How We Deployed $250k of Emergency COVID-19 Funds in One Week (and How You Can Too).
Step-by-step guidelines and learnings from our experience for funders to quickly allocate emergency funds to community leaders on the frontlines.
This Tuesday, Common Future deployed 10% of our operating budget ($250k) to our network in the form of rapid response grants for COVID-19.
We’re honored to announce our grantees: Center for Rural Affairs, Commonwealth Kitchen, Cooperacion Santa Ana, Cooperation Jackson, Minnesota Indigenous Business Alliance, PUSH Buffalo, and the Thai Community Development Center.
This post is meant to a) offer an honest look into our selection process for transparency to our network, and b) give funders a step-by-step guide to operate with the same urgency.
We always knew our process would be imperfect, but we felt the moment necessitated an urgency — on March 20th we committed the funding, and on March 31st we announced and deployed it to help organizations meet end-of-month payroll.
The stories from our applicants were dismal. Specifically, we learned that many grantmakers have been backing out of commitments, entire ecosystems are at risk because our applicants are anchor institutions in their communities, and nonprofits have been pushed over the years towards earned income and fee-for-service models(which dooms them when there’s no income to bring in).
Today, we are open-sourcing any component of the process described below, including our application templates, rubrics, and more to any funders trying to quickly move funds (contact firstname.lastname@example.org).
Before that, this is our call to action to all funders:
We received 43 qualified applications, and have an unmet, immediate need of $1.4 million. We are hoping to raise at least an additional $250k to double our impact by April 17th. Since we already have vetted applications in hand, this will allow us to disburse checks by April 27th—ahead of when rent and other payments are due. Please contact email@example.com to contribute directly or to be put in touch with applicants.
A few stats on the applicants:
- Our analysis of applications is in process, but a quick review reveals that these organizations support at least 350 full-time staff, 80 part-time staff, 100+ contractors and consultants and at least 10,000 small businesses, nonprofits, and individuals. Many of these jobs are now at risk.
- Organizations work across 23 states, DC, and American Indian Country
- The majority are run by people of color, and serve communities of color
- The majority are 501c3 organizations serving vast networks of small businesses, other nonprofits, and individuals (applicants that are not nonprofits have access to fiscal sponsors)
- The diversity of services include support for food and farming communities, Native-owned businesses, entrepreneurs, artists and creatives, immigrants, undocumented people, and more
- The average grant request was $39k, although nearly all applicants expressed this was a fraction of the emergency need
10 things to know in order to (quickly) grant COVID-19 emergency funds
1. How we made the decision to commit funds
Common Future has not been a grantmaking institution (although we are beginning to organize and deploy capital). We saw the need was cash (not debt) and realized that we could leverage our own balance sheet by virtue of a new reserve policy and healthy cash position that is unfortunately not a norm in our sector. We knew that the likelihood of replenishing these funds was high and that this capital could be put to work immediately. This took conversations with our Board, Finance Committee, and team, but we felt the need to act fast.
2. Setting the time constraints
We thought it was important to get cash out the door by the end of the month to give grantees the flexibility to meet payroll. We could have taken months to shape a process, but we trusted in our network leaders to tell us the need and put these funds to work. Is designing and running a grant selection process in seven days crazy? Perhaps. Our team believed in this urgency and every single one of our staff made meaningful contributions to the process, from offering feedback on the application questions, communicating with the network, and most importantly participating in selection.
3. Project management is key
We had a clear project management structure that broke up responsibilities and oversight across the team. If your organization doesn’t have this capacity to source and select grantees, you can work with intermediaries (like us and many others) who have existing relationships with community leaders.
4. Designing an application for exceptionally busy people
We invited our network leaders to apply (nonprofit leaders who have participated in our programs). We knew that they were operating at max capacity to respond to the crisis, and aimed to design an application that (we hoped) took 30 minutes, at most. We tried to emphasize that we were NOT looking for polish, prose, and data — only as much as could be easily provided.
(We noticed that more established organizations with dedicated development directors composed more formal applications and often asked for more money. We tried to correct for bias, knowing that smaller organizations were also stretched to capacity with less access to funding)
5. What (specifically) we asked for in the application
The application was split up into three sections: (1) Organizations applying for funding to support their operations, payroll, rent, debt payments, etc., (2) Organizations applying for funding to disburse relief support to their networks of small businesses, social enterprises, and self-employed entrepreneurs, and (3) Organizations applying for a mix of funding (1 and 2). We spent significant time selecting only “need to know” questions for the application:
- How many staff do you employ and how many are at risk OR how many businesses, nonprofits, etc. do you support and how many jobs are at risk?
- What is your monthly budget and how much revenue do you project to lose due to COVID-19?
- How much do you need to meet this immediate gap ($25K-50K)and how will you use the funds (in 150 words).
We found that $25K-50K would likely cover a month’s expenses for the majority of organizations in our network. Rather than offer a few thousand, which might not even cover a day of payroll, we tried to provide funding for a meaningful amount of time.
6. Selecting criteria: is it possible to quantify need?
This was our most difficult conversation that continued throughout the selection process. How do you compare an organization trying to keep five staff on payroll to another who wants to give small grants to families in their network trying to pay rent? Is it more meaningful to help a nonprofit keep their doors open (for the long-run) or to help an organization channel immediate funding to their network of small businesses?
We tried to select criteria that would help us remain objective, but this question of “need” kept creeping in. Ultimately, we landed on a 9-point scoring system:
- Is this application to cover unexpected losses or fund new programs? (If funding is for losses: 2 pts / If for new programs: 0 pts)
- Given the information provided, does this organization have sufficient runway to weather COVID? (2- no, little to no runway, 1- some, but only for a short period, 0 — ample runway for basic operation beyond 3 weeks)
- How severe are the repercussions if this organization does NOT receive this funding? (rank from 1–5 / 1: minimal — 5: severe)
We were looking for applicants covering unexpected losses, with little to no runway, who would experience significant repercussions without funding. There was significant nuance within these categories, and our selection committee used their best judgment (i.e. to consider a new program that was a pivot from existing programming to fill a gap for the community)
(*In hindsight, we should have shared this with applicants before applying so they could best determine if the application was a fit. We intentionally made the application short, but understand that knowing the criteria in advance would have been a service to our network.)
7. Choosing a selection committee
We recruited five people on the Common Future team and kept the selection internal due to time constraints (external voices would have been preferred). Our voting committee was majority women of color from across our team (programs, development, and people operations) to provide a range of perspectives. We also had one facilitator on the call to run the agenda, and another “listener” to lift up themes and data from the applications.
8. Running the selection process:
We closed our application on a Friday, giving reviewers the weekend and one full workday to review 43 applications. In hindsight, an extra day would have been more fair to our reviewers and applicants, giving the committee more time to process the applications. On Monday, we convened for a 2.5-hour call that we kicked off with reflections and intentions to hold throughout our selection (i.e. acknowledgment of personal biases).
We discussed our high-scoring applications first (scores 7–9), followed by our medium-scores. We decided to fund our unanimous high-scores with minimal discussion and spent the bulk of the conversation around the medium-category, which proved exceptionally difficult because this was at least 85% of our applicants. Each person on the committee was asked to “champion” stand-out applications as we combed through this second tier to short-listed applicants and make final selections.
9. Correcting for biases
Our scorecard contained a prompt to acknowledge any personal biases towards each application (in case a committee member knew an applicant personally or had a particular connection to a place). As we narrowed down our list, we focused the conversation around funding a diverse group of geographies, organization types, and populations served. Common Future is committed to closing the racial wealth gap and supporting organizations that are led by, and serve people of color. We uplifted this in every application to ensure that our final grantees aligned with these core values.
10. What we would change if we did it again
So much. We knew this would be imperfect, but the speed at which people were getting laid off, earned revenue was drying up, and bills were coming due meant we could not wait. ‘Perfect’ could not be the enemy of success. After connecting individually with everyone on the selection committee for feedback, we’re making a number of commitments for future grantmaking processes:
- Better communicate with applicants around our criteria and expectations
- Only invite applicants who meet the criteria if funding is limited (time is precious for our network leaders)
- Do a better job at lifting up smaller organizations in our selection process, especially those who lack resources because they have been systemically left out
- Give our selection committee more time with applications to ensure we’re capturing every perspective
To our applicants and our network: We hope this provides some transparency and that you get in touch with any questions. Should funding become available, we’ll be reaching out. Thank you for everything you do every day, and especially now.
To funders: We post this because the need is too great. We must all learn from each other right now and take significant action to move funds (the time was yesterday). Let’s make sure we respond today, so that we can do the “reimagining” tomorrow.
Edit: In April-2020, we deployed an additional $87,000 to three organizations: Mandela Partners, Change Labs, and the Center for Cooperative Development and Solidarity