There’re no definitive guidelines for how to act in a crisis, but there are a few actionable strategies that can help you thoughtfully and efficiently set up and manage emergency grants.
Grantmaking is close to an art. Honing the process of setting up a grant, collecting applications, selecting the right fits, and then reporting on your results is something that takes years of experience, lots of thought, and an ongoing, laser dedication to your mission.
Truly great grantmaking requires enormous amounts of consideration, labor, tweaking, and analysis—but what happens when you need to issue an emergency grant and don’t have time for any of that?
The recent Coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic has reminded us that philanthropy can’t always wait—even for a few weeks—and that while the grantmaking process is often long and thorough for a reason, sometimes we have to expedite the process in order to do what grants do best: help connect resources to the people who need them most.
At Submittable, we have the unique opportunity to watch thousands of grantmakers go about their business each day. In the past month, we’ve also watched as dozens of foundations and organizations have stepped up bravely, quickly, and with resolve to mainline assistance to the groups who can use it most during the COVID crisis. Their solutions for setting up emergency grants have been creative, nimble, unhesitating, and, above all, compassionate.
Emergency grants are vital in the wake of calamity, whether the world has been shaken by a public health concern, a natural disaster, an economic recession, or a pressing social issue. Here’s what we’ve learned from our clients about how to set up and manage emergency grants with maximum efficiency, for maximum impact.
Emergencies require that we leave our comfort zones. For grantmakers, this means that the rules change, even when it comes to the most tried and true methods, procedures, and technologies that you’re relied and sworn upon in past years. As an example, PEAK Grantmaking reports that just in the wake of the COVID crisis, 97 percent of organizations are considering changes to their grantmaking processes, while 63 percent are considering changing their grant priorities—who and what they fund.
Emergency grantmaking requires sacrificing “perfect” for “done” and valuing efficiency and speed over almost all else. It also requires more trust: trust that your applicants need your funds and that they will use them with the urgency and weight that inspired your grant.
Grantmaking best practices and emergency grantmaking best practices are different. Here are the strategies that we’ve seen working.
One of the biggest challenges of the COVID-19 crisis is that social distancing is required for everyone to stay healthy and safe, which means in-person collaboration is all but taken off the table. And it’s important to add that many emergency situations, from national disasters to economic crashes, may also necessitate an increase in remote work. For these reasons, being able to work remotely and virtually are vital to your emergency grant planning.
How can you make the shift?
Utilize video conferencing solutions, like Zoom, Microsoft Teams, or Google Hangouts, to take many meetings and interviews remote. Specifically for the grants space, you may conduct site visits virtually through these tools, too.
Adopt application management software, like Submittable, to replace in-person review and selection processes. Review teams of any size can tackle applications and make decisions based on customized scoring systems, while communicating through in-platform messaging.
Go paperless. The majority of foundations now use electronic grant application processes, but if you are in the minority, now is the time to update your procedure. This is also the time to examine any instances that you use paper—can you replace paper letters with email communication? Can you wire funds to your grantee accounts instead of sending checks via post?
Do less. Going fully remote in a crisis may simply mean letting some tasks slide. The Helen J. Serini Foundation, for example, cancelled all of their upcoming site visits, citing them as not vital to their current mission, which is helping their grantees during the crisis.
Place yourself in the grantee’s shoes. Many of them are strained by the consequences of the crisis and many of them need funding for crisis-related work yesterday. Anything you can do to make their job easier helps them, the community, and everyone’s efforts toward relief.
Just a few of many ideas:
- Consider expanding your funding or changing the scope of your funding.
- Ease requirements on existing grants, including requirements related to spending, reporting, timelines, outcomes, and allocations.
- Consider offering general operating support, such as technical support or infrastructure support, to grantees who are struggling with moving to remote work or adapting to the conditions of the emergency.
- Make grant modifications easy through extremely simplified processes.
- Consider making grant payments sooner and/or expediting the timeline of future payments.
The first best step toward easing the burden for your grantees is asking them about their situation and listening to their needs. This is the time to reach out individually to your grantees to both let them know what changes your organization is making to provide emergency relief as well as better understand what changes they are undergoing to adapt to the situation and continue making an impact.
This isn’t an opportunity for only sending a general public statement about “the current situation” and leaving it at that. This is the time to make individual phone calls or video conference meetings. Connect with individuals who are leaders in your community and get the best handle on the situation before you start organizing a unified response.
Don’t forget to communicate internally. If you’re making sweeping changes to the process in which you create and award grants, make those changes crystal clear. Just because you’re turning to a bare-bones system for issuing a grant doesn’t mean you can skip vital steps like getting your team on the same page.
Also communicate to the public and to donors. If you’re making drastic changes to your grant process, let people know. If you’re offering a ten-day application window for a new series of emergency relief grants, get the word out as quickly as possible so that the organizations and individuals who would benefit know to apply. If you are doing something new and exciting that will really help fast, let your donors know.
You will need to cease a lot of your “normal” tasks as a foundation, but communication is not one of them. Information that’s important to communicate especially in times of emergency includes:
- How operations have been affected, such as a move to remote operation.
- Any scheduled events that will be changed, cancelled, or postponed.
- How your employees are being supported during this time.
- How your grants processes and requirements are changing.
- Special grants, events, and strategies that you are launching to help.
- Other organizations that are offering assistance.
- How readers can help.
Communicate this information through multiple channels:
- Through email
- On your website
- On social media
- Through the media
- In a press release
Consider creating a simple survey to assess needs. Help everyone communicate their needs to you without a huge time commitment, especially if you don’t have the bandwidth to reach out individually. Quickly understanding the scope of the problem as you are forming your emergency grants to ensure you’ll be finding the right solutions.
Lilia Perez, Grants and Programs Manager at Arts Mid-Hudson, realized that much of what her nonprofit was funding was going to be cancelled, postponed, rescheduled indefinitely, or restructured into a new program. Before deciding on next steps, she set up a simple survey via Submittable to collect information and assess needs before picking up the phone.
She told Submittable: