Tufts University Students Form Grantmaking Board: A school-based giving board discovers the strengths and limits of using an RFP

Since 2006, the Experimental College at Tufts University has offered students the opportunity to be grantmakers. Experimenting in Philanthropy is a course funded by different foundations each year – this year, the Highland Street Foundation – that teaches students about grantmaking by having them form a board with a mission, develop an RFP for community-based organizations, and make grant decisions based on proposals and discussion. This year, the $10,000 was awarded to three organizations. Those three organizations were half of those who applied.

Nina Leifer, a student in the class and first-time grantmaker shared, “We had started the class by identifying our collective core values, which we determined to be justice, community, and equity, and then identifying our core interests, which included leadership with a focus on women, civil liberties, education, and employment. But then, when we explored the needs of our neighboring community, our interests didn’t line up with the primary needs, namely housing, support for immigrants, and financial literacy.”

As a class the students, under the leadership of instructor Nancy Lippe, determined that the RFP would be structured around the needs of the community, but honor the core class values in its structure and how proposals would later be evaluated. The Jumbo Change board stated their mission as: To break down barriers to accessing affordable housing with a particular focus on the prevention of eviction, foreclosure, and homelessness. The resulting request for proposals (RFP) offered very specific guidelines for what sort of organization would be a good fit to apply and how to structure the application.

The good news: the class got a few very interesting proposals that fit the mission of Jumbo Change and that reflected projects that really built on the strengths of applicant organizations. The tough news: only six organizations applied. Nina shared, “Personally, I wish we went a little broader on our approach and RFP, because we might have gotten more applications, and the ones we did get weren’t necessarily reflective of the change we envisioned making. But, what I learned is that it’s not about what we as a board personally wanted and were interested in, but about what could actually help support these organizations. The projects we funded offered good solutions to community needs, and so our process was an overall success.” The three funded organizations seemed to need the funds the most for their proposed projects, expressed clear project plans, provided all information requested in the RFP, and most closely resonated with the class values and mission.

One big takeaway for Nina and other classmates was that site visits are crucial – especially with brief proposals and short timelines – to truly understand needs and programs, and to make quality decisions. “You can’t be a good judge of a proposal without one. It was really important to me how transparent each organization was willing to be, and how other board members experienced the conversations, too. We’re all from different walks of life and have different perspectives and experiences to draw from, so the site visits gave a chance to step back and listen to how everyone else experienced those conversations and what they took away.”

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