Aligning Practice with Values: Introducing Meyer’s new grants process

January 16, 2020
Jane Robinson Ward

Just about one year ago, I was given the opportunity to lead an effort to redesign Meyer’s grants process to be more equitable and inclusive. Our CEO Nicky Goren, urged us to get out of our comfort zones toward “blue sky” thinking, framing our work around this question: What would grantmaking look like that embedded racial equity, supported systems change, and increased efficiency for both Meyer and our partners? After a year of talking and testing with grantee partners, researching other foundation practices, staff design sessions, software migrations, and conversations with our board, I am thrilled to share an improved approach to how we make grants at Meyer.

Foundations change funding priorities all the time, but many don’t often consider that how they make their grants should also align with their mission and values. A foundation’s approach to grantmaking can create significant barriers to progress in communities. My colleagues at Meyer strive to be approachable and accessible. But we knew we could do more to operate in partnership and solidarity with the organizations doing the work. For all our individual intentions, we’ve operated in a fairly traditional philanthropic model, with outmoded technology, and with timelines that revolved around the Foundation’s internal needs, instead of the needs of the region and our grantee partners.

So, priority one in the redesign of our grantmaking process was to engage those with the most at stake — our grantee partners. Last spring, we conducted focus groups with several partners in Maryland, Virginia, and DC, seeking honest feedback about the challenges they experienced with our grantmaking processes. Their responses helped confirm some long-suspected problems, made visible new barriers we had inadvertently imposed, and led us to beneficial innovations other funders have implemented. We’re grateful for their thoughtful engagement that has led us to some exciting improvements to our grantmaking processes we’re launching on Tuesday, January 21. We hope these improvements will make our process more accessible for organizations of various sizes and staffing and will allow funding to be more flexible and readily available.

Here’s an overview of what you can expect:

A Shorter, More Responsive Process

· Applicants will now submit a short interest form, designed to be low barrier and completed in 30 minutes or less. The interest form introduces an organization and its work to Meyer. This form replaces what previous or current Meyer grantee partners may have known as the “application.”

· The form is accepted on a rolling basis so applicants can submit it at the time that makes most sense and is most convenient for them.

· Meyer staff will review all interest forms and respond to applicants within 30 days.

· For those who are invited to submit a full proposal (the second phase of our application process), we will review those, too, in a timelier manner, with more frequency, with approvals now taking place four times per year, rather than two.

Aligning Our Grantmaking Process with Systems Change Work

· Our redesigned, clearer proposal forgoes traditional questions that might work best for direct service providers. The new questions focus on important components of systems change work, for example, the involvement and leadership of your constituents, the specific changes you’re seeking, and what partners and networks are important in your making progress.

· In the new proposal, applicants will be asked to select from a list of progress indicator categories, choosing what best describes how they currently or intend to track their work. Our hope is this framework, based on the work of  and others, will advance a common way to identify and talk about progress and outcomes in systems change work. In an upcoming blog post, we will be sharing more about the collective “progress indicator categories” we will be using across our portfolios.

· We know that dismantling systemic barriers to racial equity is not linear and demands long-term investment to effect lasting change. With this in mind, Meyer is increasing the number of multi-year grants it awards annually. You’ll learn more about this in an upcoming blog post as well.

Reducing Barriers

· For a number of reasons, requiring written responses can represent a barrier for some organizations. So now, applicants can submit audio or video responses to our proposal questions. We are not looking for professionally produced video, but we hope this will benefit those who, for whatever reason, can better express their work through alternative methods of submission.

· Because we don’t want to pull organizations away from the work of their missions by asking them to complete redundant tasks, we will also accept proposals that address our questions, but may have been written for another funder.

· We’ve developed new criteria for reviewing and evaluating proposals. The criteria, available in our Grants Guide (described below), was developed with an equity lens and prioritizes things like an organization’s relationships with constituents and contributions to systems change efforts. This moves us away from more traditional evaluation criteria that sometimes give more well-established organizations an unfair advantage and contributes to a cycle of divestment in newer, smaller, less well-funded organizations or traditionally networked organizations, particularly those led and founded by Black, Latino/a/x, and other people of color.

More Transparency

· We created a Grants Guide that gathers in one place information about our grantmaking that may have previously been unavailable publicly, difficult to locate, or that we previously hadn’t articulated, even internally. The Grants Guide is extremely comprehensive; it includes an explanation of what we are looking for and why we are asking every question on our interest form and proposal. Our new progress indicator categories are also explained in depth along with examples.

· Our new review criteria (developed with an equity lens) are not just a collection of qualities but include descriptive questions that a Meyer reviewer will consider in making a recommendation for funding.

New Technology

· After a lengthy vetting process, we selected a fantastic partner in GivingData, a Boston-based company whose platform is among the most intuitive and well-designed available for grantmaking. Since our migration to GivingData in November, the way we share information and work together internally has already transformed.

· The system delivers a number of long-awaited changes for our grantee partners, too: it automatically saves your work every 30 seconds, allows you to easily share work in progress with your colleagues, and can be used on any browser or mobile device. Have a question while filling out our proposal? You can ask Meyer staff directly within the in-progress proposal form. We have been working hard to polish up the portal and hope you enjoy our new grantmaking platform as much as we do.

As my colleague , we know that the Meyer Foundation has become “synonymous with change” over the past few years. We know that it can be confusing when a funder doesn’t work the way it has in the past. In the spirit of equity and solidarity, we are dedicated to communicating clearly and responding to feedback about our new process. We are excited to finally make these improvements available on Tuesday, January 21, and are confident you will find them accessible, intuitive, engaging, and hopefully valuable.

We want to hear from you and will create opportunities for you to share your thoughts about our grantmaking. In the meantime, feel free to drop me a line with comments or questions.

Happy New Year!