March 16, 2020

Building Community reopens with a narrowed focus on priority populations

Today, Meyer’s Building Community portfolio is pleased to open our 2020 Annual Funding Opportunity (AFO) for applications. Our approach is both new and familiar, carrying forward important elements of our work from previous years and refining them based on our learning over the past year.

Last spring, our portfolio announced that it would have a year-long invitation-only funding call rather than an open funding opportunity while we explored ways to make this portfolio more effective. Over its first three annual funding cycles, Building Community received about 1,000 applications, well over half of what Meyer received across all four portfolios, funding just over a fifth of them. We asked key direct-service nonprofits focused on systemic-level change to complete requests for proposals while we considered how to make this competitive process more clear and more clearly focused on equity. These activities as well as others gave us an opportunity to both support key organizations while also learning how to advance community based on connection and belonging.

Leading with race

We’re back for the 2020 AFO with the clarity we were searching for: the best way to achieve the broad goal of creating and sustaining justice for everyone is to focus work and resources where injustice is most concentrated. This is why the Building Community portfolio’s priority populations are people of color, Indigenous communities and Tribes and immigrants and refugees. We will only consider funding requests from organizations that have implemented strategies designed specifically to benefit at least one of these populations.

We recognize that injustice is complicated and that other aspects of a person’s identity have impact as well. We are interested in supporting work that recognizes such complexity and is designed to support members of our priority populations who experience intersecting oppressions related to gender, race, gender identity, disability, sexual orientation or economic status.

Overarching criteria remain

For several years, the Building Community portfolio has shared key factors that guide our review of funding requests. Those overarching criteria remain firmly in place. We continue to look for track records of:

  • Operationalized DEI — understanding of structural oppressions and at least initial investments toward embedding equity in the organization’s operations
  • Connection to systems-level change — working to address root causes or underlying issues that create the need for a service or program
  • Community engagement — meaningful guidance or leadership of clients and communities shaping an organization’s work, with accountability to the people engaged

These criteria, along with strategies to support priority populations, are all deeply interwoven. An organization cannot effectively work to shift systems toward justice without centering impacted communities, particularly the priority populations noted above. Likewise, an organization that aims to effectively work with and for priority populations without causing unintended harm needs to have solid grounding in principles of diversity, equity and inclusion. When that grounding comes first, community engagement follows.

Continuing focus on systems change

While a connection to systems change is listed alongside our other criteria, it may rightfully be considered the foundation of all that Building Community does. The concept of systems change has always been present in this portfolio’s work and has become ever more important over the past four years of grantmaking. But systems change is a big idea, one we have found challenging to pin down and describe well.

This was a key part of our work in 2019 — to get clearer about what systems change is and how it’s done. With the help of grantee partners who do the work, we have come to understand that “systems change is about advancing equity by shifting the conditions that hold a problem in place.” Our funding goals for 2020 are designed to address conditions at different levels.

Our first goal, Civic Engagement, Policy and Leadership is designed to address explicit and semi-explicit conditions of systems change, while our second goal, Connection and Belonging, is focused at the implicit level.

We know that changing deeply rooted systems is long-game, non-linear, complicated work. It’s not a one year grant project, though small efforts can be part of a great whole. We’re continuing to learn from grantees and others about how to gauge the effectiveness of systems change strategies, how to collaboratively set long term goals while remaining responsive to changing conditions and how to think differently about what success looks like.

Ongoing learning with service providers

Another area of continued exploration is how direct service providers can be an essential part of systems change efforts.

In July, we opened a request for proposals from service providers who were early in this work but eager to go deeper. We selected twelve organizations to participate in a Learning Circle before submitting plans for projects to advance their capacity for systems change work. Funding for those plans has just been awarded, and we will continue to learn alongside these organizations through 2020 as we consider how Building Community can better support this type of work going forward.

Thanks for your interest in what the Building Community portfolio does — and is trying to do. We look forward to hearing from you, applicants, current grantees and the merely curious.

Dahnesh