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A Community Process For Community Grants

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Since Horizons’ founding in 1980, the foundation’s signature grantmaking program has been our annual Community Issues grants, awarded each year to a wide range of organizations serving, advocating for, and celebrating the Bay Area LGBT community. The deadline for the 2014 grants passed on August 22, 2014. More than 80 applications were received from advocacy, arts, service, and community nonprofits.

A community process for community grants

The Community Issues grants aren’t the typical American foundation grant process, which relies heavily on a “program officer” who solicits, reviews, and recommends grants made by the foundation. Horizons does make these kinds of grants – and the program officer-driven approach has some genuine advantages – but that’s not how we do it with CI grants.

Rather, the CI grants reflect the views of a 12-member panel of community reviewers, who come from all over the Bay Area and come with different area of expertise (like the arts or health or community organizing.)  After staff conducts an initial review and cut, the panelists spend several weeks reviewing and evaluating applications on several criteria. They then meet for one carefully organized day – facilitated by Horizons – to develop a slate of grants that it will recommend for funding, and in what amounts, to Horizons’ board of directors.

There is, of course, never nearly enough money to fund all the worthy proposals (as is true with every  foundation under the sun.) That scarcity of resources can make the panel’s deliberations often quite difficult, occasionally even heated. After all, we deliberately choose panelists with strong views, wide-ranging experiences, and deep passion for our community.

Anticipation – and dread

After more than 10 years with the foundation, I still both look forward to and dread seeing the list of grants recommended by the panel. Every year, the panel recommends wonderful, exciting, critical grants, grants to organizations of all sizes and working in a wide range of areas from LGBT elders to youth to the arts. 

Yet every year dozens of strong proposals from thoroughly worthy organizations don’t show up on the “yes” list. There are also occasional recommendations that I – or Francisco, our grants director, or individual members of Horizons’ board – ourselves wouldn’t rank ahead some of those not on the funding list.

So what happens then? Do we put aside the panel’s recommendation and substitute our own? It’s not an easy call. After all, Horizons’ staff works in and with our community all day; we know a lot about organizations and are pretty darn good at reviewing funding proposals. It’s that very expertise that donors seek from us all the time.

In the end, we almost always let the panel’s recommendations stand. After all, we bring the panelists in for their know-how and their richly diverse perspectives. More fundamentally, Horizons has, for decades, believed that there’s real wisdom in the panelists’ ultimate collective decisions. Even more to the point, including the voices of our community reflects the fact that Horizons has been, is, and will be of, by, and for the LGBT community. (Any truly weak or ineligible proposal also would have been winnowed out by in the staff’s initial review.)    

Horizons’ “Open Door”

The role played by community reviewers makes our Community Issues grants unusual in the foundation world. The same is true of Horizons’ “open door” approach to CI applications: if a nonprofit is working in and/or for our community in the Bay Area, it’s generally eligible to apply.

To be sure, the foundation does have stated priorities, including:

  • Achieving full equality for LGBT people
  • Advocacy and support for the well-being of LGBT elders and youth
  • Advocacy and support for high-priority populations, including LGBT people of color and transgender people
  • Increasing the capacity of larger LGBT groups to raise money from individual donors

But even organizations working in other areas – so long as they’re LGBT-related – can apply. Certainly, the CI panel is informed about the foundation’s priorities and most grants do fall within them. Every year, though, a handful does not.

 This kind of “open door” approach has become rather rare in the foundation world. There’s immense pressure to focus tightly on a very limited number of funding areas in order to concentrate the impact of grants. There’s plenty of sound thinking behind this trend, like allowing program officers to become experts in a specific area and, in some cases, improving the complex task of demonstrating impact. And Horizons has had – and has – a number of grant programs that are narrowly focused on particular issues or populations. (Our Coming Home Fund, for example, focuses on LGBT elders in San Francisco, and the Global Faith and Equality Fund helping amplify the voices of pro-LGBT people of faith.)

But we see the Community Issues grants a little differently. For one thing, Horizons is a community foundation, and therefore should provide wide opportunity for nonprofits working in and for our community to seek support. That’s different from a private foundation, where often the donor who funded it set out priorities from the very beginning.

Second, and notwithstanding all of the vast and thrilling changes we’ve seen, the number of foundations committed to funding LGBT causes is stunningly small.  Most foundation grants to LGBT groups come from a tiny number of national foundations – like the Arcus and Gill Foundations, the Ford Foundation, and the Bay Area’s own Evelyn & Walter Haas, Jr. Fund – which have strictly defined priorities that make them effectively inaccessible to most LGBT nonprofits. That leaves those organizations – most of our community’s organizations – with few options other than Horizons.

There’s a third reason for our proudly keeping this “open door” for Community Issues grants: just as we believe that there’s wisdom in the recommendations of a community panel, we also believe that there’s wisdom – and knowledge and innovation and leadership – that comes from the people on the frontlines, those who, every day, are solving problems, meeting challenges, and attending to very real, flesh-and-blood needs. Every year, we receive proposals for important, timely, innovative projects that none of us would have thought of, and that none of us would necessarily have included in the foundation’s stated priorities. If we didn’t have an “open door” for CI, we’d never have known about them – and never funded them.

Getting beyond scarcity

Decisions around each year’s Community Issues grants are especially hard because the resources are so limited relative to the opportunities and the needs. Horizons is proud to have grown its endowment to the point that it’s generating more than $250,000 every year in dependable funding for CI. That’s a big difference from even a few years ago.

But we need a lot more growth if we’re to increase substantially the number of grants that we make and their size. That’s why the foundation continues to invest in planned giving, which remains far and away the most effective way to build our endowment. As you’ll hear more about in 2015 – our thirty-fifth anniversary year – Horizons plans to invest even more in coming years.

Learn more about grantmaking and community initiatives at Horizons Foundation.