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Doubling Down on a Philanthropic Challenge During a Pandemic

It all seemed so straightforward six months ago!

At the start of 2020, the WES Mariam Assefa Fund, the philanthropic arm of World Education Services (WES), partnered with the Tarsadia Foundation with the shared goal of supporting community-based organizations that work to uplift immigrants and refugees, particularly those working in low-wage jobs.

As relatively new funders, both Tarsadia and the Mariam Assefa Fund felt that a philanthropic challenge would be a strategic and exciting way to crowdsource ideas and build relationships with organizations working within immigrant communities nationwide. We wanted to hear from those working on the ground – and from communities themselves – about what is needed and what ideas had the greatest potential to make an impact. In partnership with Tarsadia, we decided to launch a funding initiative called the Opportunity Challenge: $1 Million to Uplift Immigrant Communities.

The experts at Social Strategy Associates (SSA) joined the team designing the philanthropic challenge to contribute their considerable expertise to developing thoughtful (and thoughtfully executed) philanthropic prizes. Together, our joint team planned carefully for the challenge’s March 10 launch. We created detailed Gantt charts and nuanced evaluation matrices – all in pursuit of developing an inclusive, efficient process for interested organizations to share their ideas.

Today, we are thrilled to announce that 12 organizations have been awarded their full grant request; another eight semi-finalists received donations in recognition of their impressive work and the time invested in participating in the philanthropic challenge. The total amount of the dollars awarded? $2 million.

If you’re reading carefully, you’ll note that we set out to award half that amount. What follows is the story of how we got to where we are today, and the bumps and adjustments along the way.

The March launch date for the Opportunity Challenge coincided with the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S., just as the potential scope of the crisis began to come into focus. This immediately raised numerous questions that all our matrices and Gantt charts had not prepared us for:

  • How would COVID-19 affect immigrant communities? How would it affect the front-line organizations working with those communities?
  • Would the organizations who most needed our support even be able to apply, or was the demand for their services too overwhelming?
  • Should we carry on as planned or should we postpone our philanthropic challenge?
  • If we went forward, how could we ensure that the process worked for the organizations we hoped to attract?

We deliberated these questions while adjusting to the new realities of quarantine: remote work, social isolation, and a profound disruption to daily routine. Meanwhile, we watched with mounting concern as the impact on over 12 million immigrant and refugee workers – including those whose employers did not provide adequate protective equipment in their essential workplaces and those who saw their jobs disappear overnight, often with little or no access to social safety nets – became more and more devastatingly apparent.

The immediate and stark health and economic impacts quickly illuminated our path forward. We decided to push ahead with an even greater sense of urgency, adjusting the design of the program to match the realities on the ground.

Specifically, we implemented several operational changes to the philanthropic challenge, all of which sought to accomplish two goals: first, minimizing the application burden on resourced-constrained community-based organizations that wanted to participate; and second, maximizing the benefits each participating organization received. We took four steps to achieve those goals:

  1. We simplified the application process and extended deadlines: We revisited our application form to make it faster and simpler for organizations to complete, making it easy for respondents to copy and paste responses from other grant requests in the first stage of the process. (We pushed the requirement for more tailored information to a later stage.) We also added flexibility to the application timeline, encouraging organizations to reach out should they need more time to submit their application beyond the stated deadline.
  2. We established open lines of communications: Despite our small team, we prioritized being accessible to applicants. We established “office hours” – 15-minute calls for prospective applicants to meet with a member of our team to ask questions and clarify whether their organization was a good fit for the initiative. We scheduled a webinar that was attended by more than 400 people. We responded to all emailed questions within 24 hours.
  3. We provided benefits to all applicants: In addition to creating a low barrier to entry, we wanted to offer real benefits to every organization that took time to apply. After identifying common areas of interest and need among applicants, we decided to develop a three-part storytelling workshop, which will run in October. The workshop will be open to all applicants to help them amplify their impact. We will also deliver a webinar on best practices in applying for open grant challenges and are sharing information about all applicants with other funders.
  4. We doubled the amount of funding awarded: When planning the Opportunity Challenge, we intended to select seven winners and award $1 million in funding. Given the sheer volume of interest – we received 470 applications from 40 states – and the overall quality of submissions, we reallocated budgets to fully leverage the initiative’s value and support all twenty organizations selected by the Opportunity Challenge’s incredible external selection committee; the committee believed these organizations had put forth the most impactful, community-centered ideas. In the end, we awarded two million dollars through the challenge, double what we initially planned.

Opportunity Challenge applicants say the changes made a difference. Fully 96% of 292 total respondents to a feedback survey reported a favorable experience. One applicant noted, “We appreciated the flexibility of the application. It was not onerous; if it had been, we would have had to pass up this opportunity.” Particularly gratifying for us was that 96% of those who reached out for support were satisfied or very satisfied by the support they received; none reported being dissatisfied.

The survey also enabled us to solicit feedback on areas for improvement in future grantmaking efforts. Suggestions included designing the application to allow applicants to complete different sections at their own pace, providing information on all the applicant benefits earlier in the process, and striking a better balance between open-ended and specific questions.

2020 has been a wild ride so far. We know that our funding is just a drop in the bucket for what’s needed to adequately support immigrant and refugees, especially now. We hope our experience this year provides some practical insights to other funders looking for ways to respond to the fast-moving events we’re all navigating. And we hope the outpouring of interest we received inspires other funders to avoid delaying their work in times of uncertainty and instead put a shoulder to the wheel.


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