In 2019, Washington Women’s Foundation (WaWF) members expressed a strong interest in exploring grantmaking around a specific topic. The Board of Directors allocated $50,000 from member contributions made in 2019 to fund this pilot initiative. In January 2021, we first invited members and community members to participate in the Issue-Based Grant Pilot by participating on the pilot’s design team and research committee. The Design Team set parameters for grantmaking structure, and made decisions about committee membership, application process, number, size, and type of grants, along with a consideration of time commitment and partnerships. The Research Committee selected additional parameters around the size, type of organization, and population focus. The Research Committee also selected three issues for a membership vote: Mental Health, Housing/Homelessness, Healthcare System/Access. Members selected Mental Health as the issue to focus on in the May 2021 Ballot. We are so grateful to all who served on the Design Team, Research Committee, and Issue-Based Grant Committee for their investment in this process.
In August of 2021, we invited open nominations of organizations focused on mental health that:
- Are Black-led and serving the Black community
- Are small to mid-size organizations (budgets under $1 million)
- Are engaging in advocacy and/or community organizing as part of their work
We collected anonymous nominations via an online survey and in email. 40 unique organizations were nominated, many of which received multiple nominations. Some organizations were recommended for nomination directly to staff as they recruited members for the Issue-Based Grant Committee. A few benefits of the open nomination process were that we received nominations for organizations that were new to us as a foundation and/or just getting started in their work. Thank you to everyone who participated in the nomination process by sharing the work of organizations in our community.
This pilot was an interesting challenge for our committee, as well as a wonderful opportunity to learn about incredible work being done by Black-led organizations in our community. Our committee was comprised of community members and WaWF members, and each of us took seriously the work of stewarding this grant process. In concluding this cycle, we have a few lessons we would like to consider as we move into the re-imagined process for our 2022 Collective Grants.
We’re delighted to announce our five new grantees:
Kingmakers of Seattle: supports the cultural, historical, social, and emotional needs of young Black boys and teens as it relates to their identity.
Mother Africa: advances racial equity through supporting African refugee and immigrant women and their families to reach their highest potential.
Muslimah’s Against Abuse Center: empowers and educates women and young girls of color to overcome their past traumas and live successful lives.
WA Therapy Fund Foundation: grants free therapeutic services to those within the Black community who are in need, and suffering from racial trauma, anxiety, depression, and other ailments due to systemic oppression, economic sufferings, and intergenerational trauma that has not been addressed in the past.
You Grow Girl: empowers female youth in Seattle and King County through mentorship, counseling, and sisterhood.
During the research, design, and membership vote phases of this pilot, we defined mental health as the emotional, psychological, and social well-being that affects how we think, feel, and act, and how we handle stress, relate to others and make choices (mentalhealth.gov). Although we carried this definition into the first Issue-Based Grant Committee meeting, the first challenge we encountered was that not everyone in our group agreed on this definition. For our work, this conundrum meant that we couldn’t agree on the most effective leverage: 1) to fund organizations providing direct therapeutic care to people with diagnosable mental illnesses in the Black community; OR 2) to fund organizations working to instill wellness and resilience in the Black community by supporting mothers, young children, and other folks suffering from the mental health consequences of homelessness, violence, racism, and trauma. There were members of the committee who felt strongly that we should use the former as our driving principle and others who felt we should use the latter. In the end, we decided to spread our funding over both approaches.
A second challenge made clear during our first meeting was that there was limited committee representation from the community served, as nearly all of us were white. This meant that the voices of those we were tasked with serving were largely absent from this process. In future committees, it’s important to make sure that there are more seats at the table for folks whose lived experience aligns with our funding priorities.
Finally, the scope of this project and our ability to deepen our learning about these organizations was quite limited. We designed the process to limit the burden on nonprofits. However, not requiring a full application or site visit, which were key components of limiting the burden on nonprofits, produced their own challenges. Most significantly, we struggled to find the information we wanted during our research and were often left with more questions than answers. Very few of us had heard of many of the 29 organizations on our original nomination list and it was uncomfortable to work with limited information, especially when it came to making those final funding decisions. We struggled with the research process and our inability to ask for input from the community we were serving.
While we waded through these challenges, we came out with some important learnings. First we learned that mental health work is expansive. The nominated organizations support people at every stage of life – from birth to death. Of course, the Black community is no different from the rest of the social service and healthcare world in subscribing to a very broad continuum of what mental health is and what mental health services cover. As such, the question of where on that continuum help is most needed is a hard one to answer.
Secondly, we learned that our initial group agreement about being comfortable with no closure was essential to this pilot. With only three committee meetings before we selected our grantees, the process was very quick and we had limited access to information about each organization. Even in our final meeting, there were remaining unanswered questions about many of the potential grantees, and we had to let that truth just be. In a similar sense, we also found that our group agreement about allowing space for multiple truths was extremely important and very alive throughout our work together. We worked hard to appreciate our own differences, both around the definition of where mental health funding is most needed in the Black community, as well as around our own understanding of mental health problems in general. We think we were fairly successful in allowing space for multiple truths to exist.
Finally, we were impressed with how bold this committee was in terms of being vulnerable with one another and sharing openly. Undoubtedly, our work benefited from the group’s commitment to compassionate courage within conversation. We found that our compressed time frame, the extremely skillful facilitation, and the narrow scope of our research parameters allowed for a process that reached deep into our own individual willingness to speak from our experiences and beliefs. This was more than a committee. It was a group of people trying hard, together, to do right not only to the subject, but to each other.
As we move into the 2022 Collective Grants cycle, our primary takeaways from this pilot are, first, that the three annual priorities of the Collective Grants need to be clearly defined. Even with the new LOI process, we also believe it is important to bring more on-the-ground intelligence to bear as we make our selections, which is why having community members participate in our grantmaking is so essential. At the same time, we need to dig deeper into the meaning of trust-based philanthropy so that we can truly practice it. We recognize that relationships within trust-based philanthropy exist not only between us and organizations, but also between WaWF members, and between WaWF members and community members. We found that partnering WaWF members and community members within this pilot was an important way to build and further those trust-based relationships. Finally, it would greatly benefit the grantmaking process if members could learn more about how to research the various priorities and potential grantees, as this is where we wrestled with a few of our challenges.
Overall, this experience was deeply meaningful for many of us. We developed strong bonds with our research partners and had the privilege of learning about some truly transformational work. We look forward to how this pilot will inform future grant committees, especially as we prepare for the first cycle of our Collective Grants in 2022.