It’s Not You, It’s Me: Breaking Up With Your Organization’s Inequitable Funding Practices
Erika Grace “E.G.” Nelson is a Community Health and Health Equity Program Manager at the Center for Prevention at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota. E.G. recently led the Center through an equity scan of its Request for Proposal (RFP) policies and procedures.
“It’s not you; it’s me” is possibly the most cliché break-up excuse, but for many funders, it really is their own policies and procedures that undermine their ability to find community soulmates. Perhaps you have had conversations with community members who have said that they found out about your funding opportunity too late, were too busy to apply, or, worse yet, were rejected even though their project sounds like a great fit based on the conversation you are currently having with them. The reality is that funders typically enact policies that are convenient for themselves, as opposed to what makes sense for grantseekers, and diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) fall by the wayside of expediency. As a result, organizations with the most social and fiscal capital have the best shot at receiving awards.
Have you ever taken the time to think about how your funding portfolio might look differently if your RFP process was designed to be more equitable and inclusive? We recently completed an equity scan, and here is a bit about how this reflection has led to changes in our RFP process.
“Funders typically enact policies that are convenient for themselves, as opposed to what makes sense for grantseekers.”
At the Center for Prevention, our goal is to improve the health of all Minnesotans by tackling the leading causes of preventable disease and death – commercial tobacco use, physical inactivity, and unhealthy eating. While Minnesota has one of the best overall health rankings in the nation, we see huge gaps in health outcomes when considering factors such as race, income, and area of residence.
We also know that communities are aware of what they need to be healthy, but organizations established by and for marginalized communities tend to face greater barriers than well-resourced, mainstream organizations in getting what they need. We wanted to remove as many barriers from our application process as possible so that we could find and support more community-based and culturally-tailored approaches to addressing health needs. To begin identifying these barriers, our team reflected on challenges identified by communities we work with and walked through our application process from beginning to end using an equity lens. As a result, we have implemented several systemic changes to move towards our vision of a truly equitable process.
Bringing the Funding Opportunities to the Community
We began our journey by thinking about funding opportunities. Before an organization can even apply for funding, it needs to know that an opportunity exists. Through community conversations, we learned that many organizations were unfamiliar with our resources and work. We recommended that project teams develop a tailored outreach plan for each funding opportunity, with specific outreach to organizations or sectors we considered to be key stakeholders or who had been markedly absent in previous rounds. Moving forward, we also have a goal of literally meeting folks where they are at – town halls, cultural events, on social media – to share our work and funding opportunities.
As a result, here are some ways we shifted how we engage with community organizations through our RFP process:
- Time. Once applicants find out about an opportunity, they need to apply, which takes some time. We learned that some potential applicants prioritized other opportunities because they didn’t have the staff capacity to apply for multiple opportunities concurrently. The easiest solution to this problem was to give applicants more time, so we extended our open application period. In our case, we went from no set minimum to at least six weeks.
- Assistance. We also wanted to make sure that applicants could make informed decisions about how to prioritize staff time, so we opened up new channels for discussing funding opportunities. We made sure that every application had a designated point person for answering questions from the public, and even piloted some creative ways to interact with the community in advance of the submitted application, such as an “office hours” hotline where anyone could call in and ask questions. The number of inquiries was manageable and allowed applicants to receive guidance on whether their projects were a good match before they invested time in applying. Follow-up survey data showed that this strategy paid off because applicants reported that they understood our funding objectives and that the time they invested in applying was appropriate for the potential award.
- Accessibility. We are also working towards using more accessible language to articulate the merits of a viable proposal. We now run a readability test on all RFP language before publication, with the goal of using language that is no higher than an eighth grade reading level. Such tests have helped us remove jargon, and improve comprehension by professionals outside of public health as well as by non-native English speakers.
Leveling the Playing Field of Community Relationships
Our team also considered the role relationships play in evaluating proposals. We approached equity from two angles. We set limits on which and when “outside information”— knowledge we have about a project that didn’t come from the application—can be shared during proposal review. We also started reaching out to new applicants to discuss their work more deeply. Our familiarity with mainstream organizations and those we have previously funded can influence how we evaluate an application, and in some cases lead to an unfair advantage for groups that already have many advantages. So these limits on “outside information” were put in place to level the playing field, as well as to begin to strengthen relationships with organizations that were new to us. These conversations helped us to fill in gaps in our understanding that we may unconsciously fill in for organizations we are already familiar with.
“We now run a readability test on all RFP language before publication…to remove jargon, and improve comprehension.”
Transparent Evaluation Processes
We felt transparency in our decision-making process could only improve the quality of proposals. One way we have done this is by making scoring rubrics available to applicants. We also began providing tailored feedback to each declined applicant on how the proposal could have been stronger in hopes that it will improve future submissions. Though we have yet to determine what impact this will have in the future, we can say that applicants have been appreciative and found this feedback to be useful.
Hope and More Work to Be Done
While we don’t yet have much data to analyze post-implementation, we have noticed a few positive outcomes. We have seen a great increase in applications from greater Minnesota in particular, demonstrating that our targeted outreach is increasingly effective. Our funding awards to projects by and for people of color have also doubled in one of two opportunities we have analyzed since implementation. Despite this progress, we continue to wrestle with how to develop scoring tools that better reflect our values.
The above are just some examples of how we have begun to identify and address equity barriers in our process that may be helpful for others. If your foundation is considering something similar, here are some things we learned from our experience that may be helpful for you.
- Leadership & Promising Practices. As with any new process implementation, support from leadership is critical. If you are met with resistance, keep in mind that funders typically want to emulate best and promising practices in philanthropy, and sharing what other funders are doing around diversity, equity, and inclusion can be highly motivating.
- Checks & Balances. It is also important to keep in mind that old habits die hard. It is not necessarily because team members are resistant to change, but simply need to get into the routine of doing things differently. For that reason, be sure that you build in checks and balances along the way to ensure that all who touch your RFP process have the opportunity to identify pain points along the way while also upholding equity commitments.
- No One Size Fits All. Keep in mind that there is not one model that will work for everyone, and much in the same way, not all the communities you serve will be pleased with the changes you make. So, keep asking for and responding to feedback from community and know that correcting mistakes is part of improvement and part of ensuring our processes continue to be ones that facilitate, rather than undermine, diversity, equity, and inclusion.
--Erika Grace “E.G.” Nelson