned: Changing Our Grant Criteria

In 2019, Washington Women’s Foundation changed our grant criteria for the first time in our 24-year history. Our new strategic framework, informed by input and ongoing feedback from members as well as nonprofit leaders and philanthropic partners, led us to adopt a new focus on increasing equity and reducing disparities in Washington State (to read more about our strategic planning process, please click here). Through the process of implementing this new grant criteria we learned more about community issues, practiced applying an equity lens to grantmaking, and built deeper connections with each other. Read on for more about what we learned.

In 2019, we invited a Letter of Inquiry from every organization that meets the following criteria:

  • Is focused on providing services to communities affected by inequity due to race, gender identity, and/or other characteristics historically linked to discrimination and/or exclusion.
  • Is accountable to the community being served. “Accountable” means
    • Ensures that people or communities being served are visibly leading;
    • Develops leadership of the people being served;
    • Engages the community being served in ongoing decision-making, planning, and assessment; and/or
    • Draws on the strengths and assets of the community being served to achieve the long-term goals of reducing disparities and increasing equity.
  • Has the expertise to do the work. “Expertise” includes being able to demonstrate
    • An understanding of the root causes of the issues facing the community being served.
    • A track record of success in reducing disparities and/or achieving more equitable outcomes

As with any grant process, reading applications helped us better understand the issues facing communities across Washington State. This past year, we learned about inequity in educational opportunity for preschoolers, efforts to shape public policy for an environmentally equitable future, the unique challenges of homeless women, health disparities for the Somali community, race-based gaps in arts access, and so much more. We received applications from organizations we had never heard from before and learned about different aspects of organizations we already had relationships with. The effort to infuse equity into nonprofit work is happening, we just had to ask the right questions to initiate the conversation.

Through reviewing Letters of Inquiry, reading full proposals, and going on site visits, we deepened our understanding about what accountability can look like in organizations. We learned that accountability does not necessarily mean representation by members of the community being served, though representation can be one way an organization demonstrates accountability. In applying any grant criteria, it’s natural to want clear-cut guidelines about what fits and what doesn’t, but using the term “accountability” allowed us to see the many unique ways organizations are incorporating the knowledge of the people being served into decision-making and program design. Looking at accountability instead of representation also meant that we went beyond “checking the box” of diverse leadership, but instead, developed an understanding of how an organization respectfully engages a community. Ensuring that an organization is responsive to the people being served is a complex question, so while the question made our evaluation and deliberations more challenging, I think we got better answers and had great conversations along the way.

Throughout this process we were again inspired by the power of group learning. Work groups wrestled through complex ideas together and helped each other develop a deeper understanding of the issues. Members challenged each other to think critically and bring their whole selves to this work. On staff, we adapted trainings and increased the support we offer to volunteer leaders.  However, the peer-to-peer learning had an even greater impact. So much of racial equity learning is deeply personal, yet having the chance to explore new ideas in a supportive environment leads to better understanding and real connection. Just ask our Environment Work Group! After exploring what environmental justice looks like in action, they recently got together for a summer picnic.

One of the biggest takeaways for us is that there is energy, urgency, and passion for this kind of engagement. Members are ready to be challenged and dive into hands-on learning even if it means difficult conversations. Organizations are excited to tell us about their work in different ways and continue to express gratitude for our listening to the needs of our community and centering those needs in our grantmaking process.

Prioritizing equity in our grantmaking has been a learning experience for everyone involved, and we’re looking forward to deepening our understanding further in our 25th year of grantmaking.  We invite you to continue learning with us by joining the 2020 Pooled Fund Grant Committee, coming to our events, or if you’re reading this as a nonprofit, submitting a grant application.

PS: Stay tuned for another blog post detailing the additional changes we’ve made to the grant criteria for next year. Members, save the date for a workshop to learn more about our grant criteria on October 17th. Nonprofits, we will be hosting three information sessions this fall to answer your questions about our grant criteria and process. The best way to stay informed about those information sessions is by signing up for our community newsletter, which you can do here.

5 responses to “What We Learned: Changing Our Grant Criteria

  1. Terrific article. Outstanding work went into figuring out what our new grant criteria should be, then applying it through our pool plan grants process. It’s so clear how many different women, sharing their thinking in collaborative work, move things forward. Many nonprofits were also part of this. A big thank you to everyone involved.

  2. This confirms for me that our Giving Circle is on target with changes we are making in our own grant criteria. Thank you for a great article. I would greatly appreciate speaking with Aviva further on other specific criteria

  3. Hats off to the Washington Women’s community. I continue to be inspired by your willingness to challenge yourselves. Your organizational heart – learning, generosity, community – is as strong as ever while the power of your grantmaking grows. Thank you for sharing your process and progress on this journey.

  4. Bravo to Aviva Stampfer for all her incredible work engaging members, volunteers and the nonprofit community in this important transformation in our grant work!

  5. Thank you Aviva for listening/reading all feedback from community organizations and making those changes.
    When I met you, I had your full attention when I was sharing about Mujer al Volante/Women Driving, you took the time to listen and learn about us. WA Women’s foundation is making a great difference.

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