Editors’ note: This article, first published in print during Nov/Dec 2009, has been republished for Nonprofit Quarterly with minor updates.

SOCIAL JUSTICE ORGANIZATIONS can be in a tough spot when it comes to getting grant funding. Grants for advocacy work and general operating support can be difficult to find, making it tempting to chase grants for “fundable” projects support that veer away from core mission. Perhaps a much-needed grant is awarded— but only with uncomfortable strings attached. Or an organization without a grants track record might simply not know where or how to get started.

Social justice philanthropy is defined by the Foundation Center as grantmaking that “work(s) for structural change in order to increase the opportunity of those who are the least well of politically, economically, and socially.” The Foundation Center found that in 2009, grantmakers gave $3.1 billion to social justice causes, representing a share of 14.2 percent of all grant dollars that year1.

Seventy percent of this 2009 funding was granted by the largest 25 social justice grantmakers—high profile funders like Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation, and John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, none likely grantors to local grassroots organizations. To put the availability of social justice funds into starker perspective, the majority of the nation’s largest foundations reported that social justice-based grants were less than five percent of their grantmaking from 2008 to 2010.2

One of the conclusions to draw is that decisions about which causes and movements get funding—and which don’t—are overwhelmingly made by the philanthropic elite. Where does this put grassroots and community-based organizations, who are often organizing in marginalized communities in direct opposition to those with power?

Grassroots organizations need not lose their social justice soul on the road to getting grants. With planning, strategy, and a dose of determination and courage, organizations can stay true to who they are and begin to raise more dollars from grant funders.

A Framework for Social Justice Grantmaking

The Bay Area Justice Funders Network (BAJFN) has sought to provide funders with an alternative to metric laden philanthropic practices by articulating a framework for social justice philanthropy. The framework proposes grounding grantmaking in the values of dignity and equity, integrity and authenticity, solidarity and collectivity, and courage and responsibility. In line with these values, BAJFN recommends practices for each step in the grantmaking cycle:

  • Strategy Development
  • Outreach and Application
  • Due Diligence
  • Making the Case
  • Award and Implementation
  • Evaluation and Learning

BAJFN envisions that by incorporating these values and practices, grantmakers will generate more responsive philanthropy to address structural inequity. The full framework is available at justicefunders.org/ Choir-Book

Speak Bravely

One grant seeking struggle for social justice organizations is fulfilling expectations around grant reporting and metrics. Foundations are increasingly filling the funding gap left by shrinking government grant dollars—and many have intensified their requirements for quantifiable outcomes as a way to minimize risk and maximize return on their investments.

One example is the Robin Hood Foundation in New York City. The funder’s website describes its metrics-based approach to grantmaking as “relentless monetization.” Foundation staff assign dollar values to the outcomes of each potential grant as well as the projected cost if the program goes unfunded, and use that calculation “to decide the relative impact of poverty-fighting options.”3 Using this approach, the foundation has managed to monetize the projected value of everything from the impact of dental care on earnings to the reduction in victims’ costs as a
result of crime prevention.

Not every funder subscribes to a metrics-based approach. “Too many funders have far too much of an emphasis on simple metrics,” observes Gary Bass, executive director of the Bauman Foundation, a national-level policy and social justice funder based in Washington, DC. “Metrics designed around grant cycles, like ‘number of web hits in a year’ or ‘number of times an organization is quoted in the media’ are an approximation of nothing. They can be a dangerous distraction from the real work of social change,” he says.

The heavy demands of reporting and outcomes tracking can be onerous and costly for smaller organizations. And even organizations with more robust systems and staff can be challenged to demonstrate progress according to the specific terms set by a funder or within the narrow time frames of a grant period. “A metrics-based approach to evaluation is very hard for organizations focused on structural change and advocacy,” acknowledges Quinn Delaney, president of Akonadi Foundation, a family foundation in Oakland, California, that supports and nurtures racial justice movement building to eliminate structural racism. “It takes time to lay a foundation, life up the issue in the community, target decision-makers, and see discernible movement—that’s not going to happen in a one-year grant period.”

But rather than back away from grants out of fear of or aversion to outcomes measurement, organizations should lean into relationships with funders. Talk with a funder about why the metrics and measurements demanded by the grant proposal or report form are default for your organization to produce. Tell stories of the difference your work makes for your constituents, and describe how your staff and board members talk about impact.

“Nonprofits are often concerned about the power relationship between themselves and their funders because funders control the purse strings,” Gary notes. “But this should not stop social justice organizations from developing working relationships with funders and teaching funders about the issues they face. Organizations can help funders see that their work changing social dynamics and policy is as important and valuable as direct service and other work that can be more easily measured.”

The brave conversations you have may help evolve funders’ responsiveness to the needs of the grassroots sector. An extraordinary example was last year when the Ford Foundation announced it was making changes to its funding priorities and practices as well as its own internal culture, after foundation president Darren Walker invited input from grantees and received 2,000 emails in return. He said, “In reading and reflecting on each and every response, I have become more aware of the ways in which we can improve our institution, and serve our mission.”4

Build Funding Partnerships Around Shared Values

Having a conversation about metrics with your existing funders is one thing—but it’s quite another to get this kind of opportunity with a prospective funder whose radar you are not even on. Acknowledging the difficulty of “breaking in,” Quinn suggests that organizations focus on building relationships with funders who already understand and align themselves to a mission of funding social justice. She notes that while the largest foundations can get the most attention, “a lot of times it’s the smaller funders who are really pulling the weight in communities. We see that there ends up being a cluster of family and community foundations funding the organizations on the ground in each community.”

Funders in some philanthropic communities are forming alliances around shared social justice values and perspectives. The Akonadi Foundation was a founding member of the Bay Area Justice Funders Network, a philanthropic affinity group supporting social justice funders in the San Francisco Bay Area. Quinn explains that this network and others like it see a responsibility and role for funders to build authentic partnerships with community-based social movement organizations and are likely to be responsive to their needs and priorities. “Look for cohorts that reflect social justice values and learn about the funders within them,” she says. (See the box to the left of social justice funding alliances.)

Some funders are innovating bold approaches to social justice philanthropy in communities without these formal alliances. One example is Saint Luke’s Foundation in Cleveland. The foundation is one of 198 grantmakers that have signed on to Philanthropy’s Promise, a project of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy. Funders who sign on pledge to devote at least half of their grantmaking to benefit at least one underserved community and at least one quarter to fund system change efforts involving advocacy, organizing, and civic engagement.5

Nelson Beckford is senior program offer for A Strong Neighborhood, a grantmaking initiative of Saint Luke’s Foundation to catalyze and sustain opportunities to improve social conditions and improve the physical environments in three specific Cleveland neighborhoods. An exemplary project that the foundation funded is Making Our Own Space, a collaboration of local youth, adults and organizations in Cleveland’s Buckeye neighborhood to plan, design and build playscapes that are usable to a broad cross-section of residents. The youth involved were treated as consultants and received stipends for their work. (See more about the project in this video: alturl.com/ux9kc.) Nelson explains that this grantmaking reflects a core belief that residents are the experts and should have a voice in planning and action in their own neighborhoods; that sometimes means thinking—and granting— outside the box.

“What we see bubbling up in these neighborhoods are really smart grassroots activities driven by residents who are leading out of passion and necessity,” Nelson explains, “But, they aren’t 501(c)(3)s.” One way the foundation is making funds available to neighborhood leaders is by piloting and promoting ioby.org (stands for “in our backyards”), a crowd-resourcing platform that has distributed more than $2 million in funds to over 600 neighbor-led projects around the country. Saint Luke’s Foundation and seven other foundations, including The Kresge Foundation and Ford Foundation, are currently funding the platform. “We want to provide the opportunity and resources for folks to make the places they live in better,” Nelson says.

Stay True to Who You Are

An organization’s grants strategy should match an organization’s strategic plan: Grants should fulfill the priorities that have been decided on by staff and board. Unfortunately, social justice organizations can find themselves operating from a position of scarcity. Anxious about not having enough funds to sustain the organization, organizations may turn to watering down their programs, or adding whole new programs, to maximize the chance of getting the funds that grantors want to give.

One organization in Cleveland advocated for and with the city’s most underserved and disempowered communities for decades. Then several years ago, leaders in the organization recognized its public policy and advocacy campaigns had morphed over time into program-based community education initiatives that could be more easily packaged for grant funding. Realizing that they would never reach their ultimate aims by allowing the grants strategy to dictate the organizational strategy—and not the other way around—the organization conducted a deep assessment of its grant seeking practices, funder relationships, and mission-driven priorities. One year after completing that assessment, the organization’s leadership has made a bold two-year commitment to fund its advocacy director using general operating dollars, which frees the ambitions of the advocacy program from the constrictions of funder expectations, and meanwhile concentrate grant seeking on other budgeted priorities.

The Ella Baker Center for Human Rights also took a fearless approach to a funding dilemma when a grantor’s funding priorities changed in the midst of a multi-year project. “The first year of funding was earmarked for the strategy that our coalition decided was most needed,” describes Director of Development Jocelyn Wong. “But when it came time for the second year of funding, the funder wanted to redirect how the funds should be used. That left us with a default decision: accept the funds and change our program plans and strategy, or reject the funds.”

This choice can be especially loaded for an organization when it impacts coalition partners and co-grantees as well. Jocelyn says, “We were put in a default position, since we were responsible for dispersing funds to a handful of smaller organizations. We needed to have transparent conversations, both internally and within our coalition.”

Jocelyn explains that what allowed the organization to make the decision was having a strong internal compass and a willingness to have tough conversations. “We needed to carefully evaluate what was being offered by the funder, while not losing sight of our mission, vision, and how we want to show up as a partner,” she explains. “The decision came down to a question: ‘At a values level, are we comfortable doing this?’ By talking it through with key staff and partners, we were able to answer that question.”

Ultimately, the Ella Baker Center decided to accept the grant, but only after substantial discussion with the funder, and some negotiation of the terms. Jocelyn continues, “We took the opportunity to educate them from our experience doing the work. We clearly communicated the possibilities and limitations of a second year grant and were able to agree on a scope of work that worked for everyone involved.”

Organizations can often trip over themselves to demonstrate that they are a match to a funder’s priorities, but this should be a two-way street. Organizations should develop criteria and a process for vetting funders and funding opportunities to ensure they are a match to the organization’s mission and values, as well as its capacity to manage the grant. This evaluation should take place both at the point of deciding to apply and the point of accepting a
grant that has been offered. The Ella Baker Center has developed its own “Evaluation Criteria for Pursuing Grant Opportunities” (see page 15), which can serve as a model for organizations that wish to develop a grant evaluation checklist.

Start With Who You Know—Then Grow

For organizations new to grant seeking, getting grants can feel like a game of chicken-and-egg: Most funders want to see a history of grant funding before they invest, but you need to secure some initial grants to establish a track record. How and where can an organization even begin?

As in any area of fund development, the place to start is with relationships you already have. Make a list of all grant funders in the organization’s history and assess what happened in each relationship. Create a plan of action to repair trust wherever expectations of a grant were not met and to restore any relationships that have gone cold. The most likely funders to make a grant are those who have funded you before.

Next, mine your inner circle for connections to potential funders. Have open conversations with donors and volunteers about their affiliations to family funds or local foundations. Ask your board members to review lists of the boards of trustees of the funders you wish to pursue. Don’t be afraid to ask your coalition partners for insights on specific funders—and make sure you’re as open when contacted by fellow grant seekers for advice.

Finally, establish a regular practice of building your list of new prospective grantors. Set aside at least a few hours per month on your calendar for grants research or dedicate funds in your budget for outside expertise from a reputable grants researcher. If you don’t have a paid subscription to a grants database, the Foundation Center makes free resources available at hundreds of locations in the U.S. Learn more at foundationcenter.org/fid-us.

When you’re new to getting grants, your first goal is gaining some traction. Consider the opportunity cost before you pursue any grant opportunity and invest your precious time and resources in more likely funders. If you don’t have an established grants history, high-profile national funders are not likely strong prospects.

Thy will expect to see that you have a track record of not just winning but also successfully managing grants and making good on those investments. “Start small and get bigger,” suggests Gary of the Bauman Foundation. Before stepping into a grantmaking role, Gary founded a nonprofit that was at first funded through small grants from smaller funders. However, he was eventually able to leverage those grants and the organization’s resulting successes to secure grants from large funders, including Ford Foundation and Open Society Foundations. “Organizations need to take the long-view when it comes to foundation funding,” he advises.

Some funders put up an impenetrable wall, while others are open to inquiries from grant seekers. Look for the latter. A conversation with a trustee or program offer can make a big difference, whether that means getting an advocate in your corner, information you can use to strengthen your application, or feedback that you ought not invest the effort to apply.

Don’t assume that only small and community-based funders will be open to having a conversation. The Foundation Center ranked Bank of America Charitable Foundation number 16 out of the nation’s 25 largest social justice funders, based on grants totaling more than $30.5 million for social justice related causes in 2009. Despite being such a grantmaking heavy weight, funding decisions are often made on the local level. Jennifer Hurd is senior vice president, state of Ohio market manager for Bank of America. All grant applications to Bank of America Charitable Foundation from organizations in Ohio go first to Jen and then are reviewed and decided by an Ohio-based committee. She encourages any organization to contact her for a conversation before they apply, and she travels the state to meet with prospective grantees.

In Jen’s experience, some organizations are more appreciative of this open line of communication than others. She tells the story of one organization that submitted a request for more than 100 times the largest grants that the foundation makes in Ohio. “This immediately showed that they hadn’t sought out any guidance before applying,” she says. Based on the inappropriate ask amount and what she said was a confusing budget, Jen decided to contact the grantee with questions. “He said that they’d follow-up with some clarifying information,” she recounts, “but I never heard from him again.”

Instead of embracing this opportunity, the grantee squandered it—as well as the relationship. Jen says that given the gaff, she probably would not look favorably on a future request: “At least not until they contact me fist and show that they understand. That’s why I have these conversations: to make sure you understand us as a funder and that I understand your organization.”

Build Relationships for the Long Haul

Effective, gutsy grant seeking comes down to relationships. “Establish good working relationships and open conversations with your current funders,” encourages Quinn. “Ask them who else might be interested in funding you. They may point you to other funders who may be a fit. Who knows—they could even have another portfolio and be able to make an additional grant.”

Keep in mind that grant seeking is a marathon, not a sprint—in many cases, the payoff will come only after a process of relationship building. To keep up your spirits and endurance, expand your definition of success. Set goals and celebrate milestones that mark your progress along the way: Count the number of proposals submitted, points of communication with funders, and new and strengthened relationships with community partners. In the first year or two that you begin submitting grant proposals, you must anticipate a fair portion of declines. But even a rejection is productive: You have introduced yourself to the funder and put your organization on their radar.

Always remember that relationship building doesn’t end at the time the check arrives. In fact, that’s when the important work begins of nurturing the funder’s initial trust and delivering on your vision. With a plan in place to continuously steward funders and engage them in the work and mission of your organization, you’ll be on your way to growing a grants program.

Dana Textoris and Matt Carter consult with Grants Plus (grants-plus.com), a full-service grant writing, research, and strategy firm that has helped nonprofits in 21 states raise more than $70 million since 2007.

Evaluation Criteria for Pursuing Grant Opportunities

The Ella Baker Center for Human Rights (EBC) evaluates grant opportunities based on the following considerations as to ensure that each foundation or corporate grant—from pre-award through final reporting—is consistent with our values and goals as an organization.

The executive director, the director of development, and any staff who are ultimately responsible for implementing the prospective grant will have early conversations about the grant opportunity to weigh these considerations. There will be subsequent opportunities to review and give feedback on the grant application, if pursued.

Values & Ethics
  • Does the funder operate in accordance with our values as an organization?
  • Is the funder a socially responsible investor? For example, is the funder invested in private prisons?
  • Does the funder engage in ethical and socially just business practices? For example, is the funder a “ban the box” employer?
Program Alignment
  • Does the grant offer an opportunity to advance EBC’s strategic goals?
  • To what extent does the funder’s grantmaking strategies align with EBC’s current programs?
  • Does applying for the grant present any risks to our work in both the short and long term?
  • Are we stretching beyond our current goals and capacity in order to fi the funding criteria? Are we in danger of mission drift?
  • If the funder’s grantmaking strategies changed, is EBC still a fi? If not, do we have partners that we should inform about the opportunity?
  • How will applying for and/or accepting this grant impact our coalition partners and the broader movements of which we are a part? Will it help and/or hurt our partnerships and the movement? Will it cause tension or division that will disrupt other EBC efforts?
  • Based on the scope of work, should we be including certain partners in the grant as a co-applicants/subgrantees?
  • If EBC is serving as the lead applicant for a collaborative grant, what additional responsibilities will we be taking on? Do we have existing capacity, or will the grant provide adequate resources to build up that capacity? What is the division of labor among partners? What is the process for accountability?
  • Have we adequately and transparently communicated to partners about an emerging funding opportunity for a shared project, all relevant conversations with funders, etc.? Are we doing our best to cultivate trust with partners related to funding opportunities?
Finance & Administration
  • Is the grant unrestricted (i.e., general operating) or restricted (i.e., earmarked for a specific program or purpose)?
  • Did we budget the revenue and expenses for the grant? If not, how will incorporating the new grant impact the budget?
  • Does the timing of the grant award or grant period matter? If budgeted, when did we schedule receipt for cash flow purposes?
  • Are we able to include indirect costs in the grant budget?
  • To what extent is there flexibility in the grant budget? For example, does the budget include specific line item allocations for the grant funding, or can the funding be used to offset the cost of the program/ organization at large?
  • If the grant provides funding for a new staff will the position be temporary? Is there a plan to secure additional resources to sustain the position beyond the grant term? Do we have office space and equipment for the new staff Who will supervise the new staff
  • Will this grant require special tracking because of its size or its specific expenditures?
  • How will the grant impact our communications team? Are there significant requirements around media relations, branding/marketing, email, or social media? Do we have existing capacity on staf to meet these requirements?
  • Will the grant award be highly publicized? What are the potential risks associated with the publicity, and can we do anything to mitigate them?
  • Is the funder receptive to feedback? Are we able to communicate directly with the funder when we have concerns?
  • Is the funder willing to negotiate the scope of work, both during the application process and after the grant has been awarded?
  • How “hands on” do we anticipate the funder to be? Are the number of updates and the level of involvement they expect to have prohibitive?