Turnaround Time: A Model of Collaborative, Rapid Grantmaking in the Trump Era

  Lukas Kurka/Shutterstock

 Lukas Kurka/Shutterstock

Moving money to people who need it is a core purpose of philanthropy—but one that its practitioners don't always excel at. Foundations are famous for taking their time to make grants, with many months between proposals coming in and checks going out.

The crisis of a Trump administration moved some funders to speed things up, often in the form of rapid-response funds meant to aid communities that came under attack after the 2016 election.

One such fund adds an additional layer to the mix—it’s a collaborative of multiple grantmaking institutions moving money quickly so as to extend their impact and reach. The Defending the Dream Fund, which is anchored at the Hill-Snowdon Foundation, has made two rounds of grants since it formed in early 2017, and is getting ready to make a third this summer. To date, it’s moved $605,000 to 50 groups, prioritizing small, underfunded grassroots organizations, particularly those in often overlooked regions like the South, Midwest, and rural areas. You can see the full list of grantees on the website; it’s quite a mix. 

The fund seems to be getting pretty good at quick turnaround. Pia Infante of the Whitman Institute, a fund partner, pointed out in a blog post that the second round was determined within about two months, making 31 awards totaling more than $400,000. That’s more than double the sum in the first round. 

Aside from Whitman and Hill-Snowdon, the other funders include the General Service Foundation, the Jessie Smith Noyes Foundation, and the Hyams Foundation (they're actively looking for more). The collaborative has made grants to groups working on immigrant and worker rights, environmental protections, Native rights and sovereignty, fighting structural racism and Islamophobia, and more.

The fund is explicitly motivated by threats under the Trump administration, supporting “organizing to address negative policies and institutional practices that are either the direct result of, or that have been emboldened, aided and abetted by the policies and positions of the new federal administration.” Most grants are for $10,000, but max out at $25,000. 

Infante shared some interesting insights into what they’ve all learned, and the challenges in coordinating not one, but five or more grantmaking entities to move money quickly.

For example, a streamlined application process was crucial, and they ended up leaning on the Solidaire Network’s online platform the JustFund portal. They moved fast by avoiding incorporating a new entity or adding new staff, but also by simply trusting leaders in vulnerable communities. They also found that the combination of collaboration, plus holding an open call for applications, had very positive impacts on individual funders’ understanding of issues and their grantmaking processes. 

It’s been interesting to watch how these rapid response funds have unfolded, and how in some cases, the lessons learned are just as much about grantmaking overall as they are about operating a special, time-sensitive fund. 

The Defending the Dream Fund underscores the importance of that core purpose: just getting funds out the door to those that are left out. You can see how, while potentially clumsy, multiple funders coming together behind that purpose is workable, and can add a level of humility and openness to the grantmaking process. For these funder participants, and 50 grassroots groups, it seems to be paying off.