New Year’s Eve is my least favorite holiday. I just feel so much pressure… Have the most fabulous party plans… Think back on your year and reflect on how much you’ve grown. Nah. It’s not for me. But January 1. That’s my jam. I like it because it feels like a beginning. It’s a clean slate. New goals, a whole year, 365 days to look forward to. I especially like getting myself organized with a work plan. Of course, I anticipate that timelines will shift, benchmarks may change—but at least there’s a roadmap.
January 1, 2020 felt like that. Lots of exciting things moving on the Foundation front. New strategies set to launch, emerging collaborations blossoming—all positive change waiting to happen.
Then, the novel coronavirus made its debut. In a matter of days, life as we knew it just stopped. On March 16, I, along with my coworkers, frantically (maybe I was the only frantic one) packed up our office essentials (including my standing desk) and began working remotely. As I glanced over my neat (possibly color-coded) work plan, I had to accept that some things needed to move to the back burner.
I am certainly not alone in this…Many of us in the philanthropic and nonprofit field found ourselves pivoting from our normal activities or job responsibilities to learning about COVID-19’s impact on the communities we work with and determining meaningful and swift responses. In fact, while it is undeniable that communities across the globe are grappling with both the immediate and long-term impacts caused by this pandemic, we know that our most vulnerable communities are shouldering a heavier burden.
North Minneapolis, with its concentration of black low-wealth residents, is one of those communities. This is one of those moments when the lights shine bright on the systematic injustice of racialized capitalism. It makes me think of the way Edgar Villanueva talks about how philanthropy should operate in his book, Decolonizing Wealth—if money is medicine, then it should be directed where it hurts the most. So, when the statewide Minnesota Disaster Recovery Fund (MDRF) held at the Minnesota Council on Foundations was announced, it was clear that someone needed to organize a response that would center the Northside. The Jay and Rose Phillips Foundation of Minnesota thought about putting in an application, but quickly pivoted to say that actually, it would be more appropriate for the Northside Funders Group (NFG) to apply. NFG is a funder collaborative the Phillips Foundation is a member of. As a collaborative, NFG already has re-granting capacity—it made sense for them to take the lead.
Before submitting an application, NFG and Phillips co-hosted a Zoom call inviting small business owners, entrepreneurs, independent contractors and social enterprises to share how the pandemic has affected their operations and livelihoods. Of course, we also asked how we could be most helpful at this time. What we learned is that small businesses and entrepreneurs on the Northside are hemorrhaging money as business operations halt and income dries up. While federal and state funded programs may be helpful, those on our Zoom call were skeptical about their eligibility and ability to access these programs. Both concerns have now turned out to be well-founded as we’ve learned about who actually got loans and grants from resources under the CARES Act, DEED loans, and other financial resources. To tell you the truth, it seems that those systems were never meant for black, indigenous, and communities of color, let alone a sole proprietor, micro-business, or small business.
With this information, NFG understood that grants to businesses would be the most meaningful and impactful use of dollars. Thanks to our legal counsel, we identified “hardship grants” are an allowable mechanism for foundations to get up to $5,000 directly to businesses impacted by disasters like COVID-19. In addition, we knew free business technical assistance would be of the utmost importance to ensure that business owners could access other funds. At the end of the day, $5,000 is helpful, but without knowing how long shelter in place will last and fully acknowledging that the economic impacts of COVID-19 will drag on, $5,000 will likely not be enough. NFG envisioned these funds could serve as bridging resources until something else could come through. To meet this challenge, NFG committed up to $50K from its reserves to contract with five TA providers (Black Women’s Wealth Alliance, West Broadway Business and Area Coalition, Davis Law Office, NEON and Social Impact Strategies Group) who would then be able to provide free support to applicants. The hope is that other funders will step up later to cover this cost and more.
It was important to NFG and its members to include community voice in the decision-making process. Sarah Clyne, executive director of NFG, quickly pulled together an application to the MDRF. She outlined both what we would do with the money (again, straight cash to businesses up to $5,000) and how the decisions would be made. A committee was formed, made up of three NFG members, three Northside community members and Sarah Clyne, to break a tie.* The committee is charged with reviewing applications and making award decisions. So much about this effort has moved at a fast pace (as it should). Taking a pause to intentionally build participatory grantmaking into the process was vital and a change we can hopefully incorporate into the future structure of the collaborative.
Just a few days after submission we received confirmation of $150,000 for this Northside Small Business Emergency Grants fund. There were a few kudos emails exchanged, but then Sarah went straight back to work to confirm community grant reviewers and begin to pull together the application process. Within a week of receiving the funds, the committee was assembled and the application was live (NOTE: the review committee was great about making sure that the application was as brief and easy as possible). Sarah hosted an information session via Zoom (and recorded it for future use) for folks to ask questions. Now, all we had to do was wait.
Between Friday, April 10 and Wednesday, April 15, Sarah sent the committee periodic emails letting us know how many applications were coming in. We watched as the numbers grew… 13 to 20 to 27. It started with a slow trickle, but by Wednesday at 5pm, NFG had received 84 applications with requests totaling $386K. Definitely more than what we had in the Fund.
I knew there would be many applicants, but to see those concrete numbers made that awareness sink in on a deeper, visceral level. Request after request seemed to provide similar answers to the question: “What will these funds enable you to do?” Pay rent, make payroll, pay vendors, pay myself. Every last applicant was struggling with the same pressures. “How much time will it provide relief for you?” The answers ranged from 2-3 weeks to a few months. All to say, the prospect of making decisions was daunting at best.
As a way to narrow and organize the proposals, Sarah took a first look at basic eligibility (is the applicant address listed in the Northside zip codes we listed). This shrunk the number of active proposals. After that, Sarah categorized requests by industry. This was visually very helpful. It became clear that any business with an in-person aspect to their service was hurting. The industries that have applied for funding include food, health/beauty, professional services, independent contractors, and childcare/youth services. As a note, we had made a commitment that we would not spend down all of the resources in the first round. We also agreed that the “NOs” would not be hard “no” but a “not right now” and that we would revisit them in later rounds. Therefore, Sarah recommended we consider releasing about half of the funds, $75,000. Assuming each applicant got $5,000 (the majority requested this amount, a handful requested less) we had to somehow narrow down 84 applicants to about 15.
On Friday, April 17 at 3pm, we found ourselves popping onto our Zoom conference call to discuss and make award decisions. The Committee spent the first portion of the meeting expressing how grateful we felt that we were in a position to support the Northside business community at all, but also lamenting how impossible these decisions felt. But we also knew we had work to do. We started by each sharing how we had gone through each application and what had stood out for us in terms of prioritizing requests. I should note, the criteria was intentionally loose so as to provide flexibility, but in hindsight and after seeing how many proposals were received, tighter criteria may have been helpful. That said, it still would not have addressed the overwhelming need that this Fund revealed. The flexibility also revealed the bottom line: businesses needed access to income and are not in a position to carry additional debt.
An hour later (let’s be real, it was over an hour and a half), we were talking in circles. Did we prioritize people who could make the funds stretch longer? Or actually, maybe help that business that only has another 2-3 weeks because maybe some other funds will come through? Should we penalize applicants who said they didn’t need technical assistance services? If so, why? Should we be the ones to dictate what supports folks should seek out? At the end of the day, we were all agreeing that there simply was nothing setting one application apart from the other.
No matter how you cut it, everybody needed the funds, and it was ridiculous to pit them against each other when we had the funds. After much deliberation, one member just called the question…”What if we funded them all? How much would that be?” We did some quick math and it came out to about $250,000. With the $150K from MCF and the $100K from Phillips, we had the money to fund them all. What followed was a pregnant pause. Even over Zoom, the energy shift was palpable.
The silence broke when someone reminded us that we made a promise not to spend it all. There were still applications coming in. What would we do? We couldn’t go back on a promise we had made.
Thankfully, a few other NFG members were leading active conversations within their institutions to also contribute resources to this fund, as it became clear that we needed more resources to address the needs of an already fragile ecosystem.
Here is another moment that deserves particular attention.
The conversation shifted from “Well, which business owners deserve investment? What are they using the money for?” to “Well, what is philanthropy going to do to meet this need? Will funders dig deeper in their pockets?” This shift in focus is critical. As someone who has worked in philanthropy for a few years now, I can tell you that the onus always falls on the grantee. On the community that “needs the help.” Honestly, this is true of government and nonprofits. We’re dissecting every detail of how disenfranchised communities are using resources. We wonder how they will be accountable for the “generous support” they are receiving. Rarely are we flipping the script to say “How are funders held accountable for how their resources are used?” Suddenly, it all felt right. The group moved away from this icky space of judging the worthiness of each applicant and spent energy thinking about who else might contribute to the fund. We shifted from a scarcity frame to an affirmation of abundance.
In the end, all applicants that met geographic criteria were approved for funding. $250k in going out the door as you read this. And as you read this, more applications are coming in.
The question I pose to the funding community is: will you dig deep? Will you land on a number you think is reasonable to deploy, right now, in this moment of crisis? Then, I invite you to take that number, and push it even further. Maybe then we’ll get closer to centering the abundance we know exists. The abundance that can transform our current reality into the world as it should be.
*REVIEW COMMITTEE MEMBERS: Sarah Clyne (NFG); Felicia Perry (West Broadway Business and Area Coalition); DeVon Nolen (Bete’ Noire Consulting/NS Investment Group); Danielle Tietjen (Folwell Neighborhood Association); E. Coco (Jay and Rose Phillips Family Foundation of MN); Anil Hurkadli (Thrivent Foundation) and Jamie Schumacher (LISC TC).