From the Cloud to the Grassroots

By Mo Perry

It's an exhausting and galvanizing time for individuals and organizations working for social justice. The onslaught ofattacks on rights for women, people of color, Indigenous people, LGBTQ people, and immigrants has given a new urgency and attention to the work of organizations on the front lines of advocating for these groups, and an enhanced interest on the part of philanthropic organizations in supporting this vital work.

The challenge for funders is understanding how to best support and harness the energy behind social movements such as #MeToo, Black Lives Matter, and #FamiliesBelongTogether—energy that can feel at once transformative and frustratingly nebulous, as it resides largely in the
intangible sphere of social media. It’s a question faced by individuals and foundations alike—how to bring the spirit of resistance and advocacy down from the cloud and transform it into meaningful action on the ground.

Foundations and grant-giving organizations, with their abundant resources, are uniquely positioned to make a real difference in moving the needle on issues ranging from fighting sexual violence to supporting racial equity to protecting immigrant families from persecution and
dehumanization. But an ever-accelerating news cycle and increasingly polarized political climate present challenges to philanthropic organizations as well, as slow timelines and a tendency toward risk-aversion can result in a lack of readiness to seize the moment when the spotlight of
cultural attention is shining most brightly.

Still, many Minnesota foundations are taking on these challenges with creativity and determination, with the knowledge that the institutional risk of getting involved in social movements is outweighed only by the societal risk of not doing so.

The Challenges
One of the primary obstacles funders face in funding timely responses to crises or movements is a structural inability to move quickly. “The process of applying for a grant can take months,” explains Headwaters Foundation Associate Executive Director Maria De La Cruz. “Small
organizations at the grassroots of addressing big social issues are tasked with creating relationships with funders, and timelines often get dragged out, whereas in the moment, a group might need dollars to get on a bus or talk to decision makers. It’s tough to do quick actions when
funders aren’t ready to make those funding decisions right on the spot.”

When the #MeToo movement was garnering daily headlines last fall, the energy was palpable for Teri Walker McLoughlin, executive director of the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault (MnCASA). “We saw a tremendous opportunity to bring light to this problem in a manner that’s never shone so brightly,” she remembers. “We saw dozens of pieces of legislation introduced addressing the needs of victims and survivors around all forms of sexual violence. That was four, five, six times more than we would typically see in a legislative session. We had staffers testifying, recruiting interns, spending more time at the capitol than ever before. But we still had the same physical resources, and they were taxed to the max.” Her message to funders? “Create opportunities or funds that can be responsive quickly to these opportunities as they arise.”

Many funders lack a robust range of tools that would give them the flexibility to respond differently and appropriately to a variety of grantee needs. “The challenge is often that foundations aren’t set up to have dollars support efforts in flux,” says Headwaters Foundation Executive Director David Nicholson. “There are moments that are a ‘consciousness moment.’ You need to have a strategy to support the work before, during, and after that consciousness moment, and they’re all different for each time and each issue. Foundations generally have a single strategy, without the dexterity to move with movements.”

Here are six tips for how foundations can adjust their strategies, culture, and processes to be better partners to organizations on the front lines of fighting for social justice:

1 | Develop Flexible Tools
Rather than focusing exclusively on a single grant cycle that may be too cumbersome to be responsive when a crisis or consciousness moment arises, foundations can develop a range of funds designed to meet different needs.

In 2015, in the wake of the shooting of Jamar Clark by officers from the Minneapolis Police Department, Headwaters Foundation for Justice quickly mobilized to launch the Emergency Fund for Black Lives, which raised and deployed $100,000 within a two-week period to support the work of Black Lives Matter Minneapolis and Neighborhoods Organizing for Change (NOC), two local groups leading demonstrations and community healing work.

Headwaters then developed the New Majority Fund—their first multi-year grant effort to support organizations led by and for communities of color to tackle issues they see as pressing for their communities. “It has helped deepen our relationship with Black Lives Matter Minneapolis, so they see us as an ally and resource,” says De La Cruz. “That’s Headwaters Foundation leveraging our power to support the infrastructure for black-led organizations to do their work.”

In addition to its annual competitive Funding Opportunity, Blue Cross Blue Shield Foundation of Minnesota's president has the ability to make discretionary grants of up to $25,000 and can be turned around in as little as two weeks, from application to award. “The ability for us to give at both levels allows us to be both nimble and in it for the long haul,” explains Claire Chang, Senior Program Officer for BCBS MN Foundation. “Both are useful when tackling social justice issues.”

2 | Seize the Moment
Organizations on the front lines may be too busy actively responding when a crisis or moment of consciousness arises to divert critical resources to applying for grants. At those moments, foundations can make a critical difference by proactively reaching out to offer support.

“We didn’t have the time to sit down and strategize on reaching out to funders during #MeToo,” says MnCASA’s McLaughlin. “It would be great if the philanthropic community was proactive in those situations and reached out to us and say how do we take advantage of this? Their end goal is similar to ours, and working together will get us closer.”

Headwaters’ David Nicholson says it’s important for funders to already have relationships with organizations doing social justice work, so when there’s a peak moment they’re able to offer dynamic support. “We saw this with #MeToo,” says Nicholson, explaining that the core organizations that helped to lead the 2017 Women’s March in Washington D.C. needed financial support to fully capitalize on the consciousness moment. “They needed resources to do the immediate organizing, as well as general operating dollars, and after all the headlines are gone, they needed dollars to turn those volunteers into leaders,” explains Nicholson. “Funders have to be ready for that kind of nuanced work.”

3 | Broaden Your Lens
Many funders have a specific mandate or mission that, in the absence of creative thinking or framing, can limit the scope of their giving. But thinking more broadly about how potential grantees might fit within that lens can lead to fruitful relationships and a more complete approach to fulfilling the organization’s mission.

BCBS MN Foundation’s mission is to advance health equity—which requires addressing a wide range of social factors and health determinants. In 2017, the foundation provided a quick-turnaround grant to Reviving the Islamic Sisterhood of Empowerment (RISE) to conduct a series of convenings and trainings in the wake of the Bloomington mosque bombing. “When people in our community are under threat and don’t feel safe, it’s a health issue,” explains Chang. “We’re an insurance company, and we see the links between feeling safe over a person’s and community’s lifespan. [Fulfilling our mission] is not as simple as the important work that happens at a clinical level. We invest in working further upstream.”

Employing a broader lens can also help funding organizations move beyond a reluctance to get involved in causes they fear may be overly partisan or political. “Foundations by nature are risk-averse,” says Nicholson. “They often pull back from being deeply engaged with anything that can be seen as controversial.” But he points out that what’s happening with immigrants, for instance, is not just a hot-button, partisan issue we can stand to ignore if we care about the soul of our nation. “We can’t have a healthy democracy if people are being scapegoated,” says Nicholson. “It’s an opportunity to lean in and say ‘What are our values as a foundation that are central in this moment and how can we engage?’”

4 | Think Beyond the Grant
Grantmakers have more to offer than just funding. Nurture a sense of abundance and creativity about the resources your organization has to offer, from physical space to important skills to valuable connections.

BCBS MN Foundation offers a conference room to its grantee partners, saving them the cost of renting meeting space. They also provide their grantees coaching and mentoring around DEI, budgeting, cash flow, writing proposals, and how to nurture relationships with individual donors—all important resources that go well beyond simply writing a check.

In the wake of the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson in 2014, the Minneapolis Foundation offered to create space for dialogue and conversations between local activists and Minneapolis government officials. They funded convening time and hired a facilitator. When Jamar Clark was shot the following year, some of the dialogue and relationship building that had happened in that room helped foster a more productive (if still imperfect) response by the city and community. “Sometimes it’s not about doing grants on your grant cycle,” says Catherine Gray, Director of Impact Strategy and Civic Engagement for the Minneapolis Foundation. “That’s one way, but it’s also about paying attention and using all your resources.”

5 | Be Prepared to Translate
There’s a learning curve to effective grantwriting that can be prohibitive for grassroots leaders and organizations in need of timely assistance. That education process also requires its own dedicated resources, meaning that, at some point, funders need to recognize and nurture emerging leaders and organizations even in the absence of a perfectly formulated application.

“Foundation staff need to help people decode philanthropy,” says Gray. “We have to be responsible stewards for the dollars we have access to, but I think we can also go the extra mile to give feedback on proposals before they go in, and help people strengthen their cases. If the goal is to move the needle in some way, and social justice activism is part of that, we need to help people learn the language, strategy, and timing that’s required to get financial resources from foundations.”

Chang encourages potential grantees to directly tell her their authentic story, even if it’s messy, and to trust her to translate it back to BCBS MN Foundation in terms that will be most effective. “You tell your story the way it makes sense to you, and I’ll be the interpreter and transmit the content in a way that honors what you’re doing. The foundation system speaks a different language, but we’ve worked hard to be trustworthy interpreters between communities and our system.”

6 | Develop Trust
The received wisdom in philanthropy circles is that organizations applying for grants need to earn the trust of funders. A true social justice lens flips that script on its head and suggests that philanthropic organizations need to do more to earn the trust of groups on the ground doing the work. As in all relationships, the primary vehicle for building trust is open and honest communication.

In 2018, Funders’ Committee for Civic Participation facilitated the Power Impact Team, which paired six funders and six field leaders to talk about how philanthropy can better support community power-building. “Having good people on both sides being vulnerable and talking about challenges and successes can foster better understanding for everyone,” says FCCP Executive Director Eric Marshall. The project yielded a set of 10 Recommendations for Funders Building Power, which can be downloaded at

Gray encourages funders to engage more directly with the communities they aim to serve. “Go to protests. Go to vigils. Go to forums and listen,” she advises. “Be visibly present. Go to coffee with a lot of people and listen and learn and look to be proactive in helping people find inroads into funding. People talk about foundations and the community as if they’re separate, as if foundations aren’t a part of the community. I want to be in conversations where people recognize foundation staff as part of their community, and where we act like that as well.”

Mo is a freelance writer and actor in Minneapolis. Her work has appeared in publications including The Atlantic, Experience Life, Delta Sky, Minnesota Monthly, and more. She is the co-founder of Logosphere Storysmiths, a writing agency that crafts vivid narratives for impactful organizations and their leaders.

*This article has been revised since it's publication to best reflect the voices expressed in this article.*

More of Giving Forum V40, Fall 2018