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Such a Year - Part Two: Big Changes to Grantmaking

Through July 2021, three essays are documenting significant actions and shifts that developed within Impact Austin since the COVID-19 lockdown in March 2020. Our first piece explored the leadership that Impact Austin, and Executive Director Christina Gorczynski in particular, demonstrated in the early months of the pandemic. This essay examines Impact Austin’s grantmaking shifts in 2020. The final article will consider the expansion of our Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging framework.

Christina Gorczynski makes clear that much of what seemed to happen so quickly in Spring 2020 was actually due to groundwork laid in 2018 and 2019.

Pursuing a focus on equity and communities of color

In October 2018, soon after Christina Gorczynski joined Impact Austin, Impact Austin leadership considered developing a pilot for a new grant 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. First Co-Chairs were member Jessica Odeyemi and Leadership Austin Fellow Robin Loving. Jessica credited Robin with volunteering 20-30 hours a week, meeting with various organizations and community leaders, noting where collectives existed around equity, where there were gaps in services, and ultimately shaping the new grant to serve women and/or girls of color. Jessica wrote, “We came to the conclusion that when organizations come together within different spheres of influence to address a problem, solutions for systems change can happen.

In July 2019, Michelle Rankin – Impact Austin Class of 2010 and also a Leadership Austin fellow - stepped into SIG leadership with Co-Chair Katie Simoes and Monica Deal shadowing as the next year’s Co-Chair. The team proactively reached out to organizations that weren’t among Impact Austin’s traditional applicants, but groups known to be working in the space of equity and benefiting women/girls of color. These organizations were encouraged to apply. Sixty people attended an online, recorded Nonprofit Workshop and 18 collaboratives applied for the first Social Innovation Grant that was awarded for The Innocence Initiative in November 2019. The second SIG was awarded in November 2020 to a collaborative led by Black Mamas ATX.

In Fall 2020, the new Equity Grant was announced as the outcome of the SIG, which was always a short-term "impact incubator" initiative. The Equity Grant's inaugural award will be in November 2021. Once again, the 2021 grant will advance equity for women and/or girls of color, although future grants may not restrict the equity lens to this population.

Discovering how to reduce the burden on applicants and volunteers

The timeline was tighter for the SIG application and review processes than it was with traditional Impact Austin grant cycle. But therein lay opportunity. Michelle explained, “We wanted to reduce the burden, both for applicants and GRC members. It was a heavy lift to be on a (traditional) GRC.” Then-Grants Chair Becky Austen worked with SIG leadership to guide how the application process might be tailored and streamlined, while still retaining the practices necessary for integrity. The outcomes:

  • Virtual Nonprofit Workshop, rather than in-person event, with workshop recording maintained on Impact Austin's website during the application process

  • Removing the LOI step from the application process

  • Application trimmed to just 4 questions

  • Initial GRC training offered online before first in-person meeting

  • Fewer meetings

  • Sub-committee deep-dive reviews removed (later reinstated)

  • Virtual site visits, pitch-style, of one hour or less, compared with traditional half-day in-person site visits

How was this received in the applicant community? Experienced applicants appreciated the new and streamlined process. Outreach to new applicants made them feel more comfortable about applying, too. Impact Austin proactively encouraged more organizations to apply than might have in the past.

Pivoting in response to pandemic and shut-down - and the changes that remain

In March 2020, the COVID pandemic and shut-down forced Impact Austin to pivot its grantmaking practices. GRC meetings moved to remote format, and 2020 site visits with semi-finalists were eliminated. For the first time, all 8 finalists were ultimately funded, with allocations made according to a 75%/25% split that reflected member vote. All grants were offered without restrictions, allowing new Community Partners to apply funding to the purpose noted in their applications or however their organizations/clients would be best served in light of current events. Also new: Community Partners were invited to reapply for grants the next year. Awards were quickly paid in one lump sum to get funding in nonprofits’ hands at a crucial time for their clients and their own operations.

In September 2020, Impact Austin introduced a streamlined grants process that incorporated best practices from the SIG approach, from the March 2020 pivot, and from trust-based philanthropy practices that Impact Austin has increasingly pursued.

Integrating a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion mindset into grant review

A DEI mindset was integrated into each meeting of the Social Innovation Grant committee. Grant Review Committee (GRC) members were reminded that the SIG Grant would be approached differently. The programs might be unfamiliar even to seasoned GRC members. New-to-us applicants might be younger or less-experienced as grant writers. Communication styles might be different. The fact that applicants were collaboratives also meant those relationships had to be carefully examined. SIG GRC member Kalí Rourke recalled, “…since it was the first time IA had considered collaborations, there were many differences and details that we had to examine. A goal became finding collaborations that were true partnerships, with each party bringing something of value to the table, but also receiving value back. We learned to avoid “add-ons” that filled out the definition of a collaboration but where that win-win dynamic was not clear or evident.” But within the SIG team there was a general willingness to take risks and appreciation for programs that were new and innovative. Kalí said, "It was a learning experience for all of us and I enjoyed it so much I came back for the next year!"

DEI training remains an integral part of Impact Austin’s GRC work. Michelle commented, “The DEIB Committee and the rise of the initiative have us all considering implicit bias, taking more risks on new organizations, learning new communication styles, and fostering more conversation on the GRCs themselves.”

Benefits to Impact Austin

The SIG legacy is more than just groundwork laid for future changes to grantmaking. The impacts live on within our organization.

  • The 2019 SIG collaborative brought us five members that continue to influence Impact Austin! In fact, members coming from both SIG collaboratives have participated on committees and GRCs, spoken at philanthropy education events, helped guide strategic planning, and one member recently joined the Board of Directors.

  • SIG collaborative members add value to the GRCs when they participate, sometimes advocating for organizations not otherwise known to Impact Austin.

  • Some new members have joined as a result of the SIG. They felt more comfortable with our organization because we were willing to make grants like the SIG.

  • The DEI training that helped SIG committee members think differently about grant review is now incorporated into all our focus area GRC work. And now DEIB ethics and practices are is woven into our Strategic Plan.

Michelle Rankin is careful to clarify that our work around equity has shown progress, but “we’re not done.” She added, “We know we’re on a journey. We’ve laid a foundation for continued learning, and we’re committed to the journey.”


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