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PEAK Grantmaking

Guest Editor Notes

PEAK’s executive team offers much gratitude to our guest editors, Jane Ward and Cristina Yoon, for their partnership, guidance, and support in the development of this issue. Read their thoughts below on the importance of boldly and courageously committing to more equitable grantmaking. – Satonya Fair and Dolores Estrada

Jane Ward, Grants Director, Eugene and Agnes E. Meyer Foundation and PEAK Grantmaking Board of Directors member:
To paraphrase an old saying: If you want to make the grants management gods laugh, tell them your plans.

I entered 2020 thrilled to introduce the Meyer Foundation’s new grants process. Over the course of a year, I had led the development of a new racial equity-informed approach to grantmaking that centered our partners, supported systems change, and increased efficiency for all involved. What got us there were deep consultations with our community (grantee partners and declined applicants alike), dozens of conversations with other trust-based philanthropists (thank you all!), and too many flip charts, post-its, staff lunches, and board discussions to count. We edited and re-edited all the digital collateral; we even migrated to a grantmaking technology. Meyer had moved into the racial justice funding space several years prior and, finally, our accompanying grants process would provide us with the trust-based, streamlined approach necessary to shift power meaningfully.

Two months later, in the face of burgeoning health and economic crises and mounting racial injustice in our communities, even our shiny new approach to grantmaking wasn’t enough.

In fact, much of what we’d planned came crashing down only weeks after COVID-19 hit. We quickly pivoted, dropping most of the new processes we’d put in place in favor of automatic renewals with no application requirements, contingent payments with no contingency requirements, and early payments upon request, as well as eliminating reporting requirements, deploying additional rapid-response funds, and providing capacity building for partners thrust into digital organizing. Like so many other funders, we threw off all the trappings of our carefully constructed grant requirements – truly saving time and effort for all involved.

Now, we prepare for 2021 as best we can. Given a very uncertain future, I’m sure of one thing: My colleagues and I are more committed than ever to a radical transformation of power in philanthropy. As Angela Davis said, “Radical simply means ‘grasping things at the root.’” For us, that means that, should circumstances once again stop us in our tracks, we will be ready to dig even deeper; that we’re dedicating ourselves to constantly reflecting and evolving, as an institution and as individuals; that certain practices which were a part of our early 2020 rollout are gone for good; that as we continue to make plans, we must aim for something better and bolder.

I am grateful to be a part of a committed group of peers in PEAK Grantmaking who continue to push me to take more risks and build more trust. Guest editing this Journal has helped me rise to the challenge of re-envisioning Meyer’s grantmaking (again). I hope it will do the same for you.

I look forward to the critical conversations and proactive planning this issue will spark, and to the radical transformation that will occur when the next inevitable obstacles arise.

Cristina Yoon, Senior Director of Grants Management, Skoll Foundation:
For far too long, injustice and inequity have disproportionately impacted underserved communities. The COVID-19 crisis and the killing of George Floyd, and many others, have laid bare the stark consequences. While justice and equity have been the longstanding pursuit of philanthropy, this moment feels different – a time of real reckoning in which philanthropy is finally ready to reflect, learn, change, and act with urgency.

Hundreds of foundations have stepped up to meet this unprecedented moment, fundamentally changing their processes and practices to be far more responsive and grantee-centric. For our part, the Skoll Foundation committed to quadrupling its grantmaking in 2020, targeting much of it to direct COVID-19 response and to support Skoll Awardees with targeted emergency funding. The Foundation also introduced measures to help Awardees and grantees through this period and to reduce grant-related burdens on them: loosening or eliminating the restrictions on active grants, providing unrestricted support whenever possible, offering no-cost extensions, accelerating future scheduled payments upon request, and suspending grant reporting requirements through the end of 2020.

But there’s much more we can and should do. Once the “novelty” of this crisis has worn off, we in philanthropy must dig in and double-down on our efforts to avoid backsliding into pre-COVID and pre-George Floyd days. We must acknowledge and tackle the bias and inequity that are embedded in our grantmaking processes and practices. Instead of making nonprofits bend over backward to fit foundations’ idiosyncratic ways, we should go above and beyond to support nonprofit organizations and provide what Vu Le coined as “MYGOD” – multi-year general operating dollars – while also investing in Black- and indigenous-led organizations.

I came into philanthropy quite by accident, and I view my responsibilities as a privilege. I ask myself how I can use my position, resources, and voice to help make this world more just and equitable. I also question how foundations can use their financial resources, networks, and influence – and do so collectively – to make this world more just and equitable. Yes, we are facing some of the toughest and most entangled problems of our time. But they’re also rich opportunities for us all to work smarter and faster together, by putting equity, trust, and risk-taking at the center of everything we do – not only because we have the privilege to do so, but because we have a deep responsibility.

As a society, we ask essential workers to put their health on the line to protect us all; we ask Black and indigenous people to put their lives on the line for justice. So what are foundations willing to “risk” for the future we want? In too many cases, foundations continue to over-index on the risk to their endowments and under-index on their risk of inaction. But if we don’t change that, some of the most essential frontline organizations won’t exist next year. I would argue that perpetuity can wait; the time for action is now. Let’s fund and support organizations like our lives depend on it.