In its first six years, WomenStrong International has invested $15 million to nurture learning and lift up a growing community of organizations that center their work on the real-life needs and experiences of women and girls in urban areas around the world.
We view trust-based grantmaking as both an equity issue and an essential component to ensuring our partners can take strategic risks. We aim to create an environment where our grantee partners can inform our programs and let us know what’s working and what’s not, with their funded projects. Our recent evaluations have shown that our approach is paying off, even as we fine-tune and improve.
Here’s what we’ve learned along the way.
Building trust starts before the grant begins
Building trust starts at the recruitment phase. Currently, we have a closed application process that begins by identifying organizations that fit our programmatic criteria and seem like a good fit for our peer-driven Learning Lab.
We then reach out to hold exploratory conversations with a potential grantee. It’s a chance to get to know each other, and we have an opportunity to provide information on our grantmaking program and the expectations and benefits of the Learning Lab.
In a recent evaluation, our partners reported that, because WomenStrong staff invested time and care to understand what they do, they were quickly able to begin building an understanding of WomenStrong and assess if the partnership would be a good fit for them. One grantee partner noted that, though there were a lot of calls early on, “we got to connect in person right away, and kind of experience their values.”
We also build trust through the proposal process, which is designed to be highly collaborative. Potential grantee partners are invited to submit a draft proposal, which we return to them with guiding questions intended to strengthen their projects. After a call to discuss feedback, the organization submits a final proposal. When we do not accept a proposal, we give feedback to the applicant to create greater transparency.
Overall, although our partners have shared that WomenStrong’s proposal process was intensive, they said that it was authentic and enriching, remarking that it built trust and gave them the flexibility to write stronger, more ambitious proposals.
They shared how unusual and beneficial it was to be offered the time and thought partnership to design more intentional programs. As one grantee said, “It was really refreshing and helpful to us in terms of how we have approached the grant and the projects, because I think we took a lot more risks in terms of what we wanted to do and implement and learn.” Partners also emphasized that they felt respected as experts on their issues and communities.
Building on this base of trust during the grant period
All of our grantees are funded to implement a project in their communities and to share what they’re learning as participants in the WomenStrong Learning Lab.
During the grant period, WomenStrong co-creates content, products, and events with our Learning Lab participants. We assess our partners’ learning priorities and then design a program around these topics. Our partners serve as advisors to shape the agenda and content for our programs. And instead of requiring a final grant report, grantees create learning products of their choosing to share what they’re learning with others. The goal is that the work each partner produces serves their purposes as much as ours.
WomenStrong also solicits feedback from our partners to refine and adapt our own processes. We recently conducted an evaluation to assess how our Lab had helped facilitate learning among partners, what additional resources organizations needed to achieve their goals, and how our grantmaking practices have helped build and strengthen relationships. We also regularly solicit feedback on events and activities, and are planning to provide a vehicle for anonymous feedback.
Partners reported that the unusually close relationship with WomenStrong helped them feel comfortable sharing their challenges. And they said they valued WomenStrong’s accessibility and have felt that they could take strategic risks and know they would be holistically supported.
As one of our partners commented: “With almost every foundation you don’t want them to know when you’re having a problem, right? But with WomenStrong you do want them to know when you’re having a problem, because they’ll help you solve it.”
While we’re pleased that our efforts to create equitable grantmaking practices are well-received by our partners, there are limitations to our approach.
For starters, a closed application process that excludes potential grantees, particularly small grassroots organizations that might lack an online presence, also limits who gets considered for a grant. In addition, despite our goal to support community-led programs internationally, a number of our global partner organizations are led by U.S. citizens. WomenStrong is currently seeking to widen our networks to find more locally led, representative organizations, and is considering accepting unsolicited applications.
We also realize that the recruitment and proposal processes that are designed to build trust require a significant investment of applicants’ time and capacity. We are working to rightsize our expectations of potential partners, without losing the aspects of the process our current partners have identified as valuable. For example, one change we have already made is doing away with having our grantees write a second draft of the proposal and instead, simply send our feedback along with the contract and refer to the annotated proposal in future conversations.
Ultimately, our goal is to build trusting, authentic relationships with our partners to strengthen their projects, their organizations, and our own grantmaking. On this journey of continuous learning and improvement, we will keep you posted on our progress by publishing our evaluations and what we’ve been learning on our website. We hope what we’ve learned will help you place trust at the center of your grantmaking processes—and that we in turn can learn from how you engage with grantees.
Photo: During a 2019 WomenStrong Learning Lab retreat, grantee partners, pictured here with an interpreter (standing), had an opportunity to share their experiences and discuss their challenges with peers. Photo courtesy of WomenStrong.
Click here to read WomenStrong International’s approach to evaluation, and stay informed about how they’re evolving funder-grantee relationships.