Over the past two years, philanthropy has been taking a hard look at itself. Conversations on how to better advance diversity, equity and inclusion occur at almost every gathering.

But to address these issues effectively, philanthropy must also tackle a longstanding practice that presents a barrier to historically marginalized groups. Many foundations do not accept unsolicited grant proposals, considering applications only from groups they have invited to apply.

To many small or new nonprofits, especially those representing communities of color, this functions as a giant “Keep Out” sign by institutional philanthropy, shutting them off from philanthropic resources, networks and key conversations with decisionmakers on how to address the challenges they face.

I wanted to gain a better understanding of what options exist for foundations to increase access to their resources, and what the mechanics of gradually opening up their grant processes would look like. To that end, I spoke with several foundation leaders and program officers who have delved deeply into the question of how foundations of different sizes, missions, and capacities can become more responsive and connected to the communities they serve, to ask about strategies they favor and what they are currently doing.

Through these discussions I discovered there are many steps at varying levels of intensity foundations can take while they consider whether to restructure or make major strategic shifts. Smaller, beginning steps can help philanthropy move towards equity and inclusiveness, and teach invaluable lessons.

Barbara Chow, education program director for the Heising Simons Foundation, who wrote “From Words to Action” for Candid’s Grantcraft Series in 2018, describes some of these possibilities and lists barriers that need to be removed. Not accepting unsolicited grant proposals, she writes, is a practice that “limits grantmaking to a predetermined set of nonprofits and relies heavily on relationships and social capital many small nonprofits (including those who are minority-led) may not possess.” Despite the country’s rapid demographic changes and growing income equality, she writes, “philanthropic investments are neither reflecting these changes nor accounting for issues of historical disadvantage.”

Roadmaps to More Equitable Grantmaking

Molly de Aguiar is the new president of Philadelphia’s Independence Media Foundation, a public broadcaster turned foundation that will use the $131.5 million in proceeds from the FCC’s spectrum auction to support civic information initiatives. In early 2019 she and media strategist Jessica Clark penned an open letter to media funders challenging them to reform their grantmaking processes, noting that “how you fund is as important as what you fund.” Their observations also apply to other philanthropic areas.

They warned that if grantmakers do not develop new systems and processes that are more transparent, flexible, inclusive, and that communicate with stakeholders more frequently and effectively, it “all but ensures that marginalized communities will continue to be cut off from any meaningful access to capital.”

They write that many nonprofit groups new to fundraising are mystified by funders’ processes. “They don’t know how to begin a relationship, they don’t know what to expect during an application process, and they have no sense of how or why decisions are made.” They urged foundations to “re-examine the barriers you may have in place that keep marginalized communities from initiating a relationship with you.”

De Aguiar attributes much of her current thinking on reforming foundation processes to the grounding she gained as a longtime program officer at New Jersey’s Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, where she designed and directed their Informed Communities initiative.

Dodge took a customer service approach to its statewide grantmaking, she says, revising and simplifying application forms to rely less on burdensome reporting requirements and more on allowing nonprofits to describe what the grant enabled them to do and why it mattered. Considering everything from the viewpoint of the applicant and grantee enabled Dodge to “just say yes,” and move money quickly to groups that needed it to carry out their missions.

Another influential organizational feature was Dodge’s practice of inviting program officers to study and review grant proposals in other subject areas. Though Informed Communities focused on news and civic information, de Aguiar also made site visits to the foundation’s grantees in the arts, environment, and other areas, and read their grant proposals. While decisions were ultimately left up to program officers leading each area, her colleagues valued her input. “If you are a place-based foundation and your goal is to strengthen the place and build thriving communities,” says de Aguiar, “the best way is to get us out of our siloes and understand how things fit together.”

It became easier to identify common challenges across program areas. She saw that greater emphasis on community engagement and holistic approaches could increase public support for all program areas. She also gained a new appreciation for how sturdy civic networks and ecosystems helped both foundations and nonprofits weather individual organizational changes and leadership turnover. All foundation grantees from a particular geographical area were encouraged to meet and compare notes.

These insights also prompted her to change her own program’s strategy, reorienting grants to focus more on helping newsrooms and other civic groups build and strengthen relationships with their communities, rather than concentrating solely on strengthening business models.

As she considers how best to serve the Philadelphia region in her new role, De Aguiar has been inspired by two recent initiatives at other foundations.

The first, by the Field Foundation of Illinois, is a roadmap to identify, listen to, and incorporate the needs of previously excluded groups into grantmaking. The second, a former Knight Foundation community challenge, is a peer mentoring template that could be used to help philanthropy transition to new and emerging grantmaking practices.

The Field Foundation sought to tackle a problem common in many major US cities. Though the majority of Chicago residents are people of color, Field wrote in a white paper , “they are typically left out of conversations about the future of local news, marginalized in mainstream media coverage and underrepresented in newsrooms.” Field sought to create a grantmaking strategy that would “create a more equitable, connected and inclusive local media system.”

To inform its strategy, Field used geographic heat maps and other data highlighting city quality of life indicators to identify areas of the city that had lacked access to philanthropic funding and where needs were acute.

Field then organized a series of individual and group listening sessions with Chicago’s African-American, Latinx, Asian, Arab and Native American journalists, media makers and storytellers in the latter half of 2018. The vast majority of the dozens of community-led groups they reached out to had received no support from local philanthropy, and did not know how to initiate relationships with funders or navigate philanthropic grant processes.

Field asked them what they needed to thrive, and got a motherlode of useful and actionable feedback. Common requests included business development training, resources for sharing administrative and backend tasks, funding for “connectors” to help organizations identify potential funding sources and apply for funding, and general operating support.

In February 2019, the Field Foundation announced two new grantmaking initiatives for Chicago—the Media and Storytelling Program and Leaders for a New Chicago with support from the MacArthur Foundation and the Democracy Fund. Capacity building is a key goal of their grants strategy.

From 2008-2016, the Knight Foundation’s former Community Information Challenge provided matching funds to 100 community and place-based foundations to encourage them to make media and civic information grants—a new, unfamiliar area for many of them. Knight also provided several “circuit riders” to provide individual coaching and consultation to program officers administering the grants.

De Aguiar felt the one-on-one coaching was one of the initiative’s most valuable aspects. As new grant strategies like participatory grantmaking and other open grant processes emerge, many foundations might benefit from similar “circuit riders” to help implement these new approaches and deal with the inevitable challenges.

A Community Equity Project

Stuart Comstock-Gay, president and CEO of the Delaware Community Foundation, has focused on community building and strengthening democratic practices in both the nonprofit and foundation world. As a nonprofit leader, he led the Boston-based National Voting Rights Institute, the Maryland chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, and the democracy program at the think tank Demos.

For years he has sought to make philanthropy more representative of and responsive to the public it serves, and to strengthen civic capacities.

To further these goals in Delaware, in May 2019 the Delaware Community Foundation launched its Community Equity Project. Twelve individuals with deep connections to local communities will meet through December to study and discuss what Delaware philanthropy needs to do to tear down barriers and create a more equitable Wilmington. Project members include the director of a community legal aid society, an academic who is a criminal justice expert and directs a university-based neighborhood revitalization center, a family medicine physician, an ex-Marine who works at a church-based community development corporation, and student case managers.

They will make specific recommendations to the foundation on ways to achieve the shared vision they outline. This fall, the foundation and project members will meet to discuss how their suggestions might affect the foundation’s work.

Comstock-Gay acknowledges this approach comes with risks. After the project issues its recommendations, it’s up to the foundation to act. “If we don’t do anything after it’s over, it’s almost worse than doing nothing,” he says. But he thinks they are risks worth taking, especially since the process is structured to maximize productive outcomes, with consultation occurring along the way.

Opening the Door 

After hearing complaints that many community groups were shut out of their foundation’s invitation-only strategic impact area grants, several years ago the Boston Foundation set aside $2 million of its $16 million in yearly grants to establish an open grants application program. One-year grants ranging from $10-50,000 can be renewed once, after which time a nonprofit must wait a year before reapplying. Their intent is to open the grants process to the maximum number of new applicants.

Though it represents a modest percentage of their overall grant-making, the program has helped foundation officials learn about emerging problems. “We’re saying we’re not experts. We’re asking people in the community to tell us what they need,” says Lauren McDermott, Open Door Grant’s interim manager.

The move has spurred them to focus on access and ease of use. Open Door Grants holds information sessions at local libraries and nonprofits, paying particular attention to groups historically excluded from institutional philanthropy and geographical areas that have not received funding. They cap each session at 35 participants (one per organization) to ensure presenters have time to speak to each attendee afterwards individually. They schedule 15-20 minute one-on-one phone calls for those who could not attend the information sessions. Even the denial process has changed. In the past, rejection letters provided written feedback. Now they offer a 15-minute phone call with a program officer.

Foundation officials started to hear from individuals they had never interacted with before, receiving grant requests from new players including communities of color, immigrants, refugees, and people with disabilities. They receive around 500 Open Door grant applications per year. In 2018 they funded 20 percent of them.

The program has also pushed the foundation to change their approach to evaluation. Because grants are short term, the foundation relies less on quantitative metrics and more on one-on-one conversations with grantees and qualitative measures to judge impact. “It’s something we’re still figuring out,” says McDermott. “Everything here is so different.”

Perhaps most importantly, it has prompted a new series of questions about the foundation’s openness and responsiveness. “Are we as accessible as we think we are? Are we engaging with grantees enough?” asks McDermott. “Should they have more of a learning experience? Should we bring the community in on the process? If so, at what point?”

Foundations may soon find they are running to catch up with municipal governments. In Boston, the Mayor’s office has launched a civic research agenda, inviting the public to participate in deciding what local public policy issues to address, what questions to ask and how to go about finding answers.

I asked both de Aguiar and Comstock-Gay what a small foundation with a two-person staff could do to move forward on this path. Both replied they can start with something small and experiment. “Create a small grants committee of community people for some portion of the money,” says Comstock-Gay. “Give some guidance, create a two-page application, and let others make the decisions.”

Some might argue the above strategies are insufficient. Certainly, if foundations can take major action, they should. But smaller moves also matter. If the more than 86,000 foundations in the US each takes a step, it will change the landscape.


Louise Lief is a consultant to philanthropy, media and nonprofits, focusing on civic engagement and collaborative approaches. She is the former deputy director of the International Reporting Project, and a former public policy scholar at the Wilson Center. 

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