Shifting Grantmaking and Evaluation Practices in the Pursuit of Equity

When deciding to co-host a panel discussion on culturally responsive grantmaking and evaluation last year in Milwaukee, Wisconsin we had to confront some ugly truths. Too often grantmakers, decision-makers, and program evaluators do not understand the day-to-day realities of people living in the communities with unrelenting social, political, racial, and economic inequity—those they seek to impact.

When engaging the conversation of “racial equity” and all things “evidence-based,” for example, philanthropy and program evaluators have at their disposal a new set of scholarly topics to explore, terms to master, and tools to use. But, these topics require we ask some hard questions before jumping into action: Has the sector fundamentally and structurally balanced power with our grantee partners and the communities they represent? Where equity goals are at stake, is philanthropy as a sector, willing to shift real control of agenda-setting, program content, and the use of resources to the communities themselves? Is the sector supporting evaluation teams that can effectively address legacies of white supremacy and other historic institutions of power in their quest for credible evidence? And, are they supporting teams with evaluators who come from, live near, or have daily personal contact with the target population of grant-funded interventions?  As it relates to the philanthropic sector, meaningful impact can come from Culturally Responsive Evaluation (CRE) as part of sound grant-making when pursuing equity goals. 

To shift our community toward practices that would unwind systems of oppression rather than perpetuate them, ¡Milwaukee Evaluation! Inc., the Wisconsin statewide American Evaluation Association affiliate, and the Greater Milwaukee Foundation, held a moderated conversation titled Achieving Racial Equity by Changing the Dynamic Between Residents and Decision-makers: A Look at Culturally Responsive Grantmaking Practice and Evaluation. Our panelists of community leaders and funders were Sharlen Moore, coalition member of Youth Justice Milwaukee and director of Urban Underground, Caronina Grimble, program officer at Woods Fund, and Paul Elam president of Public Policy Associates. The event was attended by community members, nonprofit leaders, community stakeholders, and funders. Panelists speaking

We recognized our resident leaders by beginning and ending the event with their voice and perspective. We also recognized them as knowers (experts) and compensated them equally for sharing their knowledge as panelists. In return, we requested that they hold nothing back—they were entrusted to be truthtellers and agitators. We did this to prevent what feminist scholar Dr. Kristie Dotson calls “testimonial quieting,” or holding back because you feel the audience hasn’t demonstrated enough cultural competence to truly hear and understand you.

Infographic about culturally responsive grantmaking

Sharlen highlighted the amazing and challenging work that grassroots, black- and women-led organizations do, and also laid bare the challenges experienced with funder expectations citing, “We have had funders grant $10,000 and expect revolutionary change in one year. It doesn’t happen that way.” She added that “We want to be in the room when the strategic decisions are made. Don’t ask us what we think after the decision is made.” When sharing about the Woods Fund grant-making strategy that exclusively supports community organizing as a core approach for creating impact, Caronina Grimble pointed out that this is about more than just supporting rallies and marches, and rather “it’s focused on relationship building and developing resident influence on policy decisions.” Our moderators Michelle Robinson from Kids Forward and Melissa Pettis, an undergraduate student, shared examples of how residents are left out of key discussions, viewed as outsiders to the established network of resource-brokers, and are often shamed for wanting to be included. Hearing these points made it explicit to grantmakers that supporting communities requires more than just program funding, but a concerted effort to build relationships and an infrastructure where community voices are brought to the table.

Paul Elam, a specialist in conducting large-scale Culturally Responsive Evaluations, reminded us to be courageous even in our evaluations, “It’s my explicit responsibility to bring my full-self, my experiences, my worldview, and the voices of those that have been silenced.” During the Q&A, he was asked about how he dealt with “white fragility” in the context of evaluations. He illuminated the need to address privileges like these in order to truly have productive conversations and reminded grantmakers of the need to familiarize themselves with how their identities can affect evaluation reporting and use, because we come to our work with our individual worldviews.  

There was plenty of sweet discomfort by the end of the conversation and we know we have more hard work to do. Danell Cross, grassroots-leader-turned-executive director of Metcalf Park Community Bridges, added in post-event discussions how consequential current dynamics are that don’t always make space to understand the capacity and needs of the organizations funded. “My capacity is what it is. It won't get better without financial support for paid organizing staff. I am constantly at tables where my words have to be validated by someone white, by a researcher, or by someone else. If I say something, someone else has to say it for the room to react or even hear it.” Audience at a workshop sitting at tables listening to a speaker.

Mrs. Cross’ reflections sum up the challenge faced by many in truly reaching equity goals in partnership with the communities we intend to help.  We hope funders were able to take away both community insight on how to build responsive evaluative practices, as well as an understanding of the deep-set impacts of power imbalances. For other funders, we hope this conversation can provide a model for engaging in your own communities to be more culturally responsive. We leave you with a few questions to reflect on: Is the language you use regarding evaluations accessible to your grantees? Are the people closest to the issues involved in the process of coming up with solutions to those issues? How may your identity and worldview impact the conversations you have with grantees, and how can you enable an environment for open dialogue? What stories may be hidden or unacknowledged that you can help shed more light on? To learn more about the panel, check out this video.

Questions for Greater Milwaukee Foundation can be sent to Jeremy Podolski, Marketing and Communications Manager at jpodolski@greatermilwaukeefoundation.org and questions for ¡Milwaukee Evaluation! Inc. can be sent to  milwaukeeevaluation@gmail.com.  

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