The Revolution Will Not Be Funded With An RFP

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The time for business as usual is long gone.

In the United States of America in 2020, the sickening murder of a black man—George Floyd to name one—at the hands of the police is not new. What is new is that white America is finally showing up en masse to the conversation. For the world of philanthropy, it makes the pandemic look like a dress rehearsal for the main event.

During COVID-19, the whole world is watching and experiencing how systemic racism and injustice magnifies personal hardship and undermines recovery. At the same time, civil society is under threat with nonprofits already or soon to be going out of business, creating a deafening call to action for philanthropy to step up and meet this challenging new reality by changing how they do business.

Now we’re here, still amid COVID-19, but facing an even louder call to action. The message resonating to me most right now is that everyone—and especially people with privilege and power in government, philanthropy and corporate America—is in a position to condemn business as usual; decry ignorance, hatred and violence; and dismantle racism in this country whenever and wherever we see it for as long as it takes.

So, in the spirit of condemning business as usual, how does philanthropy reach its full potential to help catalyze, support and sustain this work? It must stop all privileged practices that get in the way. By recognizing and abolishing tightly-held beliefs and misguided practices, the sector will position itself to do the hard work ahead, including lifting up grantees as equal partners. Here are four examples:

1. Slow decision-making – Too often, philanthropy moves at the speed of…sloths. Self-imposed restrictions hold funders hostage to cumbersome policies and processes not required by law, and which slow everyone down.

Here’s an example. Strategy should be like short-term and agile sprinting on the way to a long-range destination. But if you spend 12 months creating a strategic plan, dedicate another three months summarizing and graphically designing it before officially obtaining board approval, take six months to make funding decisions, spend three weeks preparing for board meetings (which occur four times a year – that’s 12 weeks each year!), solicit proposals from at least three consultants every time you want to retain one (regardless of the project’s strategic importance or urgency), and require four different people to approve a $500 grant, then you might as well be trying to make change from outer space.

2. Tying up funding in unnecessary hoops, hurdles, and hoopla – In 50 years, we have not seen the breathtaking and sustained protests and outrage experienced today. Now is the time for funders to assess and understand emerging needs and opportunities. Starting by issuing a lengthy and prescriptive Request for Proposals (RFP) would not be my first choice! One national funder spent four months on this task and then allocated another month to give four different departments a week to review and approve it. The process took so long that they decided to shrink down the amount of time applicants had to apply! In just three weeks, applicants had to determine if and how they wanted to collaborate with other invited applicants, obtain signed commitments for matching funds, and prepare the proposal and budget for a multi-year grant.

When philanthropies insist on funding “scalable” solutions and “big bets,” or create detailed “blueprints” to design and implement complex solutions, they can lose sight of smaller, trusted grassroots organizations that may be better versed and equipped to meet local needs.

3. Fear of losing control – No surprise, philanthropy holds power. There is the power to ignite social change by strategically using your philanthropic capital to advance your goals. And there is a lot of power merely being the person with access to wealth. The giver gives, and the recipient receives. With power comes control. Donors get to choose which causes they support, whom they fund, and what they expect will happen with those funds.

Fear of losing power and control often manifests in tight funding restrictions and a refusal to provide the working capital nonprofits need to sustain their day-to-day operations, address changing needs and take advantage of unforeseen opportunities. By ceding control, philanthropists open up opportunities for new leadership, collaborations and ways forward.

4. “Don’t call us, we’ll call you” funding guidelines – Often funders refuse to accept unsolicited proposals. While it may seem reasonable from the inside, from the outside, people are wondering, how does one get invited? It’s a mystery. I understand funders setting goals and proactively identifying partners to help achieve those goals. But flat-out refusal to open yourself up to new ideas, new solutions, and new partners is a set-up for limiting innovation and thwarting agility. For many philanthropies, it’s another way to inadvertently perpetuate the status quo. 

As the COVID pandemic and relentless acts of police brutality against black Americans have laid bare, communities of color are disproportionately affected by almost every issue philanthropy seeks to improve. Yet, they demonstrate tremendous resilience. Organizations rooted in those communities—and led by people who reflect those who live there—can bring a deeper level of insight, skill, understanding and knowledge about what works to improve them. But if you’ve locked yourself up in “invitation-only” funding guidelines, you might unwittingly prevent yourself from investing in exceptionally effective organizations that may think and act differently from those you typically fund. 

Over the past months, many philanthropists have demonstrated a remarkable willingness to change. With COVID-19, many philanthropies are doing away with complex application processes, lengthy proposal requests, cumbersome report requirements and funding restrictions. They’ve told their grantees, as my client the Moses Taylor Foundation did, “we trust you, here is a core support grant to do what you feel is most important right now.” Let’s keep it going! Instead of getting held back by delusional altruism, embrace a mindset of abundance, increase speed and agility, reduce bureaucratic steps, and cede control of funding to the people most impacted. Say no to business as usual.

© 2020 Kris Putnam-Walkerly. All rights reserved. Permission granted to excerpt or reprint with attribution.

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About Kris Putnam-Walkerly

I’m a global philanthropy expert, advisor and award-winning author. I’ve helped hundreds of ultra-high net worth donors, celebrities, foundations, Fortune 500 companies and wealth advisors strategically influence and allocate over half a billion dollars in grants and gifts. I was named one of “America’s Top 20 Philanthropy Speakers” three years in a row, I write about philanthropy for Forbes.com, Alliance Magazine, De Dikke Blauwe and am frequently quoted in leading publications such as Bloomberg, NPR and WSJ.

Kris is a sought after philanthropy advisor, expert and award-winning author. She has helped over 90 foundations and philanthropists strategically allocate and assess over half a billion dollars in grants and gifts.

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