Does Your Process Invite Applicants In or Keep Them Out? Streamlining’s Connection to Diversity and Inclusion

A grantmaker had an inspiring conversation with an African American community leader who was unaffiliated with any particular organization. Based on that conversation, the Program Officer worked with that leader to develop a proposal for submission, which led to a grant. Without the conversation, this community leader would never have applied for a grant, or would have done so in a way that would not have gained attention, and the good work that followed would have languished.


A Program Officer attended an event celebrating nonprofit leaders funded by her foundation, which had articulated a goal to fund organizations serving and led by people of color. Once at the event, she realized that the majority of the nonprofit executives were white and middle-upper class.

I heard these stories last year at a Streamlining Workshop, during a conversation about how communication and application practices can enable or create an invisible barrier to entry. The question on the table was: How is streamlining connected to funders’ goals around diversity and inclusion in grantmaking? Your application practices may keep some groups* out – even when they are efforts and communities that your organization says it wants to fund. What can you do about it?

1. Articulate your intention. There’s power in clearly stating what you’re trying to do. What does success look like? What percentage of funding will go toward diverse organizations? Sometimes organizations say things like: “Caring about diversity and inclusion is in our DNA – we don’t really need to put a number on it.” But this often results in a gradual slide – or sometimes a precipitous drop – away from original intentions as staff change or other compelling issues come up. Putting some numbers to your deeply held values means that you care enough about them to track and monitor your progress. If you have a vague desire to fund across your community, give it more definition.

2. Ask the question. According to Kelly Brown, Director of the D5 Coalition, a time-limited initiative focused on building philanthropy’s diversity, equity, and inclusive practice, “Sometimes we don’t ask about the diversity of our grantees because we’re afraid to talk about race. People need to reduce their anxiety and fear around these issues and just ask the question.” The most helpful question to ask: Are we actually funding the types of organizations we say we want to fund?

3. Get the data. You don’t know if you don’t ask, and you can’t answer if you don’t have some way of getting data about the diversity of your grantees’ staff, board, and constituents. This is a tricky one! After all, laborious data collection is one of the things that flies in the face of streamlining. The D5 Coalition and GuideStar have been working on a repository for standard diversity information, which is now available through Data can be entered through the GuideStar Exchange and viewed by logging in and searching organization profiles in GuideStar’s database. At the same time, Simplify has been building and launching a tool that will allow grantmakers to pull the standardized demographic data about nonprofits from the GuideStar Exchange. Nonprofits can enter their information at their convenience—once a year or as frequently as information in their organization changes and they choose to update the information—in one format, rather than accommodating idiosyncratic requests from each of their potential funders. You can read all about it in this press release.

4. Check your image. Applicants and community members will probably see your website and materials before they know anything more about your organization. Do the images, language, and examples align with your commitment to funding diverse, minority-led, minority-serving organizations? What happens when they call or email to learn more? Do those interactions mirror your commitment to connecting with diverse organizations?

5. Revisit Process and Requirements. As grantmakers, we have a lot of latitude when it comes to how we solicit applicants and what we require of them. There are good arguments for various approaches to grantmaking, but you should select your process with an eye toward its impact on potential grantees.

    • Do you have an open-RFP process that requires a detailed full proposal? Think about the organizations with the wherewithal to devote several days’ worth of time to an application process that requires the laborious construction of a full proposal in response to an open process or an open RFP. If you have an open RFP, consider ways to invite ideas and conversation first, so that all organizations can be at their best. In-person or phone conversations, Letters of Inquiry, and even brief “tell us your idea” surveys will reduce the barrier to entry for organizations that might need more help or encouragement to tackle the full proposal.
    • On the other hand, open RFP processes have the advantage of being, well, open. Funders that move to invitation-only processes – in which organizations are invited to apply after careful vetting – may be eliminating groups that aren’t yet on their radar screens. If you have an invitation-only process, think about how you are methodically scanning the landscape for new prospective grantees who might not yet have a high profile.
    • Do your basic requirements even make sense for small organizations? Some due-diligence staples, such as audited financial statements, are prohibitively expensive and not legally required for organizations with budgets under $500,000. Other requests, like logic models or strategic plans, may require more capacity than these organizations currently have**. These aren’t bad practices, but they may not be appropriate for the types of organizations you are trying to get in the door. Take a fresh look at your information requirements and ask yourself whether they may be presenting a barrier that you don’t intend.

6. Consider Your Expectations. Brilliant leaders, thinkers, and writers work for small organizations just as they do for big ones – there’s nothing inherently *unsophisticated* about proposals you’re likely to get from grassroots organizations. At the same time, there’s probably a lack of time for planning and reflection, a dearth of support for research, very little money for graphic design, and no nice camera for fancy images. There may not be an experienced grant writer on staff who knows the words that ring most brightly in a funder’s ear. Streamlining doesn’t mean that you need to have low expectations of the proposals you receive, but it does mean that you should get to know the capacities and constraints of your targeted grantseekers, and make sure that your process allows them to be most successful. So my answer to that critical question, “How is streamlining connected to funders’ goals around diversity and inclusion in grantmaking?” is that streamlined grantmaking can be a core tool in making sure that all organizations have a fair shot at funding. And streamlining is an important consideration when you add questions about organizational demographics to your requirements. But most of all, ask the question about how your process works for the organizations you want to engage. For me, that’s the most important streamlining habit of all.

If you’d like to learn more about Streamlining and Diversity, join the D5 Coalition at GMN’s upcoming conference

  • Monday, March 16,  10:45 a.m. – 12:00 p.m.  Data and Diversity … There’s a Story to Tell (Part 1)
  • Monday, March 16,  1:30 pm – 2:45 p.m. Data and Diversity … There’s a Story to Tell (Part 2 – working session)



*Words like diverse, community-based, grassroots, can be code. In this blog, I’m talking about organizations that focus on low-income and traditionally marginalized communities, often communities of color. The organizations are led by folks who reflect or come from these communities. The organizations themselves are often small-staffed and small-budget.

**Some funders have told me that they “build capacity” in grantseekers by requiring these items. I am all for helping grantees build capacity, but I think that grantmakers should do it in the context of a relationship, in response to an earnest conversation about needs, and in combination with funding – not as a unfunded mandate opportunity in which funding is the dangled, elusive carrot.

Jessica Bearman

Jessica Bearman works with foundations and other mission-based organizations, focusing on organization development, facilitation, and R&D to help them become more intentional, effective, and responsive to the communities that they serve. She is also known as Dr. Streamline. Follow her on Twitter @jbearwoman.

3 Responses

  1. Katie Boswell says:

    Great article and some really helpful ideas about improving practices – thanks! At One World Children’s Fund, we are also working to diversify philanthropy and attempting to measure our impact in this area. Are you aware of any work to benchmark the diversity of “philanthropists” (i.e. people who are giving money and raising funds from others for causes they are passionate about) as opposed to recipients of funding? Our work suggests that many groups have deep traditions of giving back to their communities, but would not necessarily self-identify as philanthropists. I would love to hear of any work that others are doing in this area.

  2. This is a great, thoughtful piece Jessica. I had a recent conversation with a GEO member who was sharing some insights they’d had about unintentional barriers they’d put up with their own process and changes they made to rectify them. For example, the foundation added a Google translator button to their website to make their website accessible to Spanish-speaking communities. And they have agreed to accept grant reports prepared for other funders to help the grantees save time.

  3. […] reporting processes less burdensome for their grantees. On their blog, the Project Streamline folks consider how streamlining can allow funders to be inclusive in their grantmaking and to better support diverse organizations. (PS, […]

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