What Can a Grant Writer Do to Advance Equity? by Julie Alsup, GPC

The funders forum is always the anxiously awaited portion of any grant professionals conference. The Regional Grant Professional Association’s conference I attended was no different. Wisely slated for the final hour of the Friday conference, the room was packed. Young professionals and advanced practitioners alike asked questions about how to make proposals more competitive, what the funders’ pet peeves are, and about trends in the field. The consistent answer given by the funders was “build relationships with us.” When you know someone, you make compromises, you make decisions together, you create innovations, and you solve problems. The funder-fund seeker relationship is no different. These relationships and the information shared fill the gaps often left because of character limits or questions not asked on the RFA. This conference, hosted by the Heart of America Grant Professionals Association in Kansas City, appropriately had a Wizard of OZ theme. There is certainly still a perception that funders are the Great and Powerful OZ behind the curtain.

The last question asked to the funders inquired what they would like grant professionals to do better, know more, or be trained on. One funder complimented the audience on the level of professionalism and technical skill in the room, and then used his response to call attention to the importance of fighting for equity. He said that funders are coming together to talk about what it means to take an equitable approach to philanthropy and it is important for our profession to also be advocates for such an approach. He said grant writers should use their influence to ask good questions and amplify the voices of the nonprofits and those they serve.

A recent blog written by David Greco and published by Nonprofit Connect focuses on the responsibility of nonprofit organizations to stop hiding the challenges and efforts that they must undertake to ensure they are applying an equity lens to their work. He says nonprofits need to advocate for themselves and present stakeholders with the real costs (indirect and direct) that it takes to take an equitable approach to the work they do. Yet, donors and trustees of philanthropic institutions are hardwired to compare charities on their overhead percentages and to expect and demand efficiency.

What does equity lens mean and what can grant writers do to advance equity? An equity lens means considering what is necessary to ensure all people can participate and prosper. It requires an acknowledgement that inequities exist among race, class, socio-economic status, and geography. It is the shared understanding that many diverse voices must be engaged to talk about and think about how inequities can be addressed to create policies, programs, and initiatives to ensure they expand opportunity and access for all.

The grant writer is often the individual facilitating the proposal creation process and crafting the narrative that conveys the needs of the organization. So how can the grant writer play a larger role in encouraging nonprofits and stakeholders to consider and advance equity? Be aware that addressing equity is more than just describing the diversity mix of the target population or the community in which the program is held. The grant writer needs to describe how the program is designed or delivered in a way that engages the target population in the process, meets their unique needs, and is accessible considering the barriers they face in their lives.

Here are some ideas for starting the conversation:

  • Ask questions about how the program or organization is “meeting people where they are” to engage their voice in planning a particular program.
  • Ask if the board or program staff diversity mix matches that of the target population.
  • If board diversity is lacking, ask whether there are efforts underway to diversify the board.
  • Ask if there is strong volunteer engagement from the target population.
  • Ask more questions about how a program or organization assesses and addresses barriers faced by their target population.
  • Ask if there have been any small, yet significant, changes the organization has made or planned based upon learnings about the unique circumstances of the target population. Have they created new job descriptions with new requirements? Instituted new hiring processes or procedures? Updated policy handbooks for program staff?

Such process measures are important ways to demonstrate a focus on equity and should not be written off as unimportant outputs. Process measures are steps in a process that lead to an outcome metric. Lifting up one or two strong measures of how an organization is doing or will do something differently or more strategically to make sure that all people can access it can differentiate your program to a funder that understands the importance of equity.

Most importantly, grant writers have an opportunity to join the conversations underway in philanthropic community. Continue to seek awareness and understanding about the importance of equity. Challenge yourself to use your influence as a grant writer to ask questions of the stakeholders you work with. And help organizations articulate and measure the important steps being made to ensure access and opportunity for all.

GPC Competency 7: Knowledge of practices and services that raise the level of professionalism of grant developers.  Skill 3: Identify strategies that grant developers use in building social capital to benefit their communities and society at large.

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