How The New York Women’s Foundation Changes Women's Lives With Participatory Grantmaking

04/22/2016

NYWF_blog_image.jpgThe year the New York Women’s Foundation (NYWF) opened shop in a church basement in Manhattan, it dispersed $50,000 to four local groups dedicated to women’s needs. Now, almost 30 years later, NYWF’s funding tops out at $6 million a year, the largest women’s fund in the country and the third largest in the world.

NYWF’s growth and lasting commitment to the women of New York City developed from day one within a culture of “doing philanthropy differently,” says Kate Landon, The Foundation’s director of programs. The best example of this may be found in what Landon calls its “participatory grantmaking approach.”

NYWF brings women from a variety of backgrounds, from all over the city, together to review proposals, conduct site visits, and ultimately make recommendations for funding to the program committee of The Foundation’s board of trustees. “Some come with a lot of nonprofit or grantmaking experience, some with none at all,” Landon says. “Others come from the corporate sector or they're very young, without much work experience.”

The approach came out of the realization that women weren’t reflected in the city’s philanthropic community at the time. “They weren’t at the decision-making table of how grants get made,” explains Landon. This was a critically important issue to the NYWF founders in light of the fact that poverty affects women and children disproportionately specifically in New York City, but also elsewhere in the world.

Time to do things differently

When Landon joined NYWF in 2010, The Foundation was using a grants management system that they had been unhappy with for some time. It wasn’t user-friendly for grantees, and it was very difficult to maintain relationships after grants were made through the system.

For the most part, The Foundation was only using the software for the application process. “We didn't even use it very much to track the grants and close them out. We barely used it for payments. We didn't use it for reports. We didn't use it for communication with the grantees or anything like that,” Landon remembers.

Landon and her team knew for some time that they wanted to move to a new grants management system, but various factors kept them tied to their old software. Landon recalls “sticking it out” for another year, but when their contract was up, they didn’t renew. The Foundation has been on the Fluxx platform since July, 2015.

Grants management systems enables participatory grantmaking

The participatory review process is integral to NYWF’s identity as a community grantmaker. Along with their deep commitment to the women of New York City and long-nurtured relationships with organizations on the ground, it’s what sets The Foundation apart as a leader in the field. “Participatory grantmaking is a big part of what we do,” Landon says. “Over the years, as our grantmaking has grown, we've done a great job of formalizing the model.” But the evolution of their processes did not come without pain.

“Until implementing Fluxx we had to manage the entire process ourselves, completely outside of any software to help support us,” Landon says. “There were a ton of emails. Reviewers were filling out proposal rating worksheets in Word and emailing them to each other, struggling with the formatting, and having to add up scores manually. We had to email reviewers PDFs of their proposal materials, and then the PDFs got too big. Then we had to put them in Dropbox to give them access. Then there's 50 people across 15 teams, and it just was a massive thing to manage.”

With Fluxx, Landon and her team have one place to consolidate all the review materials, and now a diverse group of reviewers can log in and do their work right inside the Fluxx platform. Reviewers have the ability to follow along in real time and be a part of the ongoing process.

A better way

It is crucial to NYWF that the participatory review process continues to operate ­– and operate smoothly. But because of cumbersome logistics before implementing Fluxx, the program committee of the NYWF board would often receive reviews with “pre-visit” scores – scores tabulated without the benefit of a site visit. “Inevitably every cycle we'd get questions from the program committee saying, ‘Oh, you recommended them a yes, but the score is low. Can you explain that?’ We'd have to explain that that was a pre-visit score because of our process,” Landon says.

Now reviewers can easily revise and update their reviews on the fly, both pre- and post-visit. “This was truly a win for us,” Landon continues. “I can say that we had not one question from the board about the reviewers scores. They were able to stay focused entirely on the content of the proposals.”

And moving forward, Landon says, she feels comfortable knowing that a grant agreement will not even be able to be created and processed unless all previous steps in the process have been completed. NYWF configured its Fluxx instance in a way that doesn’t allow a grantee to get an award letter without sign off at each stage – from application, to review and acceptance. “I like that,” Landon says. “It makes me sleep easier at night, and then I can focus on actual programmatic strategy.”

Making the case

NYWF is a public foundation that depends on fundraising to thrive and support organizations that focus their work on women in New York City. The Foundation needs to convince larger institutional funders that it is worth investing in. “Our success as a funder really depends on us being able to attract funders,” Landon says.

To make the case, NYWF knows it has to have the numbers right. Fluxx is helping Landon and her team do just that. For the first time ever, almost 100 percent of NYWF’s grantmaking dollars will be accounted for within a single platform. “It’s really exciting because we can search all of our data and not have to then keep in the back of our minds that this is only 60 percent of what we did that year. I think Fluxx will really support our efforts to be able to make the case that we are best informed to make these funding decisions and to continue to grow and be a leading presence in the city over the next five to ten years.

Landon considers herself to be an “operations nerd.” Her work life is spent straddling two worlds ­– programmatic strategy and grantmaking systems. “You can have all the strategy in the world, but without a solid foundation, it's built on nothing. Now I don't have to spend my time wondering if our systems are working. I think Fluxx will help us build a foundation where we can really take the strategy a lot deeper than we’ve been able to in the past.

Kate Landon is the director of programs at The New York Women’s Foundation. Landon is one of three co-directors at The Foundation and works with the grants manager on operations and administration, as well as the overall grantmaking strategy.

Written by Aaron Lester

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