In 2019, Washington Women’s Foundation changed our grant criteria for the first time in our 24-year history. With a new focus on increasing equity and reducing disparities in Washington State, we have learned about ourselves, our community, and what it can mean to apply an equity lens to grantmaking.

What follows, is a summary of what we learned and what we plan to share with our “sister affiliates” when we all gather together in Seattle in February for the 2020 Catalist Conference, PowerUp! The Spark That Ignites Change.

In 2019, Washington Women’s Foundation invited Letters of Inquiry from organizations that met the following criteria:

  • Are focused on providing services to communities affected by inequity due to race, gender identity, and/or other characteristics historically linked to discrimination and/or exclusion.
  • Are accountable to the community being served. “Accountable” means
    • Ensures that people or communities being served are visibly leading;
    • Develops leadership of the people being served;
    • Engages the community being served in ongoing decision-making, planning, and assessment; and/or
    • Draws on the strengths and assets of the community being served to achieve the long-term goals of reducing disparities and increasing equity.
  • Have the expertise to do the work. “Expertise” includes being able to demonstrate
    • An understanding of the root causes of the issues facing the community being served.
    • A track record of success in reducing disparities and/or achieving more equitable outcomes

As with any grant process, reading applications helped us better understand the issues facing communities across Washington State. This past year, we learned about inequity in educational opportunity for preschoolers, efforts to shape public policy for an environmentally equitable future, the unique challenges of homeless women, health disparities for the Somali community, race-based gaps in arts access, and so much more. We received applications from organizations we had never heard from before and learned about different aspects of organizations we already had relationships with.

The effort to infuse equity into nonprofit work is happening, we just had to ask the right questions to initiate the conversation.

Through reviewing Letters of Inquiry, reading full proposals, and going on site visits, we deepened our understanding about what accountability can look like in organizations. We learned that accountability does not necessarily mean representation by members of the community being served, though representation can be one way an organization demonstrates accountability. In applying any grant criteria, it’s natural to want clear-cut guidelines about what fits and what doesn’t, but using the term “accountability” allowed us to see the many unique ways organizations are incorporating the knowledge of the people being served into decision-making and program design. Looking at accountability instead of representation also meant that we went beyond “checking the box” of diverse leadership, but instead, developed an understanding of how an organization respectfully engages a community.

Ensuring that an organization is responsive to the people being served is a complex question, so while the question made our evaluation and deliberations more challenging, we think we got better answers and had great conversations along the way.

Throughout this process we were again inspired by the power of group learning. Our Grant Committee work groups wrestled through complex ideas together and helped each other develop a deeper understanding of the issues. Members challenged each other to think critically and bring their whole selves to this work. On staff, we adapted trainings and increased the support we offer to volunteer leaders.  However, the peer-to-peer learning had an even greater impact. So much of racial equity learning is deeply personal, yet having the chance to explore new ideas in a supportive environment leads to better understanding and real connection.

One of the biggest takeaways for us is that there is energy, urgency, and passion for this kind of engagement among philanthropists. Our members were ready to be challenged with hands-on, equity-based learning even if it meant having difficult conversations. Nonprofit organizations are excited to tell us about their work in different ways and continue to express gratitude for our listening to the needs of our community and centering those needs in our grantmaking process.

Prioritizing equity in our grantmaking has been a learning experience for everyone involved, and we are looking forward to deepening our understanding further in our 25th year of grantmaking.