You know the “Be the Change You Wish to See in the World” quote attributed to Mahatma Gandhi? At the Pollination Project, we loved it so much, at one point we considered naming ourselves the “Be the Change” Foundation.
I come from a nonprofit background and have been fundraising for nearly two decades. I have had delightful experiences where a funder has stood by my organization’s work year in and year out without much question or concern. And then I’ve had funders who have flaked out on their pledges or decided to change their funding priorities seemingly out of nowhere, and suddenly defunded my organization without notice. I have received rejection form letters with my organization’s very simple name spelled wrong.
When I had the opportunity to become a funder and create a foundation from scratch, I was fortunate to be working with founders who really wanted to “be the change,” not just “do the change.” We subscribed to the notion that all external change starts internally, and, from the start, created systems and priorities that reflected our view of a more just, compassionate, generous and sustainable world. We make daily $1000 grants to individual social change visionaries all over the world and will make our 1000th grant in July 2015. We see the grants we make as a vehicle for creating the kind of world we want to live in.
Here are a few of our core grant-making principles as we see them now.
I. RESPECT OUR APPLICANTS
Most foundations see applicants as a problem to be managed instead of a resource. In fact, the majority of foundations in the US don’t even accept unsolicited applications- 77% of family foundations are closed to unsolicited requests; essentially, you need to know someone to get in the door. Those who do take applications frequently strive to get applicants through a grant making system as efficiently as possible, often by depersonalizing the process and automating communications. There is very little room for humanity in the system.
Our goal has always been to treat applicants as the hope for the future. These are people who are trying to address impossible challenges, cast bold visions, and garner some financial support to do their good in the world. We receive 3-4 times more applications than we can fund, so we are always aware that more than grant-makers, we are actually grant-rejecters. We need to be ever mindful that every day we are rejecting good people with dreams, vision and commitment to making the world better. They deserve far more than a crappy form letter with their name spelled wrong.
We keep our applications open, rolling, and available online 24/7. Anyone, anywhere can apply, and if someone does not get funding the first time, they can apply as many times as they want. Our doors are always open.
About a year ago, we took a critical look at our application system to see how it was matching up against our core principle of “Respecting the Applicants.” We made many changes and created this Applicant’s Bill of Rights as an operating manual for how we show up for our 2,000 applicants each year.
Just the other day, we received this email, which underscores what is possible when you respect your applicants:
“Back in March I submitted a grant to you for my Project. I learned last week that I wasn’t selected to receive the grant. I’m writing to tell you that you made the right decision! I actually don’t need the grant! …. I just wanted to share all of this with you, and thank you for helping people to dream. When I first thought of creating this project, I did so thinking I had a good shot at a grant from the Pollination Project. With that belief in the front of my mind, I got to work. So in a weird way, the Pollination Project helped me get started.”
II. PUSH POWER TO THE EDGES
The power in a foundation is anchored in the question: Who decides where the money goes? We wanted to disrupt the traditional philanthropic power structure where the person/people with the money make the decisions, or where a disconnected Board of Directors makes decisions.
If we wanted to push power to the edges of our network, and empower our community, it quickly became obvious that grant decisions needed to be made by grantees. Currently we have a team of 55 grant advisors all over the world, the majority of them are Pollination Project grantees. Once a grant advisor completes 10 dockets, they receive a flow fund of $1000 that they can designate to a new project selected from their own network (as long as it fits our funding guidelines).
We look to our grantees as the beacons who will shine light on other great people and projects in their communities. With a referral from a grantee, a project is twice as likely to be funded than an application from another source. We’ve seen many situations where a grantee has directed as many as 12 other local projects to apply, thus weaving together a really special, localized grantee community.
III. TAKE RISKS
We fund people with no proven track record. We are interested in supporting projects that are so early in their development cycle, they are unlikely to receive funding from any other source. We have funded kids as young as 9 years old. We have funded rural subsistence farmers in east Africa and newly formed women’s cooperatives in South America that don’t even have enough track record for a Kiva Loan. By taking these early risks on people, we know some will fail, some might even steal our money, but some will succeed beyond anything we can even imagine. We are proud early funders of someone who is now a Soros Justice Fellow, a Muhammed Ali Human Rights Award Winner, organizations that have secured large USAID grants, a group that just received a six figure Google grant, our grantees have appeared in Time Magazine, NBC Nightly News, USA Today, the New York Times, and so much more.
We call ourselves “the Pollination Project” in part, because, we are planting seeds- a risky business if you get overly attached to the fruit. But the future of our world depends on the seeds, so we take the risks.
The way we do our grant-making is our real work. The rest is gravy.
By Alissa Hauser, Executive Director