Uncertainty Leads to Adaptability and Resilience on IAC

Impact Assessment Committee meeting over Zoom
Impact Assessment Committee meeting over Zoom

We asked Margit Rankin to share a reflection from this past year’s Impact Assessment Committee (IAC). Margit has been a member since 2009 and has served on the Pooled Fund Grant, Discovery Days, and Impact Assessment Committees.

For the Impact Assessment Committee (IAC), as for our grantees, this season necessitated a fair amount of adaptability in the face of uncertainty and rapidly changing circumstances. The 47 members of IAC, which includes 15 dedicated Executive Directors (EDs), were impressed by both the resiliency and resourcefulness of grantee organizations. We also saw the increased need for flexible operating support when dedicated and sometimes fragile organizations need to pivot quickly with limited resources to serve clients and populations already strained by unequal resources. While important for everyone under the current circumstances, unrestricted operating support is possibly even more important for organizations focusing on equity and social justice, as well as those led by and serving underserved populations of color which face even greater challenges.

Prepared for in-person site visits to each of our 15 active grantees, our 15 IAC teams moved quickly to virtual site visits in March. Additionally, in recognition that organizations—and especially their hardworking EDs—were dealing with much larger issues as the scope of the pandemic and economic crisis expanded rapidly, we postponed and/or canceled visits as appropriate to the circumstances of each organization.

One important goal of IAC is always to build partnerships with grantees. We do this by engaging in ongoing meaningful conversations about the challenges and success these organizations face for three years after receiving a WA Women’s Foundation grant. This year, typical questions were magnified: would grantees be able to offer their programs, adapt as necessary, remain open or reopen in a timely manner to serve their communities/clients, retain and pay staff, stay healthy, maintain donors and traditional sources of grants and/or earned income? We saw an extraordinary amount of resilience and adaptability. One grantee ED reported wearing “a nice top and tennis shoes” to work since her days consisted of Zoom meetings and making deliveries of emergency supplies from her car to families in the neighborhood, many of whom are immigrants without access to unemployment, food stamps, and other emergency relief. We discovered that access to state and federal emergency relief programs, like the PPP and Emergency Disaster Relief loans, often relied on strong pre-existing banking relationships and/or the ability to navigate complex and time-consuming application processes.

In addition to adapting our standard site visit procedures and reports, in May the IAC also checked in on close to 20 grantee organizations the WA Women’s Foundation has funded over the past four years. Building on the strong relationships we’ve developed, these check-in calls were a chance for us to live our values. We also hope that what we learned could inform future grant cycles and our responsiveness moving forward in unusual circumstances. IAC team leaders called grantees to find out how they were doing, how their organizations were responding to the coronavirus, and how their plans, programs, staffing, funding, and ultimately their ability to engage with their communities had necessarily changed. The ground continues to shift under nonprofits’ feet at a remarkable pace. It is clear that uncertainty is the new normal. Grantee EDs are under even more stress than usual. Many organizations will not be able to provide services/programs as anticipated; most have already pivoted to serving immediate perceived needs as possible; it is also unfortunately possible that some organizations will not be able to secure the necessary resources to continue to operate in the long term.

On the whole among our recent grantees, arts organizations currently appear to be the most vulnerable, including the ones whose entrepreneurial strength generated a significant portion of operating income from earned rather than contributed income. When all sources of revenue are suddenly cut off, existential questions of how they will survive are front and foremost. We learned that many foundations, corporate support, and individual donors appear to be focusing on other immediate needs. This shift is happening at the same time that venues remain closed and audiences are impossible in any significant numbers, such that entry fees, ticket sales, and earned income are virtually nonexistent. Our Arts grantees are not alone; this is a real challenge to the entire arts industry. Among Education grantees, continued uncertainty about the resumption of school, classes, and possible formats for serving students remain an ongoing question. Health grantees are seeing increased needs and some increased resources with the global focus on COVID-19. As we now know, however, people of color are affected more significantly by the pandemic. Likewise, Human Services grantees face significant increased needs and some difficulty providing direct services. Recent Environment grantees appeared (in early stages of the pandemic) the best positioned to weather the economic storm in terms of reliability and consistency of funding sources, as well as an ability to work outdoors and/or remotely.

This year, as part of ongoing efforts to be responsive to years of shared wisdom and feedback from the EDs serving on the IAC, as well as consistent feedback from grantee organizations, IAC submitted a proposal to the Board to make funding available to support EDs. Our proposal outlined that this support could come in the form of professional development, executive coaching, and professionally facilitated peer support networks. Over the years we have seen frequent turnover at grantee organizations, as EDs suffer burnout or have to wear (too) many hats, especially in cases where organizations are thinly staffed. It is becoming increasingly clear that as we support organizations which do not have robust infrastructures and resources to support and retain leaders that it will be all the more necessary to support EDs as a strategic way to increase resilience in the field. IAC was pleased that the Board responded with the establishment of a new capacity building fund, which could be deployed by organizations for these, and additional, purposes. More information will be shared on this grant initiative in the fall.

In addition to the economic crisis and pandemic, events following the murder of George Floyd further impacted many of our grantee organizations deeply, reinforcing the importance of continued focus on issues of equity and social justice and the embrace of anti-racism as a strategy for authentic activism.

Enormous thanks, as always to the EDs who volunteer their valuable time and expertise to serve on IAC: Annie Blackledge, The Mockingbird Society; Deb Salls, Bike Works; Deeann Puffert, Child Care Aware of WA; Holly Jacobson, Path with Art; Jennifer Bright, Freedom Education Project Puget Sound; John Morse, Amara; Jon Botten, Childhaven; LaNesha DeBardelaben, Northwest African American Museum; Line Sandsmark, Shunpike; Marlette Buchanan, Seattle Music Partners; Mary Ellen Stone, King County Sexual Assault Resource Center; Melissa Pailthorp, Team Read; Mike Stevens, The Nature Conservancy; Nela Cumming, Encompass Northwest; and Ruth Dickey, Seattle Arts & Lectures.

As has been said by IAC chairs before, having EDs on the IAC is our “secret sauce,” a significant part of what makes the IAC process meaningful. With extraordinary thanks to Aviva and Beth for remarkable help and leadership, I am pleased to pass the baton to the capable leadership of Chair Ginny Trethewey and Vice Chair Ellen Look.

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