Don’t Just Listen, Act: Our Journey to Funding Wellness Grants

By Jennie Agmi and maisha quint

“I’ve been doing this work for 25 years and I’ve never seen anything like this before. The level of crisis and death that people are facing is unprecedented. This grant was absolutely necessary for us.”   – Stephanie Guilloud, Project South

2020 was a year of momentous and heavy challenges, for us and for our grantee partners. We were caught up in an historic moment, trying to grapple with multiple crises affecting the communities we serve. Racial justice uprisings, COVID, the struggle for democracy. Day to day, we tried to figure out how to support them and hear their concerns. We asked our grantee partners: what more could we do to help alleviate these extra burdens?

We listened – with a responsibility to act on what we heard. Grantee partners told us about the deep threats to their core survival, about the burnout, about the funerals that must be attended, and the systems that had to be changed to adapt to lockdowns. We heard the pain and grief, the doubt, and also the determination and strength. Leaders said they needed time for adjusting to and reimagining the “new normal,” updating systems and infrastructure, transformative justice training, healing and wellness, succession planning, and many other things that crises had forced them to put on the back burner.

And then we acted. We didn’t study it forever, or debate it endlessly. We decided to focus our resources on small to mid-sized organizations (with budgets under $5 million) on the frontlines. Within months, we sent these grantee partners a note letting them know that we were giving them each $50,000 in general operating funds over two years “to support organizational sustainability and wellness.” We didn’t require paperwork. We affirmed the centrality of their work: “we all depend on movement leaders for our well-being and safety, and therefore we all depend on the holistic well-being of individuals and organizations.”

We also made a decision to build learning into this journey. At the outset, we shared a brief 3-question survey to find out how grantees intended to use the funds, and throughout our regular touchpoints with them, we asked how they used them. It was a way to enhance and deepen our own understanding of our grantee partners’ needs and challenges at this inflection point in history. It was important to understand as much as we could about how this $3.8 million in special grants had impacted the communities we serve – without being overly burdensome.

What came back to us was great gratitude for these additional resources, for the timing and responsiveness, and for the unfettered support. Our survey data found that the leading focus for organizational use of these funds was health and wellness – exceeding the projected expectations. This included offerings like meditation, retreats, alternative time off, and creative ways to heal from the trauma of the pandemic and other concurrent crises. Grantees felt supported to enhance their own health and wellness. The flexibility of the funds fostered innovation, and some groups took this as a time to step back and reimagine their structure and operations.

We learned that a small amount of money can have a big impact. At Justice for Migrant Women, the grant came at a very crucial time. It allowed them to work with their Board to pass a resolution to create a wellness fund, as well as provide coaching for all members of their team, including additional educational opportunities on things like managing stress and trauma. 

The Center for Story-Based Strategy felt that the unfettered funds created a sense of spaciousness that allowed them to grapple with big questions of organizational capacity and sustainability. Essie Justice Group used their funds to pilot mental health services like weekly subsidized therapy for staff. The program was so successful that they expanded it into what is now a 2-year pilot program across the organization. The creative ways grantees used additional resources are just some examples of what is possible when funders listen to, trust, and fund grantees in more expansive ways. 

We wanted to share some key takeaways for the funding community from this experience:

  • When grantees face new challenges, don’t just stick to business as usual. Stop and listen – with a bias toward action.
  • Make grants that are significant enough to support real wellness and sustainability efforts, and make them multi-year.
  • While we make core support grants to all of these grantees, we recognized that this moment required an extra intervention. These grants told them that a funder saw their challenges and wanted to bolster the importance of caring for themselves, their teams, and their organizations.
  • Take the time to learn how your grant-making impacted your grantee partners. Be open to their feedback and honest reflection.

We are so grateful for our grantee partners, for their resilience and strength, and for the opportunity to provide this support to them. They inspire and guide us. They are on the frontlines of change, and we are here to support their leadership. The challenges of this year and next year may be different, but the values that steer our choices remain constant.

Jennie Agmi and maisha quint are Senior Program Officers for the Gender Justice and Community Safety & Justice portfolios at the Libra Foundation. Artwork ‘Uncle Betty’ by Emaan Faith Azim of Faith Fetish.

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