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Empowering grassroots organizations: building capacity, diversity, and relationships

A group of women talking with their laptops open around a table.

The great Maya Angelou once said, “If you don’t know where you’ve come from, you don’t know where you’re going.” At its very root, derived from the Greek word philathropia, philanthropy means “to love people.” We often talk about the role of philanthropy and the ways in which it must grow and innovate, how it has changed and evolved with the times, reacting to crises, wars, economic downturns, and more. I often refer to the post-World War II period, when civil and human rights movements came to the forefront, along with community-organized philanthropic organizations. It was a pivotal time when women began to exert more influence and demonstrate the different ways in which philanthropy could support the needs of all of humankind.  

It is that example of rising to the occasion and people coming together that has helped shape my ardent belief in our collective power and what guides us at the Ms. Foundation. I believe it is fostering the love of people and that pathway to change that is the role and mandate of philanthropic institutions and funders.  

Prioritizing women- and people of color-led grassroots organizations

At the Ms. Foundation, we trust those who are closest to the issues affecting their communities. Our grantmaking, philanthropic advocacy, and capacity-building strategies have included a longstanding practice of supporting the development of women- and people of color-led grassroots organizations, prioritizing and lifting up the voices and visions of movement leaders, and building relationships and building on the insights we’ve gained throughout more than 50 years to continuously learn and grow with our grantee partners.  

There is intentionality in all that the Ms. Foundation does, including our calls for funding proposals and how organizations are invited to apply. We strive to be clear and transparent about organizations’ eligibility upfront before folks apply, as we want to be as respectful of the time it may take to apply and know that smaller organizations have limited staff who already are juggling many roles and responsibilities.  

Our landmark 2020 report, Pocket Change: How Women and Girls of Color Do More with Less, revealed significant underinvestment in particular regions, such as the United States’ South, and in women and people of color. The second report of the series, Living with Pocket Change: What It Means to Do More With Less, examines the impact and real-life experiences of chronic philanthropic underinvestment. This critical research informs many of our current practices. Depending on the request for proposal, specific funding criteria that we may look for include geographic location, groups engaged in movement-building and organizing work to advance systemic and structural changes, and organizations that have budgets under $2 million and are led by and for women, girls, and nonbinary leaders of color.  

Building grassroots capacity to address underlying causes of injustices 

We also look for organizations that seek to impact the underlying causes of gender and racial injustices and are working to change policies and conditions in their communities. We ask folks to describe their political, historical, and/or socioeconomic context in their state or local region, the changes they are fighting for, and how they are centering the experiences, issues, and leadership of people impacted by the problems they seek to address. 

Our capacity-building strategy aims to strengthen organizations’ sustainability, resiliency, and connectivity, led by women and nonbinary leaders of color. Capacity-building support is extremely important for organizational sustainability, and it provides flexible funding during organizational growth, leadership transitions, and organizational change, as well as opportunities that emerge from crises. 

Building funder-grassroots relationships 

For smaller grassroots organizations, we know it can be hard for them to get on the radar of other larger funders. We encourage our smaller grantee partners to start by building strong relationships with their existing funders, who often can help facilitate introductions to other funders in their networks and may know about additional funding opportunities. Leaders of grassroots organizations have a depth of knowledge of their communities and creative ideas and solutions to complex problems.  

Another way to get on funders’ radars is to offer to speak to their staff or boards about an issue, which can help position grassroots organizations as experts and resources that may lead to requests to speak in front of a larger audience of funders. Also, don’t underestimate the power of storytelling and communications as a way to influence and amplify one’s work to impact a broader audience. An example would be “grantee partner spotlights,” which we offer as an opportunity to highlight their work across our platforms and create content that partners can use to showcase their work to other funders.  

Lastly, keep going. We see you and know that philanthropy as a whole can do better by listening to and meeting you where you are. There are many peaks and valleys on the road to gender and racial equity, but we will get there—together.  

Photo credit: mixetto via Getty Images


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