Invitation Only: Closing the Door to Equity?
After more than 20 years of grantmaking in Los Angeles County, you’d think our staff at the Durfee Foundation would know all of the eligible nonprofits in our region. But we don’t.
Not long ago, for example, we got a grant request from a car mechanic who had opened his garage to foster youth in the high desert, a couple of hours north of us. Aaron Valencia, founder of Lost Angels Children’s Project, is now among the most innovative and talented leaders in our grant portfolio. But we would never have met him, had we employed an invitation-only application process. The lesson to those of us in philanthropy: you just don’t know what you don’t know.
Every time Durfee opens an application cycle, we meet eligible nonprofits that we’ve never heard of before. It hardly seems possible, but it happens, every time. Even with our lean staffing, we think it’s increasingly important to keep the door open, so let me share with you why and how we do it.
As a generalist funder, our grantmaking lens is as wide and diverse as Los Angeles. These circumstances might explain why it would be hard for us to craft a list of ideal grantee partners. But even if we could, we would still prefer the open application process.
No matter how much time we spend on the ground, in the community, we can’t possibly keep up with the goings-on of all worthy, high-performing nonprofits. Plus, we’ve heard from so many of them how much they appreciate the opportunity to put themselves forward, and to state their case directly to us. Nonprofit leaders are active change-makers, and they seek agency over their future.
We also hear rueful complaints by leaders who are frustrated by their inability to get in the line of vision of funders whose mission seems to align with their own. We field a lot of “do you know anyone there?” calls.
Which makes us wonder—what if we looked at the grantmaking process through an equity lens?
At a time when our field is focused on equity and inclusion, an invitation-only application process seems counter-intuitive. Or worse, it can project autocracy, instead of partnership—a sort of opaque “don’t call us, we’ll call you.” Imagine what it would feel like to stand at the door of a windowless, locked building to which you seek entry, with no bell to ring. And yet, that’s very often how foundations present to would-be grantseekers. Why?
I recognize that sometimes, invitation-only makes sense. A place or issue-based initiative, with a specific goal and time horizon, might best succeed in a sustained, collaborative model with a set of close, expert partners. Or, grantmakers in spend-down mode might choose to bring their work to a close in a deliberate fashion with a select few longstanding colleagues. It can streamline limited resources, reduce the demand on nonprofit leaders’ time while increasing their odds of being funded, and reduce the time foundation staff invest in application review.
While all of this seems great for the nonprofits who find themselves in a funder’s favor, what about those who fall outside their line of vision?
What Do Nonprofit Leaders Say?
The opinions above are my own, and I’m a grantmaker. Knowing that we alone shouldn’t be the ones to decide about our process, the Durfee Foundation sent a survey to approximately 100 nonprofit leaders in Los Angeles to ask their opinion on the matter. The leaders surveyed are recipients of the Durfee Sabbatical Award and are arguably among the strongest nonprofit sector leaders in our region.
We asked two questions:
- Do you prefer foundation application processes that are open, or invitation only?; and
- Do you think “invitation only” processes help or hinder the work of your organization?—and, in both cases, why?
The results were mixed and thoughtful. Overall, 78% prefer open processes, an overwhelming majority. Not surprisingly, those who tilt in favor of invitation-only represent larger organizations, but even they recognized the challenge of achieving a spot in the inner circle. Almost all acknowledge the dilemma of a Hobson’s choice – invitation-only is always preferable if you are offered an invitation.
“If I’m in,” said one leader, “of course I prefer the invitation-only application because it increases my odds of getting the grants. But if/when I find myself in need of finding new foundations to fund our work, it seems the likely ones are invitation-only, so I’m stuck.”
Other leaders expressed appreciation for the satisfaction they feel when they work in partnership with funders. “When we are on the ‘inside,’ it’s of course great! The collaboration with a funder is very rewarding.”
Those circling closed shops while looking for entry were incisive and blunt.
“Invitation-only applications further the funder as an all-powerful source,” said one leader. “They exclude small community-based organizations who are doing great work, but don’t have access to the privileged circles big funders run in. My organizations have been in the select group for some of the biggest foundations. It takes years of relationship-building, and the skill and ability to spend time doing that. Often those most impacted by the issues being funded do not have the time or ability to spend in that way. It’s an equity issue.”
“The open process speaks to me about the receptivity of the foundation," said another. “It tells me the foundation doesn’t think they know about everything that’s going on that might be mission-aligned.”
“Invite-only foundations can perpetuate income/gender/racial inequity in the same way as invite-only clubs,” said a third.
In addition to posing a challenge regarding equal access, some see invitation-only as limiting to experimentation: “Invitation-only, it seems, reduces the ability of the nonprofit organization to innovate and move in a new direction. If, say, our board has decided through strategic planning that we need to engage in green infrastructure when we are known for habitat restoration, how can we telegraph that to a funder that funds in this new area?”
So What’s a Funder to Do? Advice on a Hybrid Approach
The survey results yielded lots of practical suggestions, with nuanced perspective.
“More hybrid approaches are needed,” said one leader. “Open processes should still be focused and targeted. Before applying, I want to know if my organization’s work is a fit for the foundation. For those that are invitation-only, I would like to see more mechanisms for opening their processes, like polling current grantees for younger, smaller, newer organizations that deserve a ‘look.’ Another idea might be for grantseekers to have an exploratory interaction with the foundation, like an ‘office hour,’ a ‘meet and greet’ or a systematic process by which foundation officers actively seek out new groups to add to their portfolio.”
“I believe that an open process is perceived by the field as being more equitable," said another, “however, I don’t think this is necessarily true. The ways in which the open applications are vetted is where real equity happens or doesn’t. Who’s making the decision? What are the guidelines? These are the real questions when it comes to equity.”
So, my fellow funders, let’s start there—with these simple and complex suggestions that emerged.
Write Clear Guidelines. This may be the most challenging, but essential practice of them all. Clear guidelines may enable a foundation to shift from invitation-only to open application, without opening the floodgates to impossible numbers of applications. Vague or imprecise guidelines generate vast numbers of unsuccessful applications, and waste valuable time for both grantseekers and reviewers. Clear guidelines help nonprofits take agency in determining whether they are a fit for a grant opportunity or not.
Invite a Letter of Interest. Even if your foundation prefers to work with nonprofit partners by invitation only, offer a letter of interest option or an online platform for nonprofits to introduce themselves, and to get in your line of vision. Acknowledge that you have received the communication, and let them know what you will do with the information.
Explain Your Selection Process. If you are invitation-only, take the time to explain why. Whether you are open or by-invitation, let grantseekers know how decisions are made, by whom, by what timeline. If there are set opportunities to invite newcomers and expand your portfolio, share when and how.
Durfee uses a peer review process for most of its programs. We’ve found this an excellent way to expand the expertise of our small, generalist staff, and to offer some transparency to our process. Our peer panelists, usually alums of our award programs, bring deep community knowledge to our decision making, and subsequently serve as ambassadors in the field, clarifying and demystifying the foundation’s process to their peers.
Be Available by Phone. In our digital age, this practice might seem old-fashioned, but we’ve found it’s incredibly valuable at Durfee for building relationships. One compassionate, articulate staff person on the phone can right-size an applicant pool by helping applicants determine if they’re a fit. When they’re not, we find we can often point them in helpful directions, offer feedback, and provide a heartfelt thanks for the organization’s work. This really can go a long distance. Regardless of the outcome, the cost of this simple strategy yields dividends in goodwill.
List Board and Staff. All grantseekers deserve to know who has decision-making authority at foundations, which are, after all, tax-exempt public entities. It’s reasonable for nonprofit leaders to consider who’s in the room before investing time in an application, so board and staff should always be listed on a foundation’s website or in print materials.
Acknowledge Funder Fragility. Let’s face it, it’s a real thing. Whatever prompts funder fragility—uneasy power dynamics, concern about being overwhelmed by requests, disinclination to express rejection, deference to our boards, fear of criticism—we often work behind a buffer that separates us from the sector we serve. Most of our decision-making takes place behind closed doors, out of public view.
For those who truly seek anonymity in their grantmaking, a donor-advised fund might be a more appropriate giving vehicle than a foundation. Indeed, a more honorable one. If you choose to hang out a shingle—if you seek and are awarded IRS status as a private foundation—you owe it to the public to make your grantmaking process reasonably accessible and transparent. That’s also one of the reasons that Durfee was an early adopter to participate in Candid’s GlassPockets transparency initiative to encourage greater openness in philanthropy. We hope our profile there signals our ongoing commitment to working in a trusted and transparent manner.
Build Trust. According to Southern California Grantmakers, only about 30% of its members currently offer an open, accessible application process. Let’s collectively inch that number higher!
I’m hopeful that we are trending in that direction. The recently-launched Trust-Based Philanthropy Project, a national initiative spearheaded by the Whitman Institute, the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation and the Headwaters Foundation, seeks to rebalance power in philanthropy by promoting trust-based relationships between nonprofits and foundations. Being responsive, streamlining paperwork and seeking and acting on feedback from nonprofits are among the pillars of best practice that they recommend. Other important endeavors, like California’s Full Cost Project and LA’s Nonprofit Sustainability Initiative, prize clarity and candor in nonprofit and funder exchange, and strive to put more strategic decision making in the hands of nonprofit leaders.
It takes two to tango, as they say. But a trusting relationship between nonprofits and funders shouldn’t begin on the dance floor, after funders have chosen their dance partners. It needs to begin much earlier, as they explore shared interests and skills.
And access to the dance floor? The building that houses it needs windows, and a front door with a bell that rings. Or better yet, an open door to a standing invitation.