PHOTO: DEE BROWNING/SHUTTERSTOCK

One of these days, the pandemic will cease to be the dominant fact of our time, but the ways it has shifted funding strategies as grantmakers scrambled to meet the emergencies of the COVID era may become permanent—for the better. A case in point is the Potlatch Fund, a Native-led foundation serving tribal communities in the Northwest. Potlatch is formalizing a new approach to grantmaking through its recently launched Resiliency Fund, a COVID-responsive grant program offering general support to “create hope, social connection, adaption, flexibility and purpose.”

For one, the new Resiliency Fund standardizes a streamlined, low-bureaucracy approach to grantmaking that Potlatch adopted at the outset of the pandemic to speed funds into its communities. But the new fund does something that is, perhaps, more significant: It shifts much of the decision-making responsibility from Potlatch onto members of those communities to determine grantmaking focuses and needs—be they health-related, educational, artistic or cultural in nature.

The Resiliency Fund opened for applications in June. Through it, Potlatch hopes to bring in first-time grantseekers and others who had never before accessed philanthropy, according to Potlatch’s executive director, Cleora Hill-Scott. The portal is open to grantseekers old and new—whether or not they fit traditional ideas of what a nonprofit is, or if they have experience applying for grants. Potlatch has also simplified the application—if grantseekers don’t have online access, for example, they can telephone, and Potlatch will help them complete the application—again, to encourage more members of the community to reach out for support.

“Quite often, [the traditional grant application process] does a disservice to the community to put so many parameters around grants,” Hill-Scott said. “Take mental health. Health indicators may be different from tribe to tribe, but then, when you write for these grants, they usually want you to use a widely understood health indicator, and it doesn’t always measure against a particular tribe, so that can be frustrating.”

For Potlatch, the pandemic highlighted long-recognized health disparities and other inequities in the tribal communities it serves—a collection of rural and urban Native tribes in the Northwest states of Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana. In some areas, for instance, Native people have been dying of COVID-19 at about three times the rate of white Americans, according to Potlatch, while Native youth are more than twice as likely to die by suicide. And that is no surprise: historically, these communities have had poorer access to healthcare and have been perennially underfunded by philanthropy. And that’s despite their disproportionately high rates of poverty, unemployment and health concerns.

An early, strong response to the Resiliency Fund made it clear to Potlatch’s leaders that they’d need about $7 million to keep it operating as intended; Potlatch has just begun the process of fundraising to hit that target. The Resiliency initiative continues broader funding growth at Potlatch—driven by the pandemic—that has seen the organization’s giving increase from about $700,000 per year to more than $1 million per year.

A boost in funding out of many community-oriented foundations, in particular, is one change that can be attributed to the pandemic. “A lot of funders, because of COVID, have given more than they normally have,” Hill-Scott said. “I think there can be an effort by foundations and others to hold onto the money for a rainy day—but this is the rainy day. So I think some of those coffers were opened in a way that they may not have been.”

This rejiggering of the traditional grant application process may not be appropriate for every funder and every issue. But it speaks to a complaint we’ve heard from professionals on both the grantmaking and grantseeking sides of the coin; namely, that the funding process can all too easily be driven by momentum alone, where the same funders end up supporting the same nonprofits. As calls to open up traditionally restrictive philanthropic processes grow louder than ever, Potlatch’s Resiliency Fund is one more example of a focused racial equity funder looking to change that status quo.

Potlatch is trusting that people in the communities know what’s best for their communities and trusting that they’ll use general support from philanthropy to best serve their communities. It’s kind of the point of philanthropy, and probably a direction that more funders should take.

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