I served as a liaison to the Neighborhood Connection’s Grantmaking Committee over this past grantmaking round. The Neighborhood Connection’s Grantmaking Committee is made up of about thirty residents from the City of Cleveland and East Cleveland. In order to review the full volume of grants received, the committee is broken into seven different teams and each team reviews about thirty proposals. As a liaison I supported one team administratively and by facilitating decision making discussions. One of the greatest benefits of the position was that I was able to sit in on every face-to-face interview conducted by my team. In addition to learning a lot about wonderful projects happening in the Cleveland area I learned a lot about the importance of the interview in the grassroots grantmaking process. The opinions below are my own, gleaned from this experience with Neighborhood Connections:
At Neighborhood Connections the grant-applicant-interview is an integral step in the overall decision making process. All the interviews are conducted by residents of Cleveland that sit on the Grantmaking Committee, and of the eight weeks the volunteer committee give to Neighborhood Connections each grant round, over half is dedicated to holding face-to-face interviews. Grantmaking programs of this nature, around the country, have been faced with the decision of whether or not to include an interview component into their processes. It is time consuming, labor intensive, and requires a lot of operational capacity. I imagine the question that most frequently arises when confronted with this decision is: Will we be able to gather enough information about a project to make a funding decision, from an application alone? My observation has been that interviews are just as much about information gathering as they are about creating relationships and grounding the committee in these bonds.
I have written at length in other blog posts about the importance of where interviews are held (community, non-institutional places), the way in which interview questions are asked (“Your budget doesn’t make any sense” vs. “Help me to understand this portion of your budget”), and committee members extending a helping hand to interviewees (providing information about other funding sources and helpful contacts). These devices that, I believe, contribute to a successful interview are a means to an end—the end being strengthened relationships across neighborhoods, across organizations, across people. As I have touched on previously, the real way to achieve this is reinforcing, in multiple ways, that the interview is less of an interview and more of a conversation.
Over ten years, the Neighborhood Connections Grantmaking Committee has developed a true ease to their rapport with interviewees; one that always begins by standing up and shaking hands with each person that walks into the interview room—an introduction between peers. As an onlooker, the respect between resident grantmaker and interviewee feels sincere. Many of the grantmakers have sat on the other side of the table as applicants and have a true ability to see eye-to-eye with those seeking funds. In this sense, interviews serve as an important reminder to committee members that, no matter the outcome, every project that comes before the panel is well intentioned and that the line between granter and grantee is very thin. These face-to-face reminders are grounding, a pillar that keeps the resident grantmakers from becoming just another set of gatekeepers in the philanthropic world. This is evidenced by how consistently an interview will positively change the opinion of a grant reviewer. Think about it: when you initially review a grant proposal you look for its weaknesses—does the budget make sense? Who is running the show? Is their timeline clear? You need to be discerning, you are going to have to make some eliminations after all, but you also build up biases—“this program really looked good.” However, the success of grassroots community programs does not always come from how well funds were budgeted or how tight the timeline was, rather from a charismatic leader or close community partnerships. Grant applications can only measure these elements to an extent.
For example, my team reviewed an application from a health education network that was looking for funds to go towards their summer health fair. The program seemed like a nice idea but appeared to be run by a handful of doctors who weren’t from the City of Cleveland and the committee questioned whether this was more of a hand-out than a hand-up. Despite this, the committee members still chose to interview the group. After several minutes of speaking with them, one of the committee members openly said “well you turned my frown into a smile.” As is turned out the doctors had all worked at a hospital in Cleveland that closed in 1994. The closure was a huge blow to the neighborhood and the doctors in the interview felt committed to the neighborhood and refused to leave it. They found other ways to provide medical services to the community; one way was through starting a health education network. The committee members did a 180; they were able to tell that these doctors were truly members of the Cleveland community and granted them their full ask. This and many other interview examples stress to the committee that what they are trying to do is give money away, not figure out ways to keep it. It is the people and the bonds created in the interviews that give the process life and keep it genuine.
Rachel Oscar is Grassroots Grantmaker’s AmeriCorps VISTA Volunteer, working on a special project on resident-led grantmaking. Rachel works from office in Cleveland that has been generously donated to Grassroots Grantmakers by The Cleveland Foundation.