GROWTH AND CHANGE: Our Grantmaking Evolution
In celebration of our 20th year, Impact Austin looks back on challenges and opportunities that helped us to grow and mature as a circle of women philanthropists and a collective giving grantmaker in Central Texas.
Community feedback inspires new ideas
"Nonprofit feedback has been part of Impact Austin's fabric as long as I've been involved," said Becky Austen, Co-Chair of the Strategic Advisory Council and long-time leader in Impact Austin Grants. "In fact, each of our Community Partner reports asks our grantees how we can improve." She reports ongoing, organic feedback from Community Partners and the nonprofit community in general.
By 2007, Impact Austin's grantmaking program was up and running successfully. That year, four grants of $104,000 each had been awarded. The system was working as intended, and yet our learning organization continued to analyze how to be the best grantmaker possible. But our focus went beyond that. Educating our members to be effective philanthropists was always as important as the grantmaking itself.
A 2007 strategic planning process consulted with other local funders: Austin Community Foundation, St. David's Foundation, Topfer Foundation, United Way Women's Giving Network, Junior League, and the UT RGK Center for Philanthropy. We asked ourselves questions like, "Have we so focused on process in our grantmaking that we haven't focused enough on really understanding what is needed in the community? The perception is that we want to fund visible, exciting, new types of projects. Is that what the community actually needs? Should we take more risk? Should we differentiate ourselves with our grantmaking by giving some unrestricted funds along with funding a project?"
Changes to grantmaking are evaluated
As early as 2010, Impact Austin's board considered launching a capacity-building grant category, operating parallel to our existing grant program, but with a unique review process. The concept did not move forward that year, as brand new directors were necessarily focused on hiring and onboarding Impact Austin's first executive director.
By 2013, the Board of Directors empowered Rebecca Powers to form a Grants Innovation Committee (GIC) to: “Explore innovative grantmaking options that add value to the Impact Austin member experience and align with the organization’s mission/vision and values. The GIC's engaged focus groups and came to the following conclusions:
Central Texas nonprofits exhibit clear needs for three broad categories of grants: 1) smaller, easily-managed programmatic grants for new and emerging organizations; 2) partially-unrestricted grants for growing organizations that have specific, non-program needs; and 3) large operating grants for established organizations that serve critical needs in the community and have demonstrated responsibility in managing sizeable grants.
Impact Austin Members, with ten years of grantmaking experience, have developed an impressive level of sophistication about philanthropy. Recognizing that our current grantmaking process is ten years old, they are very open to “refreshing” our process and moving towards more “progressive” options – as long as those options are introduced carefully and thoughtfully explained to the entire membership.
The Catalyst Grant and support for nonprofit infrastructure and operations
The 2013 Grants Innovation Committee recommended that Impact Austin address the need for capacity building support in our community. FY 2015 was a pilot year for the Catalyst Grant. We stated a willingness to support activities like organizational assessment; strategic planning; leadership development; executive transition; program evaluation; strategic partnerships; fund development; earned revenue development; and more. Texas Advocacy Project was the first of seven recipients in this category. From 2016-2020 the Catalyst Grant was a regular grant category at Impact Austin. Catalyst Grants invested in technology upgrades, organizational sustainability vis a vis funding model; rebranding and marketing; targeted volunteer recruitment; building a development staff; and expanded services via teletherapy. With the Catalyst Grant, Impact Austin had put power behind our interest in nonprofit infrastructure.
But we did more than that. In 2016 Impact Austin built an unrestricted allocation within all categories of program grants. From that year, 20% of grant funds could be directed to a Community Partner's operating expenses.
Grant categories grow and change
After the Catalyst Grant was piloted in 2015, other categories shuffled during 2016-2018 so that we would concentrate on only five categories each year and maintain high-impact funding levels. By 2018, Impact Austin consolidated our grant categories.
Community Grant (includes previous categories of environment and culture)
Health & Well-Being Grant (includes family category)
Then, in 2018, Impact Austin developed another pilot around a new grant category focused on equity. Leadership wanted the effort to develop from community research and in consultation with local thought leaders. With that directive, the Impact Incubator Social Innovation Grant (SIG) was launched in early 2019. With two Social Innovation Grants awarded in 2019 and 2020, the pilot was transformed into the Equity Grant, now awarded each fall.
The Impact Incubator tested new application processes for the Social Innovation Grant, many of which became standard after 2020. The goal was to reduce the burden on our applicants.
Virtual Nonprofit Workshop and recording made available online
Eliminating the LOI step from the application
Application trimmed to 4 questions
Virtual site visits of one hour or less, pitch-style, instead of half-day in-person site visits
Pandemic realities signaled new processes for grantmaking
The FY 2020 grant cycle was underway as COVID-19 shut down in-person meetings and challenged nonprofits' services. While the Impact Austin Grants team hadn't planned for big changes in 2020 and 2021, change came quickly nonetheless. Two themes emerged as the Grants team, Committee Cabinet, and Board examined how Impact Austin should best respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. In an e-blast from Grants leadership: "As a major funder of Central Texas nonprofits, we must be empathetic, flexible, and responsive to the needs of our nonprofit community, even if this means disrupting our norms." Becky Austen reported that community feedback was overwhelmingly positive.
For 2020, the site visit phase of review was eliminated. Each GRC named two finalists.
All 2020 Program and Catalyst Grants were unrestricted. Finalists had the option to move ahead with the programs proposed in their grant applications or to use Impact Austin funds for more pressing needs.
Members voted earlier than usual for the 8 finalists. The finalists receiving the most votes in each category won 75% of the total grant award; the other finalist received 25% of the total grant award per category.
Payments were made in May, rather than in late June.
Girls Giving Grants followed suit, awarding two grants along the same 75/25% split.
All finalists were invited to reapply in FY 2021.
By September 2020, Grants drew best practices from these pandemic pivots and announced a streamlined process going forward.
Applicants could request funding for programs, or capacity building initiatives, or both (in one application), in four focus areas: Community, Education, Equity, and Health & Well-Being. We integrated the strengths of our Program, Catalyst and Social Innovation Grants into a single, streamlined application process. This offered more agility and consistency for nonprofits to apply Impact Austin funds where they are needed most.
We balanced grantmaking cycles in the spring and fall.
All categories would support applications from single organizations or collaborative groups of organizations.
Both finalists in each category would receive grant funding along an 80/20% split.
Trust-Based Philanthropy offers a path forward
In 2013, Impact Austin was already asking questions and exploring concepts later identified among the tenets of Trust-Based Philanthropy. In 2020 the Trust Based Philanthropy Project launched, and Impact Austin learned more about it from experts and early adopters at our 2020 virtual Town Hall Meeting. For giving circles like Impact Austin, the challenge is to evaluate trust-based principles alongside the learning opportunities that build members' philanthropic skills.
Also central to trust-based practices are trainings and policies to deter racism and implicit bias in grantmaking. In 2020, Impact Austin applied a broader equity lens to all grantmaking, including specific trainings for Grant Review Committee members in DEIB, implicit bias, and anti-racist practices.
As this blog was written, a new strategic plan for Impact Austin was under development to launch in FY 2025. Among its strategic priorities and objectives, we expect aspirational directions for Impact Austin grantmaking.