Five tips for rapid grantmaking during a global pandemic: Lessons learned supporting adolescent mental health organizations during COVID-19
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By Sierra Fox-Woods
In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic and the widespread losses people have suffered — of loved ones, jobs, safety, and a sense of normalcy — community-based organizations are stepping up to bridge the gaps in social services. While government agencies are slower to move resources in response to real-time and evolving needs, philanthropy can act quickly and mobilize resources through rapid-response grantmaking.
At the Upswing Fund for Adolescent Mental Health, we've seen firsthand the challenges of reviewing high-volume, short-turnaround proposals. The initial concept for the fund was proposed in July 2020 as a collaborative COVID-relief fund at Panorama to focus on adolescent mental health and well-being, and was seeded by Melinda French Gates' Pivotal Ventures with additional support from the Klarman Family Foundation. Over the course of three months, we developed a grantmaking and implementation strategy supported by an advisory committee of practitioners, policy experts, and researchers, and issued a request for proposals in late October, with applications open for six weeks. The fund received 485 proposals from forty states and the District of Columbia, and to date has awarded more than $11 million to ninety-two organizations.
We'd like to share five considerations for rapid grantmaking that were critical to our process and designed in the spirit of advancing trust-based philanthropy. Some validated our own grantmaking principles at Panorama, such as the importance of giving general operating support grants, while others were unique to processes required to execute on an expedited timeline.
1. Leverage external expertise.
To quickly build a comprehensive understanding of the systemic barriers in our issue area, we sought out experts from a range of disciplines with deep knowledge and firsthand experience of the communities we were aiming to support. Solomé Tibebu, the Upswing Fund's director and a behavioral health strategist, led the overall vision and strategy for the fund. We convened an advisory committee with expertise in policy, academia, research, and direct practice whose deep understanding of the issue from both scientific and lived-experience points of view helped inform our grantmaking criteria and overall approach.
2. Slow down to speed up: Define clear portfolio principles.
Starting with clear principles for grantmaking was a basic yet crucial step to building out the necessary processes to support it. While engagement with experts informed our ideal grantee profile and eligibility criteria, we needed to figure out how we would build a portfolio by attracting, selecting, and awarding funding to a diverse mix of grantees.
Informed by our advisory committee, we identified key portfolio principles and criteria that guided grantmaking to shape a portfolio that balanced:
- Breadth: Distribution across geography, organization size, and target population served.
- Programmatic quality: Organizations that met our target population where they were, engaged their youth in the planning and evaluation of their programs, did no harm, and prioritized innovation and learning.
- Organizational leadership: Organizations led by leaders who had lived mental health experience and/or were from backgrounds reflective of the youth they serve.
3. Keep it simple! Streamline the application process.
In a November 2020 Grant Advisor survey, the second most common pain point shared among five hundred grant seekers was a feeling that the time taken to complete applications was disproportionate to the funding amount awarded. Out of respect for applicants' time, we committed to a low-lift application with limited open-ended questions. Other methods we found worked well to simplify the application process included:
- Building in an eligibility quiz to prevent ineligible applicants from wasting time on the full application. Before applicants could proceed to the full application, we required them to answer five short "yes or no" questions based on our core eligibility requirements. If an applicant was ineligible, they were directed to our Grant Seeker FAQs and not permitted to proceed.
- Limiting questions asked on the application. We asked five required, open-ended questions with a 200-word count limit for each. Where possible, we provided multiple-choice options and used ranges so they could use estimates instead of having to track down exact numbers.
- Streamlining due diligence requirements. We intentionally sought to attract smaller organizations that were resource-constrained and — recognizing the urgency of grantmaking during a pandemic — built a due diligence process that would reduce applicant burden as much as possible. We accepted a range of document types and file formats to encourage applicants to use what they had on hand.
- Publishing detailed FAQs and being responsive to inquiries. Within weeks of launching the fund, we received more than a hundred emails asking for further clarification on eligibility. We acknowledged receipt and, in the spirit of equity, consolidated new questions and published updated FAQs on our website two weeks later. It was important for us to be responsive and applicant-friendly while being mindful not to advantage any one applicant by providing individualized guidance.
4. Facilitate the review with clear team roles.
To conduct a timely rolling review of a high volume of applications, we assigned batches of applications to members of our team to provide a first-pass review and screen out proposals that very clearly did not align with portfolio principles and grantmaking goals. We met at regular intervals to discuss which proposals should be recommended for review by senior-level staff and why. While these discussions are time-consuming, especially early in the process, they're critical elements of review that should not be short-changed. Once we completed programmatic reviews, we packaged the strongest proposals for review and decision making by the final approver in weekly batches. Clearly, establishing roles and dedicating time to align on rationale were critical to helping our team move quickly in our respective lanes, with intentional collaboration points that supported timely and well-informed decision making.
5. Quantify scoring criteria while maintaining flexibility for refinement.
To operationally expedite the review, we created a quantitative pre-rank scoring step to be able to sort proposals from high to low before sending them to our reviewers. We assigned scores using a set of close-ended questions (e.g., Yes=3 points, No=0 points) that offered a baseline of the strength of the overall proposal. To guide our review, we created a basic scoring rubric attached to individual responses on the application (a scale of 1 to 5 where 5 exceeds expectations) and took time to align and level-set as a team on what warranted each score. Knowing that strong proposals are often the result of strong grant writers and well-resourced organizations, we found scoring the organizations where staff are most likely to be spread thin was more of an art than a science. By aligning with our team on the characteristics of organizations that met our grantmaking principles and criteria, we were mindful not to be persuaded solely on the basis of a well-written proposal.
Rapid grantmaking cycles enable us to respond to urgent needs faced by our communities and social impact leaders more quickly, effectively, and responsibly — and can be done with the goal of minimizing the burden we put on those who we're working to lift. We owe it to these community-based leaders to keep applicant experience at the center of our grantmaking process: to keep the application simple, conduct a timely internal review, and get resources to the organizations that need them as quickly as possible.
Sierra Fox-Woods is a program officer for Panorama's Upswing Fund for Adolescent Mental Health, where she has facilitated more than $11 million in grantmaking for organizations serving adolescents of color and LGBTQ+ youth.