What One Funder Learned From Its Post-Election, Rapid-Response Giving

In the weeks following the 2016 election, it became clear to a lot of liberal funders and donors that it was time to up their game. As Gara LaMarche told Inside Philanthropy at the time, “Everything we care for is in danger." 

We’ve seen a number of foundations taking steps accordingly, whether rolling out new programs in response to immediate threats, adjusting internal practices, or creating new rapid-response funds. This last category has been particularly popular, and we’ve covered a few of these funds designed to free up cash quickly (see our full Trump Effect coverage here), including OSF’s $10 million initiative to defend against hateful acts and rhetoric.

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Some of the funders moving to confront Trump's agenda have made public announcements about what they're doing, but others have changed course quietly, shifting around millions of dollars in grantmaking in response to the urgent challenges of the moment. Indeed, the very biggest foundation efforts to take on the Trump administration with new giving have not been made public at all. (We'll say more on this another time.)

With so many funders resetting priorities quickly in recent months and talking up the importance of moving fast, we've been wondering just how "rapid" and how "responsive" some of this new grantmaking has actually been. 

Well, as we've reported, certain funders have done a good job of getting money out the door quickly to groups on the front lines of new fights, especially those working on immigration issues, combating hate incidents, and undertaking investigative journalism. 

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Now, over six months after the election, we're also starting to see some initial self-reflection by funders on how well they've done with their rapid response funding. 

The Whitman Institute recently posted a brief assessment of its own rapid-response initiative and what they’ve learned. In December, the institute set aside $250,000 to move by the end of April “to protect and build power within communities most vulnerable to the rollback of civil and human rights promised by the then-new administration.” The program was light on process and intended to put checks in hands within four weeks of first contact. It's since made grants to 16 listed recipients, including the Momentum Training Institute, Cosecha, United We Dream, and Not in Our Town. 

The fact that Whitman pulled off such an initiative is characteristic of this very forward-thinking funder. The small liberal foundation (assets around $10 million) seeks to advance social, political and economic equity. It’s a signatory of NCRP’s Philanthropy’s Promise to increase funding to social justice and marginalized communities, and a Center for Effective Philanthropy report gave it high marks based on grantee perception. Oh, and it’s also spending down assets by 2022.

So it’s already well suited for this kind of highly responsive giving, and in fact, one of the key takeaways from Co-Executive Director Pia Infante’s blog post on the subject, is that the organization realized it already operated as a rapid-response fund in its regular programs. Whitman follows a “trust-based investment” approach that includes principles like giving unrestricted funding, simplifying paperwork, and learning more about the grantee. 

Infante points out a few other interesting lessons, including that, in retrospect, it would have been better to universalize grant sizes at $25,000, rather than awarding a sliding scale from $5,000 to $25,000. While she acknowledges that adjusting grant size is a common way to support more recipients, the process is opaque to grantees and it just slows things down. This makes a lot of sense. If you place your trust in the grantee, they’ll surely put the full amount to effective use. So just give them the money already.

Another notable observation was that "rapid" means a lot of things to different funders, and “some funds have not yet cut a check.” This created a tension between the desire to move fast and to collaborate with others. “We wanted to act swiftly, but in acting swiftly, we also ended up acting alone,” Infante writes.

Of course, that gets back to the earlier point that funders ought to embrace many of these qualities, and not just in response to crisis. In other words, if you’re doing this thing right already, it’s not a very heavy lift to be responsive when it hits the fan. That, and they’re also just qualities of good grantmaking. 

As Infante puts it: "We hope funders and donors trust the urge to collectivize, listen to and heed the wisdom of organized groups of impacted peoples, streamline grantmaking to match the moment, and take this opportunity to let go of our worst habits."