Putting Grantees at the Center of Philanthropy
Putting Grantees at the Center of Philanthropy
This multi-part series, produced in partnership with Grantmakers for Effective Organizations, tells the story of why and how grantee inclusion is key to effective philanthropy, from both the funder and nonprofit perspectives.

I wish I could say it was easy. Grantee inclusion seems, on the face of it, like such an obviously good idea: Of course the people most affected by grantmaking should be central to deciding what to do with grants they receive—after all, they know better than anyone what is happening on the ground. So why doesn’t it happen more often?

There are many reasons, which Lori Bartczak explained in her introductory post and which my fellow authors will discuss over the course of this series. Crucially, the quality of relationships funders have with nonprofits and communities is central to the impact they’re able to achieve.

As a funder, I want to highlight one dilemma that comes up recurrently in my own practice and in the work of many of my colleagues: making sure that who gets paid to work on grantee inclusion lines up with our foundation’s values about equity.

In framing this dilemma, I’m thinking of three means by which funders can practice grantee inclusion. One is when funders contract with consultants to help them include grantees more effectively in strategy design or execution. A second is to fund intermediaries to include grantees via regranting programs. This frequently happens when a larger funder is seeking to reach grassroots organizations that are otherwise too small to qualify for funding. And a third is by making grants to nonprofits that seek to advance the practice of grantee inclusion as an end in itself.

In all three cases, a common dilemma is at play. As a funder, when you need more capacity to work on inclusion, do you go with established organizations that may at first glance have a higher likelihood of success but that aren’t representative of the communities you’re working with, or do you go with organizations led by people most affected by inequality that have been starved of resources and therefore may have a harder time executing—or that may execute in ways you aren’t used to?

When you boil it down, the source of the dilemma is equity. Organizations that are more representative of underserved communities tend to get fewer resources. Their more well-resourced brethren may be in a better position to execute in terms that are familiar and palatable to funders, perhaps because they come from similar educational backgrounds and have similar cultural frames of reference. Those ways of operating get coded as “capacity,” as in, for example, “I’m not sure about the capacity of these people of color-led organizations.” As Vu Le, executive director of Rainier Valley Corps, points out in a blog post that addresses—from the nonprofit perspective—who gets paid to work on equity, engaging authentically with grassroots communities of color may require a different approach to something as basic as meeting facilitation. “Convenience is often the greatest enabler of inequity,” he writes, referring to what’s convenient for funders and mainstream organizations in terms of where and how they choose to engage with grassroots communities of color.

Now, on one level, this example is not a true dichotomy: Established organizations care about equity issues, and organizations led by people of color, in addition to being established themselves, have strong track records on executing with regard to any number of topics. But I think this is one case where we need to go beyond “on the one hand … but on the other hand” reasoning. Because the problems groups led by people of color are often set up to solve—increasing representation of people of color or moving more resources to marginalized communities—appear intractable, we may, intentionally or not, judge them more harshly than organizations that have more general aims. And the types of concerns they bring to the table—about intersectionality (overlapping forms of identity), who is included in decision-making, the importance of working in coalition, or the need to take the time to ensure that multiple sets of stakeholders are authentically included—may appear like a lack of efficiency, as compared to organizations that work in ways that do not necessarily tackle power dynamics, privilege, and inclusion. But in fact, such concerns and conversations are critical to long-term, genuinely effective inclusion.

And so we’re back to the dilemma funders face: Do we work with groups, whether consultants, intermediaries, or grantees, that work on inclusion generally and can deliver results “efficiently,” but that are not necessarily representative of the communities with which they work, or do we invest the time to work with organizations that are grounded in the communities they serve, but who may need more from us, whether time, money, understanding, or simply an open mind?

These are all questions without easy answers, but I’m hopeful that by being open about the dilemmas inherent in funders deciding who gets paid to do work on inclusion and equity, we can come to a deeper understanding of a way forward that works for everyone, and aligns our shared values and actions.

Funders committed to inclusion and equity need to take an honest look at our own practices around grantee inclusion, and we must also be clear on what we expect of the intermediaries, consultants, and nonprofits with which we work. This may take more time or require us to work in unfamiliar ways, but the benefits of inclusion are worth it.