I’ve debated blogging about my quest to earn a catalytic grant — and I finally decided to go for it, in the hopes of building a supportive community with others in the ring. Part of my inspiration came from attending last week’s BlogHer conference; the other part came from what happened on Friday night…
I screwed up. And to tell you the truth, I’m not quite sure it’s my fault. You can be the judge of that. Regardless, I’m sharing this mess-up because I believe there are lessons in it for funders and for myself, too.
In July, I applied for a quarter-million dollar grant, which my organization is deeply qualified to receive. I imagine thousands of nonprofits applied for this high-profile prize, which made my chances of winning slim to begin with. Even so, it was still a chance, and in the nonprofit industry, which is so strapped for resources, we don’t take our chances lightly.
This grant was a multi-step process. Anyone could submit a proposal, articulating how your organization has an audacious idea to combat climate change through girls’ education, women’s rights, food waste, or plant-rich diets. Later on, you’d be asked to peer review other applications, and then the highest ranked organizations would proceed to the next round. Four would win $250k each.
I want to recognize this foundation for doing something that’s actually uncommon: Dividing their million-dollar prize up among nonprofits in different verticals. Change is not created in silos, and structuring their million-dollar prize in this way sets a great example for the sector.
I also thought the peer review was a smart idea. I know DonorsChoose.org does this among teachers submitting classroom projects for funding, and it’s an effective vetting system for them. I’d like to see more opportunities like this for nonprofit leaders to learn from each other.
So to advance in the grant competition, you had to complete peer review. Here’s the problem: I never got an email to inform me that it was time for peer review (and I checked my spam!). I also never got any emails telling me that the deadline to complete peer review was Friday, August 10, 5pm PST…until 90 minutes before said deadline.
I work on the East Coast, and after hosting a student conference all last weekend, I actually left the office “early” this past Friday at 5:30pm EST, to meet up with my husband and a friend visiting from Australia. I keep an eye on my inbox after hours, and as I was walking through a NYC transit center at 7:30pm, I found the 90-minute reminder that had been sent an hour earlier.
PANIC set in. My husband saw me stop dead in my tracks and asked what was wrong. I had flashbacks to high school, when the teacher announced a pop quiz I wasn’t ready for. How could this have happened? I searched my inbox for notifications I may have missed. There were none.
I was totally flustered. My husband led me to a spot where I could sit down and problem solve. I emailed back, explaining I was not notified that any applications were waiting for me to review, nor given any other reminders. I asked if I could submit responses over the weekend. While I waited for a reply, I started reviewing the applications in my dashboard. It would be impossible to thoughtfully read and review all these in 90 minutes, and I had 30. My husband calmed me down and encouraged me to try.
As I’m trying to prevent myself from a meltdown in the middle of the Oculus — I mentioned this was a quarter-million prize that I wanted to be in the running for, because we need that level of funding to continue our work — I get a response from the foundation. With 14 minutes left on the clock, they tell me “There’s still some time, but you would need to be sure to add at least 10 words of feedback for each trait, for every review, in addition to the numeric score.” And, “to ensure fairness and transparency, we are not able to provide any extensions.” How do you define fairness?
At first, I tried to race against time and fake my way, leaving empty feedback on these organizations’ incredible plans to scale, create impact, and be audacious. If they spent as much time as I did on my application, it felt horrible to be speed reading them so carelessly. I decided I couldn’t do that. And it didn’t matter anyway, because there literally wasn’t enough time. The clock struck 8pm and my heart sank.
I responded to the foundation and asked them to please understand the effort these applications require from small, strapped non-profits. It’s hard to believe it would disrupt the timeline to give me (and other nonprofits who were undoubtedly in my situation) the chance to submit over the weekend. Was anyone at this foundation working through the weekend? I’m not sure, because I didn’t get another email response.
For anyone, especially on the West Coast, who may have still been at their desk and received the reminder email at 3:30pm PST for a 5pm PST deadline, it might have been possible to rush through. But is that what the outcomes of this million-dollar prize depends on? Rushed-through peer reviews?
Now, I do want to acknowledge that I later backtracked, and there is a section of the website titled “Timing” that mentions the peer review deadline is August 10. However, it wasn’t mentioned in the official rules. (POST-PUBLISH UPDATE: My colleague sat in on a webinar the foundation hosted about applying for the prize. She just showed me a screenshot that says peer review is August 13–16! Now we are really confused.)
It’s standard practice to receive email confirmation and information about your next steps after submission. That’s how every other grant I’ve ever applied for has worked. In fact, I recently prepared another big grant application, fully aware of the deadline. Even so, they proceeded to email me on a weekly basis with a deadline reminder, even leaving automated voicemail messages. A bit much, but I appreciated it. I knew there would be others applying who could use those reminders — they never hurt. In this case, I would have expected in the very least an email letting me know the peer applications were ready for my review.
A single reminder that you have 90 minutes left, however, adds insult to injury.
WHAT I LEARNED
To deal with my frustration, I decided to do something that I’ve been putting off for a long time: Speak up. I’m not here to name and shame — I will send this post to the foundation as it is my hope to be a future grantee. I trust that they will respond and share their point of view. I would hope that by inviting nonprofits to apply for their grant, they see funding as a two-way street in which this kind of feedback is respected and considered.
Statistically speaking, as with any large contest you might enter, I did not have a good chance of getting that grant to begin with, even if we were strongly qualified. But something about the system being set up to fail me — and undoubtably many others — flipped a switch in me. We have larger battles to fight; a foundation’s application process should not be one of them.
I’m tired of following rules to systems that are inherently unequal. The philanthropy sector needs change. Even a grant meant to be innovative can limit its impact by prescribing to a mentality that does not put the grantees’ needs first.
How do I know this? She’s the First is uniquely both a grantee of foundations and a grantor ourselves, to community-based girls’ programs around the world. My co-founder Christen manages the “grantor” side of STF. We’ve worked together to make She’s the First increasingly flexible, yet still accountable, with our funds for international partner organizations. We take a bottom-up approach, where we listen to the pain points of locally led organizations and mold what we have to offer to suit their needs. We are building a more balanced power dynamic.
I manage the “grantee” side of STF, which means I’m regularly applying for grants, submitting reports, and building relationships with a diverse pool of funders to support our programs and operations. For every major grant I win, I’ve probably been rejected from a least 10 others. That’s the name of the game. There’s a lot of demand for limited funds.
Unfortunately, unlike the relationship STF has with our grantees, I do not feel a balanced dynamic with many funders I seek to partner with. They have the upper hand, and I’ve held my tongue so many times to not rock the boat, because what if I say something that hurts our potential for future funding?
I’m starting to give myself the space to speak up. I’m not talking about social injustice in this context, because that’s a different type of voice that I find much easier to use. It’s been harder for me to speak up against the systems that fund our work. I’m someone who generally likes to be liked by everyone and not seen as a “complainer.” This has been an especially hard lesson for me to learn as a female leader. But the older and more experienced I get, the more willing I am to take even baby steps of boldness. Especially when it comes from a place of not wanting to tear anyone down, but rather build stronger systems together.
WHAT FUNDERS SHOULD CONSIDER
Here are four questions I encourage foundations to consider when building out a grant application process, particularly one with multiple stages:
- Are you communicating with the clarity you expect from applicants?
I believe the burden is on the funder to be clear about basic deadlines and expectations. It is a double standard to expect your potential grantee to vividly write about their work and not reciprocate with open communication in return.
2. Is your system set up to attract diverse applicants?
Are you looking to fund an organization that is lean and effective? Are you going to put them to work to figure out your requirements and distract them from the mission-critical work you want to be supporting? Consider whether there a possibility that the staff of the organization may not have English as a first language, or limited Internet access. Is your website designed in a clear, mobile-friendly way to accommodate low Internet speeds? All of this has to be considered when designing your application process if you want to reach applicants who are on the frontlines of change, with varying degrees of privilege.
3. Are you respecting the time of nonprofit professionals?
Time is money. I have seen big foundations invest in PR firms to get the word out about their opportunity, but then not value the time of the people submitting the applications. A short application is one way to do that, but it’s for naught if later stages of the grant process are mismanaged. Are you rewarding our time with fair consideration?
4. Have you designed a system that does not compromise the quality of your results?
Be mindful of sending reminders that encourage quality work. I would have expected to spend two-hours on my peer reviewing, in this example. Even for those who saw a 90-minute reminder, it was not sufficient warning for quality control, in my opinion.
I invite funders to provide their perspective and add to the conversation.
Meanwhile, I’m challenging myself to have a stronger POV to keep practicing the expression of not only gratitude, but “gripes” as well. If there is a bigger systemic change needed behind your “gripe,” it’s not trivial or tit-for-tat. Please share! I’m going to work to keep this series going…all the way to $1M.