Through the eight years of operating its Rapid Response program, the Connect U.S. Fund found that the program became a critical vehicle to connect the philanthropic sector and advocacy non-governmental organizations (NGOs). It enabled the community to make progress in key policy areas not addressed by other funders. Based on our experience, we outline below the following benefits and best practices of rapid response initiatives that we hope will help others exploring the development and implementation of a rapid response program.
Through intensive strategic planning, funders identify and determine priorities for years in the future. However, the fluidity of the policy environment and the unpredictable nature of external factors can quickly overturn these plans. By providing fast, flexible funding, a rapid response program can fill the gaps in unforeseen opportunities by providing NGOs with the resources necessary to achieve their goals without having to radically restructure their strategic plans.
An independently-administered rapid response program can direct small projects away from larger foundations so that they can use their comparative advantages and concentrate on long-term planning. Large foundations which have the resources to implement major, game-changing initiatives should focus on that rather than going through thousands of small grant applications. An independent rapid response mechanism – either as a wholly separate entity or within a larger foundation -- will allow large foundations to do just that.
Rapid response grants fill an immediate gap to take advantage of an unforeseen policy opportunity. It may be a one-time opportunity, but it also may signal an issue area of growing importance that could require sustained support. Funders should review the field of rapid response on an annual basis to determine any more significant needs in an issue area.
Rapid response funding requires a finger on the pulse of the policy world. That is very difficult to achieve without a physical presence in the target area. For instance, if the goal is to affect U.S. policy, an office in Washington, D.C. is essential for an effective rapid response program. Doing rapid response right requires policy knowledge and personal contacts with whom program officers keep in regular contact. There is no true substitute for physical proximity.
Rapid response enables foundations and their partners to take advantage of an unforeseen policy opportunity and achieve a quick win on one of the communities priorities. Such efforts inherently involve risk, however. Developing a program should weigh the prospects of such wins, recognizing that not every one will succeed.