Better Together, Activating Collaborative Action in Southeast Michigan:
5 Strategies for Equitable and Intentional Grant Making
Guest blog by: Allandra Bulger, Executive Director, Co.act Detroit
In any funder/grantee power dynamic, it’s common to imagine yourself in the other’s shoes. A nonprofit professional might say “If I was a funder, I’d do it this way.” And program officers might wonder why a grantee doesn’t understand what they need to do to get funded. There’s much to be written about how to improve grantee-funder communication. This post, however, tackles the question of what happens when a grantee becomes a grant maker, in effect performing both roles. My organization, Co.act Detroit, found out what happens in 2020 as we launched a groundbreaking approach to ensuring that nonprofits in Southeast Michigan can tap into essential capacity supports or amplify collaboration or build new revenue streams. Called the Activate Fund, this approach to reimagining grant making felt different from traditional philanthropy. Here are five ways we changed the game of funding through our lived experiences as grantees.
1. We focused on relationships first. Co.act convened many partners to co-design program values, structure and guidelines. These partners came from throughout the region and represented a diverse and inclusive community of cross-sector organizations and leaders. We built relationships with each other that led to trust and mutual support. This enabled us to be effective partners in our respective networks and expand the reach of the opportunities we were making available.
2. We listened to what nonprofits said they truly needed. Our process surfaced that nonprofits need no strings attached funds to build operational capacity, strengthen their boards, enhance fundraising or marketing, and update and upgrade technology. We also heard that there was a groundswell of desire amongst nonprofits to work together on a common challenge, but that the cost of convening and facilitating was a barrier. Finally, we heard that many nonprofits want to diversify revenue streams to create less reliance on traditional philanthropy. We listened to what we heard were needs and developed innovative and responsive opportunities for support.
3. We funded with the intent of building a community, not just initiating a transaction. Often, funders and grantees perform a prolonged courtship, so to speak, to get funding to support programs. But too often, once the grant is made, each party goes back to their respective homes without creating something bigger together. We wanted to make sure that the value of the funding we were facilitating went way beyond dollars. To that end, we tapped our partners, including Michigan Community Resources, Michigan Nonprofit Association, and others, to provide navigation assistance to grantees. We held regular meetings with grantees and service providers to connect them to each other. After a year, I can say with confidence that these interactions have spurred new relationships and have led to new knowledge and shared practices across the sector.
4. By changing how we acted as a funder, we also asked service providers to change how they worked. We opened a competitive process to potential service providers, screening them for skills that matched the grantees’ needs and for their aligned principles related to social justice, racial equity and inclusion. We asked service providers to do the same work of cohort based peer learning that we asked of our grantees. And we developed a process for matching them with grantees that put greater emphasis on grantee autonomy.
5. Finally, we celebrated each other. From end to end, the process was intentional and focused on centering the needs of nonprofits through a lens of inclusion and racial equity. But sometimes, in the act of being focused on doing something well and with intention, we forget to regularly lift up the joy that comes from creating together. All who touched the Activate Fund were part of something new and bold that ultimately served to strengthen the nonprofit sector in Southeast Michigan. While I think this is just the beginning, I also want to pause and acknowledge that we did a really good job worth celebrating.
Curious about the Activate Fund and all the other bold work Co.act Detroit is offering Southeast Michigan nonprofits? Check us out at coactdetroit.org.