Beautiful Minds: Using a Disaster Mindset to Streamline Grantmaking

I work with a set of grantmakers who are passionately invested in funding a group of people and related policy and practice issues that are very much under siege at the moment. I could tell you which population, but really it could be one of many right now.

It’s been beautiful to see how some foundations are stepping up to simpler, more rapid grantmaking in response to urgent needs.

Example number one. A few weeks ago, a nonprofit responded to a community crisis. Its staff leader called four funders. Three asked for a brief proposal. The fourth invited the group to speak at a briefing for foundations, adding a short session onto the already planned agenda. In the meantime, the nonprofit began working with two partners. On the day of the briefing (21 days after the original request), one of the funders made the first grant in response.

In the briefing, leaders from two of the three partner organizations explained what they were doing, why, and what it would cost to continue. They were asked to provide a more complete proposal, to cover funding for all three organizations. One funder at the briefing had taken detailed notes of the presentation, and sent those to the grantwriting organization, which then cut and pasted information into the original proposal (it is not elegant) and drafted an undetailed joint budget of about a quarter of a million dollars.

Within another two weeks, three more foundations made grants to the partners. More than 80 percent of the request has been funded. Three other foundations are in the process of grantmaking, and two others are planning to recommend increases to renewal grants slated for the fall. All of the funders are using the cut-and-paste proposal and the simple budget. The foundations that have made grants range from very large to quite small, and only one (the smallest) had a bona fide rapid response grant program already in place.

Example number two. An organization responding to a crisis emailed a very brief and high-level request for half a million dollars to funders. A grantmaker collaborative requested a simple grant budget, then circulated the email request and budget to a handful of other local funders. Within two weeks, two local funders had made grants for half of the request, while two national sources committed another 30 percent, and two other local funders were working on recommendations to their boards of another 40 percent. And, yes, that would exceed the ask – but it’s for work that could expand if better funded, and it’s urgently needed.

One grantmaker asked me if I had other materials about the organization that I could share for her write-up. I didn’t, but the two foundations that had made grants did, and they shared.

Why did grantmakers put the regular rules aside? As one of the grantmakers said, “I know they are overwhelmed and working day and night. I don’t want to make them have to work on this, too.”

In both examples, the fundraising organizations didn’t have to jump through extra hoops or meet idiosyncratic requirements for each funding source, because funders prized their critical community activities and the urgency of the situation enough to dispense with most of usual practice. These are cases where streamlining really mattered.

Which of these speedy and streamlined practices could your foundation adopt? Do you have a rapid response grants program that allows you to respond in a truly timely manner? Do you have a disaster funding program that could be used for manmade disaster too? And if this type of rapid response works during crises, could you extend the same simplified and streamlined practice to your regular grantmaking too? If not, why not?

A brilliant mind (ok, Dr. Streamline) once wrote, “… we choose our requirements as funders. They are not required by law or the IRS except in particular circumstances such as expenditure responsibility. We decide what we need to know, and we can choose better in ways that are more sensible for grantees and – frankly – more useful to our decision-making.” The examples above illustrate what how beautiful this can be in practice.

Alice Cottingham

Alice Cottingham is a Chicago consultant to grantmaking foundations and community nonprofits. As someone who believes deeply in Project Streamline, she is honored to be allowed to pose as Dr. Streamline's surgical associate.

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