3 Ways Grassroots Social Justice Organizations Can Play the Grants Game

Image of social justice, words

This guest post is from Dana Textoris, Executive Consultant, Grants Plus

Social change organizations take note: Last week the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation announced it will grant $100 million to a group that can solve a social problem with a good idea.

The opportunity is wide open. Grantees "in any field of endeavor anywhere" are eligible, including both non-profit and for-profits entities. Applicants can propose to tackle any critical problem related to “people, places, or the planet”—but their solution must demonstrate "authentic engagement with affected communities.”

This requirement to involve the people impacted by the problem in solving the problem may be a leg up for grassroots social justice organizations, who practice authentic engagement within communities every day.

Hopeful organizations must register by September 2 to take part in the three-phase competition period. Multiple applicants stand to benefit in the process. MacArthur will provide assistance to ten semi-finalists to develop metrics and plans for scalability and will encourage other grant makers to fund the projects that don't make the final cut. But there will be only one winner of the coveted $100 million prize.

The 100&Change competition is a rare opportunity for both organizations and funders to dream big (really big) about social change. It is an example of how some major foundations like MacArthur, Ford, and Kresge are visibly pushing the edges of philanthropy to fund social change in ways that are transforming their own grant making and can shift the sector towards greater risk tolerance and deeper investment in the core causes of inequality.

Unfortunately, grant opportunities for grassroots community building and advocacy projects remain limited. Many foundations underestimate their legal latitude to fund nonpartisan advocacy and civic engagement, and most opt to fund projects that result in concrete short-term outcomes as opposed to the perceived ambiguity of long-term social change.

Where, then, does that leave the grassroots social justice sector when it comes to getting grants?

I spoke to Judy Wright, Executive Director of the Ohio Transformation Fund (OTF). OTF is the fulfillment of a vision shared by Ford and other national, state, and local funders to support three core (typically underfunded) approaches to systemic change: community organizing, public policy reform, and electoral mobilization. The fund is currently investing in community efforts to reform Ohio’s criminal justice system.

Judy offered that given the limits of traditional grant making, there are essentially three ways that grassroots social justice and advocacy organizations can play the grants game:

1.       Play the Game

One option is to dive head on into competitive grant seeking. Grassroots organizations may fear being hamstrung by grant terms that they think will water down their missions, but there are ways to win grants without sacrificing your radical soul:

  • Plan a smart grant research strategy to identify potential funders who fund organizations similar to your own. Especially look for funders who dedicate their grant making to social justice. Funders for Justice maintains a list of social justice funders, affinity groups, and collaboratives.  
      
  • Talk to community partners about who’s funding their work and seek out allies who can provide resources or relationship pathways. The Ohio Organizing Collaborative, for example, offers member organizations infrastructure support and can put community-based groups on the radar of national and regional funders.
      
  • Set a policy about how you’ll decide which grants to pursue and define the lines your organization won’t cross. For a place to get started, see this checklist shared with us by the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights in Oakland about making values-informed, mission-based judgments about grant seeking.
      
  • If you’re new to seeking grants, prepare yourself, your staff, and your board members to understand that grants don’t come fast or easy.

 2.       Attempt to Change the Game

Nonprofit organizations can be reluctant to say anything to a funder that might come off as disparaging, but wherever possible, attempt to have bold conversations about the ways traditional grant making structures can restrict or exclude grassroots social justice organizations.

Explain why onerous reporting demands can be insurmountable for community-based groups with limited internal infrastructure or how short-term outcomes measurements can short change the long arc of social justice work. A solution might not come right away—even program officers who “get it” are themselves accountable to their own guidelines as well as to their boards—but it’s valuable for funders to hear an honest perspective directly from grassroots social justice grantees.

Nontraditional grant makers are themselves helping to disrupt typical grant making practices by leading by example. Open Road Alliance, for instance, operates an expedient grants process to quickly deliver funds to nonprofits experiencing unexpected events, and creates dialogue between funders and grantees about risk and efficiencies in philanthropy.

 3.       Go Around the Game

Some grassroots social justice organizations might steer clear of grants altogether, whether to avoid the demands of tracking and reporting, to maintain independence, or out of moral objection (“After all,” Judy muses, “grant making in and of itself reinforces our system of inequality”). Grassroots organizations can pursue alternative revenue streams that seem more attainable than grants:

  • Membership dues and small individual donations: A large number of gifts from many individuals provides a stable base of support while demonstrating broad community buy-in. The website Smart Annual Giving offers detailed and affordable learning modules on setting up a successful and strategic individual donor giving program.
      
  • Support through giving circles: Giving circles bring together people who pool their financial resources to support shared charitable interests. They tend to grow out of the passions of a small number of individuals, who often break the mold of the “typical” high-wealth philanthropist. Heather Yandow is a founder and member of The Beehive Collective, a giving circle in Raleigh, North Carolina that funds local organizations working on a number of issues. “Members of our giving circle commit to contributing just a half of a percent of their annual income every year,” she explains, “which helps put philanthropy in anyone’s reach.” One way to find giving circles in your area is by asking your local community foundation.
      
  • Social enterprise: Does your mission lend itself to goods or services that you can sell for profit? EDWINS Leadership & Restaurant Institute in Cleveland trains formerly-incarcerated adults in the culinary arts and operates an upscale French restaurant that provides jobs for program graduates and income for the organization. See the Foundation Center’s list of social enterprise examples and resources.

Of course, organizations may pursue a combination of all three approaches: Seek out funders willing to invest in social change, while committing to an honest approach with them—and with other funders—about the realities of doing grassroots social justice work. Pursue grants while also growing other facets of your funding mix, including revenue from individuals and social enterprise if possible. The funding game is ever-changing, as MacArthur’s 100&Change contest shows, but grantors and grantees can both play a part in shaping its future.

  


 

Dana Textoris

Dana Textoris, Executive Consultant, Grants Plus, has led development initiatives for major institutions, grassroots organizations, and political campaigns in California and Ohio. Dana is a member of the Board of Directors of FrontLine Service and is active with the Association of Fundraising Professionals Greater Cleveland Chapter. She holds a BA with distinction in Women’s Studies from The Ohio State University.