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PEAK Grantmaking

CONNECTing on Designated Wellness Funding

In the CONNECT online community, PEAK Grantmaking members generously share their insights and approaches to more efficient and equitable grantmaking. Recently there was rich discussion around opportunities to support grantee partners with dedicated wellness grants. Members shared their experiences and insights in CONNECT, and you can find some discussion highlights and suggested considerations here. 

There has been a major sector push for funders to issue multiyear general operating grants so that grantees have the flexibility to utilize those funds in ways that best meet their needs and advance their mission. In the past two years, the sector saw noticeable shifts in grantmaking practices. According to a Center for Effective Philanthropy Report, 60 percent of foundation leaders said they planned to continue to provide higher levels of general operating support compared to pre-pandemic levels of giving. As respondents noted, providing flexibility enables grant partners to do their best work and maximize their impact. 

There is, however, an area where restricted grants could be beneficial for grantee partners: wellness and self-care. The health and humanitarian crises of the past few years have resulted in a spike in behavioral health concerns nationwide, including stress, anxiety, and depression. Physical self care has also suffered as a result of quarantine mandates and the interruption to normal routines. With this in mind, funders can provide holistic support for grantees, not just in how they operate, but in how they support their full selves. And if funders don’t specifically designate funds for wellness and self-care purposes, grantees may elect to direct those funds to operational or programmatic needs.

It really helps leaders to have these grants restricted to wellness needs so they can't be used for other things if budgets get tight.

Over in CONNECT, members are talking about it. “For more than five years, we’ve provided additional $2,000 wellness grants per existing grantee partner org through our Keep the Spark Alive fund to support and nurture the inner lives of their staff, and therefore, enhance the organization as a whole,” Imago Dei Fund Grants Manager Katinka Hakuta shared. “We encourage our partners to evaluate their organization and staff needs, define what keeping the spark alive means to them, and commit to creating a permanent culture of holistic self-care for all staff. We’ve gotten a great response. Despite all our other grants being unrestricted, we’ve heard that it really helps leaders to have these grants restricted to wellness needs so they can’t be used for other things if budgets get tight.”

David Falzone, grants and project manager at Omidyar, shared this: “In both 2020 and 2021, two of Omidyar Network’s affiliate orgs provided wellness funding to some of our prior grantees. Amounts were between $15 and $25,000 and left entirely to the discretion of the recipient how to best support their staff and organization. News came back [that those funds were spent on] everything from individual financial relief to team retreats. Another idea that is gaining traction in [our organization] is to pre-approve a pool of funds that could add $15–25,000 on top of future grant awards to allow grantees to specifically further their internal DEI work. As we advance in our own diversity, equity, and inclusion journey this is something we’d like to support and make readily available, removing hurdles for our portfolio organization.”

Michaelle Smith, executive director at the Rocky Mountain Health Foundation, commented that awarding self-care grants was “the single best thing we did in 2021.” She also shared that, while these grants were restricted to wellness, there was otherwise complete flexibility in how those funds were used for that purpose. “The only requirement was that the executive director do something for themselves and the only required reporting was that they tell us what the executive director did,” Smith said. “It cost $163,000, and the response was phenomenal. We called each organization to tell them of the grant and there were many tears on those calls. The vote of confidence and telling them we understood it was hard meant far more than what the money could buy. It exponentially improved our relationships with grant partners.”

It exponentially improved our relationships with grant partners.

“Luminate has offered wellness stipends to our partners over the past two years,” Luminate Funding Operations Associate Caitlin House shared, directing readers to a blog post that analyzed how those grant dollars were used and their impact. “Of specific interest is the feedback we received from partners regarding what worked and ways the program could be improved,” House said. This feedback included the challenges that come with one-off, restricted wellness grants, such as

  • sustaining staff wellness after those grant dollars were used, especially in cases where funds were used to provide counseling services or insurance;
  • blurring personal and professional boundaries in cases where organizations ask employees to report on how they are using dollars for their personal wellbeing; and
  • ensuring that funds were equitably distributed given that Luminate’s budget for this program was limited and had to create parameters around who could apply for funding.

Allegany Franciscan Ministries Director of Grants Erin Baird, who started the thread to ask the community how their organizations were approaching wellness grants, reported back a year after posting her original question. I am pleased to report we did support a collaborative wellness grant collaborative in the Palm Beach, Florida area through a partnership with United Way, Nonprofit Chamber of Palm Beach County, and local funders,” she said. “We are now looking at a similar collaborative in Miami.”

Funders should consider the following guidance as they approach making grants for wellness:

  • Start with a conversation with your grantee partners around their concerns, pain points, and areas where they could use additional support.
  • There are various examples and parameters for wellness grants- such as support to take a sabbatical, health stipends (for services or resources not typically covered by health insurance), or team retreats. Consider flexibility in how grantee partners use these funds.
  • Award wellness grants in addition to—and not a replacement for—an existing grant.
  • Ensure that you are not creating additional burdens for grantees by awarding a wellness grant. In addition to bureaucratic concerns, funders can reduce burden by providing ideas and resources for how an organization might consider spending those dollars.
  • Consider how your wellness grant dollars can further support organizations that are led by people of color. These grants can be both a way to provide support while also acknowledging the distinct challenges they face.
Join the conversation

Participate in the CONNECT online community—open to all PEAK members—to share your advice and offer solutions for challenges that so many funders are facing.

Not yet a member? Explore the benefits of joining PEAK’s powerful network of grants professionals as a contributing Organization Member, or start with a complimentary Individual Membership.

Image (top row, from left): Caitlin House, Katinka Hakuta; (bottom row, from left) Michaelle Smith, Erin Baird, and David Falzone