Community healthcare workers in south africa screen for COVID. Mukurukuru Media/shutterstock
Community healthcare workers in south africa screen for COVID. Mukurukuru Media/shutterstock

As COVID-19 crossed the globe at warp speed, nearly 1,000 foundations realized that keeping pace meant putting aside the usual grantmaking processes, quickly pledging to loosen or eliminate funding restrictions, accelerate payments and lift reporting requirements. Others quietly followed suit.

Now, a new Roddenberry Foundation initiative, the +1 Global Fund, has made those tenets a central part of its effort to speed relief to some of the world’s most impacted communities.

The fund upends the selection and vetting process by adopting a recommendation-based networking model—and relies on previously established trust to move funds to recipients without restrictions or reporting, and an optional application form for nominees.

Lior Ipp, CEO of the Roddenberry Foundation (TRF), says the fund is trying to activate a global community of established players and social entrepreneurs with ambitions of tackling the health, economic and social consequences of the pandemic. To do that, the foundation has flipped the script on process, stuck with its guiding principles, and committed to help in the long term.

Funding for a better world 

As previously covered in IP, this isn’t the first time the Roddenberry Foundation has championed big ideas that challenge the status quo. It was founded a decade ago by Heidi and Eugene “Rod” Roddenberry, son of “Star Trek” creator Gene Roddenberry, guided in part by the progressive, humanist ideals of the science fiction franchise’s imagined future.

The best known of the foundation’s three core programs is probably the Roddenberry Prize, a $1 million global crowdsourcing competition to uncover “audacious, far-reaching and scalable” solutions to complex global problems. Annually, four winners each receive $250,000 for work in the fields of education, science and humanity.

In 2016, the foundation launched a program that awards $50,000 fellowships to people at the vanguard of achieving the “better, fairer world” Gene Roddenberry envisioned. The goal is that, at the end of the intensive 12-month program, fellows are poised either to move their ideas to the next level or launch something new.

Roddenberry’s ongoing Catalyst Fund typically makes grants of between $2,500 and $15,000 to the wide-open universe of people with early-stage ideas to address “pressing global challenges.” The Catalyst+ program veers more to the political, backing voter engagement and registration initiatives for communities of color with grants of up to $10,000. All funding is unrestricted general operating support.

Latest public records show annual grants of around $2.6 million on assets of around $80 million.

Flipping the script

Lior Ipp says the “magnitude and speed of COVID was unlike anything many of us have ever experienced,” escalating new challenges, particularly for the poorest and most vulnerable.

By the middle of March, the foundation was determined to add a “really quick rapid response” to its ongoing work. The team at TRF started by asking people about their experiences, and was surprised to learn that there was no central data collection.

But they weren’t surprised to see that “folks on the ground were already adapting really quickly,” opening the foundation’s “eyes to the potential of social entrepreneurship.” An agile, adaptable funding model wouldn’t add to the burden. Instead, it would allow TRF’s existing networks to join the fight. By April, the foundation had a working model. By the end of May, it counted 60 grantees in countries around the globe. By August, partners included Ashoka, Acumen and the Obama Foundation.

Sameen Piracha, director of partnerships and fundraising for Ashoka, calls the fund a “truly innovative platform that flips the script on who and how organizations are identified and vetted.” To date, more than 150 social entrepreneurs have nominated more than 300 peers in 35 countries.

Five principles

Despite throwing out the “funder playbook” and taking a radically different approach to finding solutions, the foundation still clings to five core principles.

One is trusting on-the-ground knowledge and insights to find local innovation. Two is focusing on the most vulnerable and hard-to-reach—the hardest-hit populations that fall outside the reach of traditional aid.

Three is targeting social entrepreneurs and smaller organizations with budgets of $1.5 million or less, which Ipp says make up 70% of the world’s nonprofits. Why start small? TRF considers it a matter of inclusivity and impact. Staying small helps the foundation reach unaffiliated organizations that they “couldn’t otherwise find.” And $15,000 goes “a long way in the Global South.”

Principle four is leveraging existing “ecosystems” to allow immediate action, global organizations with established networks and track records like Ashoka.

And five is a commitment to reimagining funding mechanisms. Potential grantees don’t have to complete an application, but there is an optional three-minute form and they can submit a short video (84% of nominees submit some material). Ipp says the result has garnered “a ton of info that’s as much, if not better,” than data received through traditional applications. Importantly, he says the digital divide hasn’t been a barrier. Organizations that “don’t even have an online presence did have YouTube,” or just sat at a desk and made a phone video discussing what they were doing in response to COVID.

A simple process

The grantmaking process involves sequential rounds 10 to 12 weeks long, organized around a data-driven issue area determined by partners. Social entrepreneur and innovator networks nominate up to three peers that are doing “impactful, essential work” for funding.

Then a global council of advisors reviews the work against specific criteria and eligibility, and selects nominees to receive $15,000. Funding works both ways. Entrepreneurs whose nominees are selected receive $2,500. All recipients are then expected to “pay it forward” by sharing a nomination in future rounds. The more the network expands, the stronger it grows, and the longer its reach to other parts of the world.

The progression started with 170 social entrepreneurs from within TRF’s partner networks, representing 40 countries. So far, a quarter of the work has been in the area of education, followed by poverty at roughly 20% and health at 18%. Moving ahead, TRF plans to encourage long-term cooperation and solidarity among grantees.

“COVID allowed us to put this in the world and see if it works; an agile, low-burden way to start off with,” Ipp says. “We want to come out of this better, rather than going back.”