Transforming the Grantmaker-Grantee Relationship: Lessons from The ReFED Catalytic Grant Fund Listening Tour

Transforming the Grantmaker-Grantee Relationship: Lessons from The ReFED Catalytic Grant Fund Listening Tour

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Transforming the Grantmaker-Grantee Relationship: Lessons from The ReFED Catalytic Grant Fund Listening Tour

Written by: Angel Veza

August 23, 2022

When ReFED launched its Insights Engine in February 2021, its financial analysis demonstrated that $14 billion in annual funding is needed to accelerate and scale solutions to food waste if we are to have a chance at reaching national and international goals to reduce food waste by 50% by 2030. Of that total amount, $3 billion is needed in catalytic funding – capital that is patient, risk-tolerant, and flexible in order to unlock impact. Leveraging its knowledge, network, and expertise, ReFED saw an opportunity for it to play a critical role in filling this funding gap and announced its own Catalytic Grant Fund, a 5-year initiative designed to provide up to $20 million in funding from philanthropic sources that will de-risk and scale high-impact solutions to food waste. And because food waste is a problem that is built into our system at all levels, the Grant Fund would operate as one component of a larger Circular Food Solutions Funding Platform launched in partnership with Closed Loop Partners. 

As the ReFED team started to strategize and craft the operations and processes that would be used to execute the Grant Fund, we recognized the opportunity to challenge how grantmaking has been done historically by evolving our standard operating processes to address the ways in which past philanthropic activities have contributed to systemic inequalities. 

As a nonprofit ourselves, with the responsibility of fundraising to support our own programs and operations, we know well what it means to be a grant seeker. There can be myriad challenges in the grantmaker-grantee relationship, and we've learned from our experiences. We realize that, as we expand our role as a grantmaker, we have a responsibility to evolve and improve the dynamics between a funder and a grantee and are committed to the feedback process that will make that possible. This awareness led us to design a strategy that promotes equity, with the aim of guiding how we manage the Fund and work with its ultimate grantees, as well as with the broader base of food waste solution providers with funding needs. 

Eager to ensure we were developing an impactful and trust-based strategy, we conducted in-depth research and held discussions with like-minded funders. While we learned a lot through this initial process, we knew that the missing key ingredient was input from the actual prospective grantees themselves.

With more than 1,500 solution providers in ReFED’s Solution Provider Directory, we knew we had an opportunity to hear from so many voices – the ones that work day and night on the frontlines to fight food waste – so we organized and hosted a virtual listening tour. The participants in the first webinar of the listening tour webinar were ReFED’s past grantees from the COVID-19 Food Waste Solutions Fund and the Nonprofit Food Recovery Accelerator. Not only did they share their fundraising experiences, but also direct feedback for ReFED on how we could build upon these past programs and make the Catalytic Grant Fund better. The second webinar was open to all other food waste solution providers and was designed to give everyone a chance to express their perspectives on a range of topics including the funder-grantee relationship, grant application processes, impact reporting systems, and how ReFED can better support solution providers across the space beyond just financially. We are grateful for and humbled by the active discussion and thoughtful input that was shared during the listening tour.

Outlined below is an overview of the findings we gathered from the listening tour – insights that would have taken years of mistakes, iterations, and challenges to identify on our own. Our ambition is to seriously contemplate and incorporate many if not all of these learnings into the ongoing development of the ReFED Catalytic Grant Fund. Beyond continuing to evolve our own role as a funder, we felt a responsibility and opportunity to share these insights and learnings with other funders who were open to reflecting on their own practices, challenging their assumptions and biases, and starting to transform their relationships with grantees.

What the “ideal” relationship between a grant funder and grantee looks like

  • In an equitable grantmaker-grantee relationship, there is trust on both sides that grows from the grantmaker taking the time to understand each grantee and their work deeply. Grantmakers should be able to trust that their grantee is conducting work that will drive progress toward their shared goals, and grantees should be able to trust that their funders will bolster their work and provide guidance as needed. In practice, grantmakers could give funding that will be most useful for their grantees. As an example, a funder could provide multi-year unrestricted funding, which gives grantees the flexibility to assess and determine where they can maximize the value of the grant dollars as opposed to funders dictating how the money should be used. 
  • Grantmakers could also redefine failure as an indicator of progress, which would promote innovation among its grantees, as well as provide non-financial support like helping its grantees to identify and recruit talent, connecting them with other funders and/or prospective customers, serving as a thought partner, and providing access to executive coaches and mentors like leadership/ development coaches, access to volunteers/mentors, support in accounting systems or other business fundamentals where assistance might be needed, and access to talent.
  • Additionally, there should be continuous communication and alignment between the grantmaker and grantee. Beyond general progress updates as outlined in a grant agreement, both the grantmaker and grantee should keep each other informed of broader organizational priorities and changes even once a grant term has ended. Doing this helps to establish a long-term partnership and collaboration.

How to improve grant applications and impact reporting processes

  • Oftentimes organizations have to spend inordinate amounts of time seeking funding opportunities, finding ways to get invited to submit a proposal, and submitting impact reports once they receive funding – all while continuing to execute and advance their mission and work on the ground. As such, there is an opportunity for the grant application as well as the reporting experience and processes to be improved. For instance, before launching a grant application, funders can benefit from proactively getting to know prospective applicants. In doing so, grantmakers become more knowledgeable about the problems they are looking to solve, and in building their knowledge funders can better customize and/or co-create their criteria and processes so that they are centered on the needs and experiences of the organizations that are on the ground working on the issues.
  • Additionally, grantmakers can streamline the application and reporting processes. A few examples could include:
    • Overcommunicate and explicitly define what will and will not be funded as well as  the thesis behind the criteria. This type of clarity will save time for both the funder and the grantee.
    • Design multi-phased application and impact report processes with a variety of submission options (e.g. online form, video submission, phone call, site visit). This can help promote inclusivity while also being respectful of organizations’ time and resources.
    • Only request information that is absolutely critical and necessary in the application and impact reports.
    • Be open to different types of metrics that organizations track and give them the opportunity to share those in the application and reporting processes. Relatedly, be willing to provide guidance on what types of metrics organizations could be tracking that would benefit them.
  • When it comes to selecting grantees, it can be beneficial for individuals involved in the grantee-selection process to be appropriately trained in Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, & Justice as well as have experience with a range of perspectives to help pressure-test assumptions and judgments. Additionally, in instances when an applicant is not selected to be given grant money, funders could provide tailored and actionable feedback. By giving actionable feedback, the applicants will not only be better prepared for the next funding opportunity, but they’ll also have an understanding of what they can improve to be more impactful in addressing the problems they seek to address.

How ReFED and other funders can be catalytic and better support grantees in achieving their impact

  • Funders and the organizations that seek funding from them are all working toward a common goal. The reality is that a single grantmaker cannot provide financial support to all of its applicants, but funders can amplify and highlight the work of all applicants (not just its portfolio of selected organizations) to its broader network and especially to other funders. For example, when ReFED launched The COVID-19 Food Waste Solutions Fund, we produced a directory of fundable opportunities featuring organizations identified through the Fund’s application process, and made it available to other funders. 
  • Additionally, grantmakers typically have a strong knowledge base of the organizations doing similar work, but have varying strengths. As such, grantmakers could help to facilitate collaborations or even mergers across organizations that have synergy and could scale their impact together. 
  • Finally, there is an opportunity for more cross-collaboration and knowledge sharing across funders and prospective grantees. This is critical if we want to see the grantmaker-grantee relationship transform into one that is equitable and just.

 

In an effort to take immediate action, we will continue to broadly share our takeaways from the listening tour and will be hosting a webinar on September 15th to discuss these learnings and other best practices in more depth with other funders. To register for the webinar, follow this link: https://refed.zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_1rIc8LQvRkWWunWSsM-bCA.

As we continue to build the ReFED Catalytic Grant Fund, we welcome other perspectives for us to take into consideration during this development phase. If you’d like to share your input or if you have any questions about the Catalytic Grant Fund, please reach out directly to Angel Veza at [email protected].

To stay updated on the Catalytic Grant Fund, please enter your information at the bottom of this webpage. If you’re an organization seeking funding, we’d love for you to share your funding needs with us by completing this brief form.

ReFED is a national nonprofit working to end food loss and waste across the food system by advancing data-driven solutions to the problem. ReFED leverages data and insights to highlight supply chain inefficiencies and economic opportunities; mobilizes and connects people to take targeted action; and catalyzes capital to spur innovation and scale high-impact initiatives. ReFED’s goal is a sustainable, resilient, and inclusive food system that optimizes environmental resources, minimizes climate impacts, and makes the best use of the food we grow.

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