Tag Archives: grantmaking

Philanthropy and the Destructive Illusion of “Leveling the Playing Field”

[Image description: Closeup of a person kneeling on a race track, as if in preparation to run in a race. They are wearing shorts and holding a baton. Image from Pixabay.com]

A few months ago a program officer and I were talking about the lack of funding that goes to communities-of-color-led nonprofits (only about 10% of philanthropic dollars go to organizations of color). He shook his head in sympathy and frustration, sipping on his coffee. “There has to be a way to level the playing field,” he said. This was probably the third time that quarter I had heard that phrase uttered by a funder. 

This concept of “Leveling the Playing Field” is very present in our sector in our society, like cats or skinny jeans, and we don’t really question it at all. We assume that it is a good thing. If we just make it so that competitions are “fair,” then the people/groups with the most merit, the best ideas and proposals, will win. If we can just make the field more even, then everyone will be able to play the game and everything is good. 

This philosophy has led some thoughtful funders to accept applications in Spanish or other languages, accept handwritten applications, or accept non-written formats such as videos or photos (Although, how effective is this last one when my one-man show, The Agony and Ecstasy of Capacity Building, has never resulted in funding?). 

Those practices are great, but can they level the playing field? Can the funding field ever be “level”?

I say no. The funding field can never ever truly be leveled, and the hopeful belief that it can has been preventing us from making profound changes in funding practices that would lead to resources going to the communities that are most affected by injustice. I know it is nice to believe that we can achieve an even, fair, unbiased competitive process, but the reality is that the combination of unconscious biases, the capacity paradox, and unequal access to relationships with funders will make sure that there is no possible way we can truly reach a state where all organizations, including ones led by marginalized communities, can “fairly” compete for funding:

Unconscious biases: All of us are unconsciously biased in one way or another. There have been lots of studies on this. For example, the often-cited one showing that resumes with black-sounding names in an experiment are significantly less likely to move to the interview round, even though the resumes are exactly the same as the ones with white-sounding names.

If we did a similar experiment (and we should) where we have the same grant proposals, but some are from organizations perceived to be more “mainstream,” and others with organizations perceived to be more “minority,” I’m pretty sure we will have similar results. This does not mean that people are bad—because, again, all of us have unconscious biases (Find out yours through this online test designed by Harvard)—but we all need to acknowledge that our implicit biases will ensure that we will never ever be completely objective when determining which organizations to fund.

Capacity Paradox: Even if the field were perfectly level, it does not mean that everyone will be able to compete equally. Organizations have different levels of capacity. Some have a team of development and grantwriting staff while others have a one or two or no paid staff in total. Some have staff who are well-trained in fund seeking; others rely on volunteers who have never written a grant proposal before. Some nonprofit leaders have authored dissertations; others are starting to learn English. To expect them to compete with each other is like expecting someone who hasn’t eaten in twelve days to race against a well-fed, trained, and rested person. It doesn’t matter if the tracks are “level.” Even giving the hungry person a head start may not be enough to compensate.

The sad thing, if we want to extend the analogy, is if these two people are competing for food. Winner gets to eat, which creates a horrible cycle where the starving person continues to starve. Sadly, that’s exactly what it’s like in our current funding system, where the Capacity Paradox is the default: organizations that do not have capacity to get resources continue to struggle to get resources to develop their capacity, no matter how “fair” we try to make the race.

Unequal access to relationships: Relationships are critical in sector. The best services, programs, collaborations, boards, office culture—everything—are grounded by strong relationships. I have seen many amazing program officers develop strong and trusting professional relationships with nonprofit leaders from marginalized communities, leading to critical funding for these communities.

But still, the reliance on relationships can be extremely harmful. The competition for relationships is just as inequitable as the competition for money, and smaller, grassroots organizations led by marginalized communities will simply not have as much time or as many staff to devote to developing relationships with funders. When the ED is literally unloading sacks of potatoes to give to hungry families, as I saw a colleague do when I was checking in on her one day, it is hard for them to find the extra time or energy required to form strong relationships that may lead to funding.

The combination of these and others reasons, such as cultural differences in communication, ensure that we will never be able to reach this “level playing field” in the funding landscape no matter how hard we try. The belief that a level playing field is achievable often results in bizarre situations, such as my organization, a capacity building and leadership org, once having to compete with a preschool program for the same fund. 

More seriously, the belief is dangerous because it weaves an illusion of equity and allows us to be complacent. Accepting applications in another language is great, but will it actually lead to profound organizational or systems changes that true equity requires?

Again, I say no. If a rule or process is inequitable to begin with, making exceptions instead of trying to change the rule or process still reinforces the inequity. 

So what’s the alternative? The solution that true equity demands is to create entirely new fields, fields that are targeted specifically for the communities that are most affected by systemic injustice. Funders must help figure out which communities are experiencing the most inequity, then target significant long-term funding specifically toward organizations and movements that are visibly led by and serving those communities, demonstrated by the majority of their board and staff, not just their clients, being from those communities.

What does this look like? Here are some examples:

If your foundation cares about the tragically high rates of missing Native women, then create a significant, multi-year fund that can ONLY be accessed by organizations led by Native/indigenous people to address this critical issue. Make it very clear that every applicant must have at least 75% of their board and staff be Native. Disqualify all organizations from consideration that do not meet this basic criterion. 

If your foundation cares about the horrifically high rates of black men being unjustly incarcerated, then create a significant, multi-year fund that can ONLY be accessed by organizations led by and serving the black community. Make it very clear that every applicant must have at least 75% of their board and staff be black. Disqualify all organizations from consideration that do not meet this basic criterion. 

If your foundation wants to address the constant employment discrimination faced by people with disabilities, then create a significant, multi-year fund that can ONLY be accessed by organizations led by people with disabilities. Make it very clear that every applicant must have at least 75% of their board and staff be people with disabilities. Disqualify all organizations from consideration that do not meet this basic criterion.

If your foundation cares about the potential political and economic ramifications of the undercounting of immigrant and refugee residents in the upcoming 2020 Census, then create a significant, multi-year fund that can ONLY be accessed by organizations led by immigrants and refugees. Make it very clear that every applicant must have at least 75% of their board and staff be immigrants and refugees. Disqualify all organizations from consideration that do not meet this basic criterion.

You get the idea. 75% is a number I threw out there, based on my general belief that 75% is a decent percentage to say that an organization is legitimately led by certain communities, but we can debate over that. There are plenty of valid exceptions; for example, a community may be small so may not yet be able to reach this 75% threshold of board/staff representation, yet they are clearly led by and serving that community. 

What I don’t want to debate is the tedious and predictable argument that leaders from marginalized communities have been hearing from funders for decades:

“Well, we can’t invest significant, multi-year funding in y’all because you don’t have the capacity. You don’t have strong financial and other systems to handle large investments. Here’s 10K to help you hire a consultant to develop a strategic plan that will likely never be implemented because we won’t fund staffing. Please apply again; next cycle we accept applications in slam poetry format to make it more accessible to diverse applicants!”

This attitude has been trapping nonprofits led by marginalized communities in the Capacity Paradox, and then these same funders often complain about the lack of diversity in the sector.

It’s frustrating. Honestly, the leaders from marginalized communities that I have been talking to are really sick and tired of competing in foundations’ “fair and open processes” that have historically been leading to the dismal rates of philanthropic dollars going to communities of color (1.4% going to black-led orgs, 1.48% going to Latinx-led orgs, one-half percent going to Native/Indigenous-led orgs). Philanthropy’s “fair and open” grantmaking process is a destructive illusion that has been perpetuating the very inequity philanthropy is trying to solve.

This pervasive and harmful “level playing field” belief needs to end. The playing field will never be level. EVER. Stop hoping it will be. And even if it does for some miraculous reason become level, it would still further the default Hunger-Games-based model of funding distribution that is fundamentally bad.

Do not try to level the playing field. Create new fields. And let’s start ending competition-based grantmaking altogether. Just as nonprofits do not generally force our clients to compete with one another to get services, but rather we target services to the individuals and families who most need help, funders must do the same thing. Stop forcing us to compete with one another in a misguided attempt to appear “fair,” and do the hard work of identifying where the greatest needs are, providing significant funds to community-led organizations and movements, treating them as partners, and helping them to succeed.

Related post: The Courage to Be Unfair

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Time inequity: What it is and why it’s no-good, very-bad

[Image description: A black-and-white photograph of two hourglasses standing side-by-side within a black box frame overlooking an indecipherable background (it might be a city, out of focus). The hourglass on the left has white sand, and the one on the right has black sand. Both seems almost full and are trickling sand, culminating in small sand piles in their respective bottom chambers. But the black-sand hourglass seems to have less sand in the top chamber.]

People have been asking me, “Vu, how do you manage to write a blog each week while running a nonprofit and parenting a toddler and a baby, and yet still retain your youthful good looks?” The secret is simple: I don’t sleep, and also, personal hygiene and nutrition standards have been lowered. Having a second kid, especially, has sapped our time so much that we tend to eat over the sink in five-minute increments; I don’t mind, because it allows me to rinse pureed peas and quinoa from out of my hair.

I can’t blame the baby for flinging food at us though. We haven’t been paying nearly as much attention to him as we did with his brother. He just turned one, and I think half the people we know aren’t even aware that we have a second baby, so little have we mentioned him. One person seemed irritated; he cornered me one day and said, “Hey, I heard you have a new baby? Why didn’t you tell me?” I felt terrible. All I could reply was, “Sorry, Dad…” Continue reading

Why we need to stop asking “What do you do?”

[Image description: A right hand is in focus, extended toward the viewer, as if this person is offering to shake hands. The person is out of focus, but appears to be wearing a grey button-down shirt with a black blazer. The composition is focused on the hand and torso, so we don’t see the person’s head.]

A while ago, while I was seeking input for a post on how we can all be more disability-inclusive, a colleague mentioned that we should drop the get-to-know-you question “What do you do?” because people with disabilities face significant employment discrimination, and this question is often a painful reminder of that. Another colleague of mine who is brilliant and talented and hilarious and wheelchair-enabled told me she spent seven years searching before someone hired her. I can imagine all the times during those seven years when people asked her “What do you do?” and how she must have felt. This has made me think of the “to-do” culture that we have and how it’s been affecting our work.

I learned a few years ago, through my participation in the German Marshall Memorial Fellowship, that the US has a default “To-Do” culture. The first thing we ask someone we meet is about what they do. Actions, in our culture, define us. For other cultures, though, are more of a “To-Be” culture, and you are defined less from what you do, and more from who you are:  Your relationships, your family history, your beliefs, your passions, your haircuts, etc. Continue reading

Foundations, how aggravating is your grantmaking process? Use this checklist to find out!

[Image description: A from-the-waist-up image of a red plastic robot-looking toy. Update: It may be a Blockhead from Gumby. It has a square head, two googly round eyes that are looking down, a round yellow nose, and a yellow line shaped into a frown. The robot has two arms raised up to the sides of its head. The background is grayish blue.]

As we roll into 2017, there have been lots of articles about how philanthropy must adapt, including my post urging funders to increase payout and fund advocacy efforts, as well as this piece on moving away from “charity” toward “justice.” These conversations are critical and we must keep having them. While we figure that stuff out, though, let’s take care of a few logistical things foundations do that make us nonprofits want to roll up a printed-out copy of our tax filings and beat ourselves unconscious.

So, I asked the NWB Facebook community to name the things funders do that get on people’s nerves. I got over 350 comments. I’ve condensed them into the Funding Logistics Aggravation, Incomprehensibility, and Laughability (FLAIL) Index. Here is a list of things that make us want to punch a wall, scratch our heads in bewilderment, or crack up laughing. Or drink. [Update: The FLAIL Index is now called the FLAIL Scale, and was revised on 1-21-17] Continue reading

The most crotch-kickingly craptastic grant application notice ever

crotch kickToday, I paid 10 bucks to get kicked in the crotch by a funder. Well, not literally, but that’s what it felt like. We had applied for a significant grant (over 100K), in partnership with another organization. Yesterday, we were excited to get an email from this funder asking for the ED to come downtown for a meeting, and to bring copies of the grant application. Sweet! One step closer!

Normally, this is how a grantmaking process works: First, an RFP is released. We review the RFP, figure out if it’s a good match for our mission, rally potential partners, write the application, and submit it. Then we wait. Usually, one of three things happens. The best scenario, of course, is getting a phone call saying we got the grant, in which case, depending on the size of the grant, I close down the office, tell the staff to stop helping disadvantaged clients for the day, and we all go out for ice cream.

The most common scenario is we get a letter saying, “Blah blah, we had 300 applications and there is only so much funding to go around; your application, while strong, did not qualify; we’re available for feedback,” in which case, depending on the size of the grant, I close down the office, tell the staff to stop helping disadvantaged clients for the day, and we all go out for alcohol, and in an inebriated state we beg the bar owner to be a sponsor or at least for some sympathy fries on the house.

A third result is an email or phone call asking us to come in for an interview or a meeting, in which case, a whirlwind of activities happens, including reviewing the grant application (because by then, we’ve forgotten what we proposed, something about helping kids), doing a pre-meeting to determine who says what so that we don’t trip over each other, and determining logistics such as carpooling and whether we should color coordinate our interview outfits and get haircuts.

The interview stage does not automatically mean that we get the grant, but it is exciting to think that we are a little closer to being able to do some cool programming and help some great kids and families. I am on paternity leave, but this was a large grant, so I dragged my fellow ED from the collaborating organization, Sharonne, and one of my staff, James, and we drove downtown, getting there 30 minutes early to review our game plan. James had spent the previous night creating a chart to better illustrate our program model.

We walked into the room, ready to answer questions and dazzle the two grant reviewers, who seemed like nice women.

“So you know how this process works,” said one of the women, “we got 10 applications, and could only select 2. Unfortunately, VFA is not one of the two organizations. However, you came real close and just missed it by a couple of points.”

WTF? We looked at each other, confused. “We have some feedback here for you, and can answer any questions you have. Would you like to hear the feedback?”

Silently, we nodded, thinking this was the most bizarre meeting ever. She went through a long list of feedback about our applications, both good and bad, and we sat there, stunned, like we were in some weird sort of nonprofit twilight zone.

“So,” she said, “do you have any questions?”

We paused.

“Yes,” I said, “when did the notice about the grant go out? Did you send a letter saying that we didn’t get this grant? Because we didn’t get any notice…”

The women looked at each other.

“Well, uh, no, sorry, I know it’s a little cryptic when we called you in, but we didn’t want the word spreading about who got and didn’t get the grant, so we, um, wanted to call you in and talk to you, and THEN we send out the notices.”

I was trying hard to control my temper, and I could feel the anger rising in Sharonne and James.

“We feel blindsided,” I said, “Normally we get a rejection letter or phone call, and then we ask for feedback. We are used to rejections, so that is not the issue. You don’t call people in, leading them to think that they are advancing in the process, only to tell them they didn’t get the grant.”

“Well, uh, that’s the process that [our supervisor] set up.” She looked at her colleague. “That’s funny, this is the first time we’ve gotten this feedback.”

“I don’t appreciate this,” I said. I had had all of two or three hours of sleep each night for the past 18 days and was in no mood to be extra nice.

“Your assistant asked us to bring in copies of our grant application,” said Sharonne, “why would we bring copies if it’s just a feedback session?” She had driven over an hour to get to this meeting.

“Well, uh, we see what you mean,” one of the women responded, “we certainly didn’t need copies. We have so many!—“

“Which we thoroughly reviewed,” the other woman chimed in cheerfully.

“We’ll talk to our assistant,” they said.

We left, feeling extra crappy. Not getting the grant is one thing, and something that all nonprofits are used to even though it hurts each time, but driving all the way downtown and wasting our time preparing for this meeting only to get 5 minutes of feedback that could have easily been delivered by phone, simply because they didn’t want word spreading prematurely—that sucks. Since this was downtown Seattle, we wasted 20 bucks on parking the two cars, making us all feel like we each paid to get kicked in the gonads, and not in a good way.

“Let’s go get a drink,” I said, and others thought it was a great idea. After a mimosa in each of us at 11:37am, the episode seemed hilarious. This was hysterical! Ha, James stayed up making a chart! Sharonne drove up from Olympia! Me spending several minutes this morning figuring out if I should wear my red button-down shirt, which conveys power, or my purple striped button-down shirt, which conveys practicality. (I chose the purple one). We didn’t get the 100K grant that we had spent hours working on! It was really, really funny!

I love this work. It is never boring, even on some days when I wish for it to be.

Our waitress was extra nice when we told her what happened. “Keep trying,” she said. I should have asked her for some sympathy fries.