Four things funders do wrong

It takes some courage to come to a conference of funders and tell them what they do wrong. In no uncertain terms. Especially if you are an organization that could use their money.

But there was a lot of that at the Tuesday morning panel titled: Expressions for Justice: Grantmaking in the arts for systems change. The exchange was open, and maybe the most direct of the entire GIA conference.

The frankness appears to be born out of trust, and came courtesy of the Chicago-based Field Foundation, which invited its grantees to air their gripes. Field has earned that trust by being on the ground, funding groups that fall out of the nonprofit mainstream — fledgling start-ups and experienced (if not necessarily growing) organizations and individuals who are working with underserved populations.

And, when prompted by Field staff, panelist Christian Snow — executive director of Assata’s Daughters — took advantage of the moment.

She got it: here was a chance to say a few things in an environment where the funders who need to hear them might actually be listening.

I’ll break it down into four areas, and I’ll convert them to “don’t’s.”

1. In your funding evaluations, don’t force grantees into broad, one-size-fits-all descriptors, like “people of color,” “EDI and “ALAANA.”

They don’t necessarily see themselves as part of a collective group.

“We are talking about power and oppression and when you start putting categories to things, you’re leaving people out who should be in and including people — when maybe in the circumstances you’re talking about — should not be included.”

Instead, de-categorize, fund programs because of the specific work they do. Speak directly about racial justice, or racial equity, or just race.

2. Don’t demand data-based info when deciding or reviewing grants.

It’s not easy to come up with meaningful data to measure the success of work that makes people’s lives better or more meaningful. You can insist, but the info will be irrelevant.

“Those metrics aren’t going to give you any real information,” Snow said.

Instead, ask for stories, or ask for an explanation of goals. What does success in work like this really look like? It might be about building bridges. It might just be about doing something better than you did it before. Open up the definition of success.

Snow’s organization works to end a specific sort of racism she calls out as “anti-blackness” and progress is not easy to quantify. “I can’t tell you how we’re going to prove it,” she said.

Instead, ask how the project expands relationships, or what lessons they have learned, or how this grant will help them do things better in the future. “What things have changed. What would they do differently,” Snow suggested.

3. Don’t go the “competitive grant” route.

Just give money to people who will use it wisely. Don’t make budget-strapped, understaffed organizations go up against peer organizations. It can quickly turn them into adversaries:

“I have seen so many coalitions broken by funders. so much collaborative work torn apart because people are fighting for scraps, when — and I have seen your bank account — you have that money.”

4. Don’t over-value partnerships because they sound good on paper.

Don’t force collaboration between grantees who are at different stages of growth, who have unique missions, and work on their own schedules.

“We actually shouldn’t be working with them because we harm each other, said Snow. “There are many ways this fight over the power dynamic is hurting and stopping the work from happening.”

Instead evaluate organizations as individual entities. Value them. Or you might lose the best grantees along the way.

“Sometimes, we just look at those grant applications and say that’s going to hurt us.”