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Jan 25, 2023

GO! Grants: An Experiment in Equitable Grantmaking (that WORKED!)

2023 marks year five of Headwaters Foundation’s GO! Grants Program, which provides quick-turnaround general operating grants with a simple application process to mission-aligned nonprofits in rural communities in Western Montana. As of late January 2023, Headwaters Foundation has given a total of 406 GO! Grants to 200 organizations (in 15 different counties in Western Montana and within the Flathead Nation), totaling almost $2.4 million dollars.

When it launched in 2018, GO! Grants were an experiment in doing philanthropy differently. Headwaters Foundation wanted to reach and build relationships with rural nonprofits in its service area. The team found that most of those organizations were small and often volunteer-run. Their leaders expressed that they didn’t feel they could compete with larger organizations when it came to participation in traditional grantmaking processes, which typically required a long timeline and a lot of paperwork. In response, the Headwaters team set out to create a grant program that was as quick and easy to apply for as a credit card. 

As a new foundation, Headwaters had an opportunity to innovate. The streamlined GO! Grants process was at first seen as risky by many, but that risk has paid off. The program has helped rural Western Montana communities access funding. This is especially true for organizations on the Flathead Reservation, which receive more GO! Grants than in any other area, showing that funds are reaching communities that have too often been left out.

Our team sat down to talk about lessons learned during the first 5 years of this program; here is what they had to share with other funders:

Risk-taking allows you to learn and improve. 

Philanthropy has been doing grantmaking the way it has been for a very long time; there has been very little innovation and practice change. The idea of such an easy and fast grant process was new. It was a high-risk proposition and there was some fear as this program was being developed – from our team, our Board, even some nonprofit leaders – fear that without the typical due diligence, funds might not go where they were supposed to. We had to face the fear and move forward. Taking the risk allowed us to figure out what worked and what didn’t, and to learn and improve the program over time.  

Starting from a place of trust works. 

The nonprofit community is trustworthy and credible. What we have found is that there are very few people or organizations who are looking to take advantage of this system. Instead, it’s funding small organizations doing amazing work on-the-ground, who might not have applied if it weren’t for the accessible process. It’s a big paradigm shift for philanthropy, to starting from a place of ‘I believe in you and the work that you do’ rather than ‘prove to me that you are trustworthy.’ 

Let the community decide what they need. 

Trusting communities to know best is important. We found that general operating support grants of this size can be tremendously impactful. Instead of having to earmark funds for a specific project or purpose, nonprofits can deploy them however they see fit to meet their needs. GO! Grants have helped our partners retain staff, hire new positions and support employees with professional development trainings. Grantees have used funds for many different things – to update infrastructure at schools, invest in low-income housing communities, or purchase healthy food for kids in after-school programs. 

Technology can be your friend. 

Many industries are using technology to simplify and expedite; philanthropy hasn’t embraced it. We knew that we needed to lean into grants management technology to make this work. Some companies we approached with this idea shied away; it was seen as too much of a risk for them. A key part of our success was the partnership we developed with SmartSimple; they were willing to customize and build a system specifically for this program. A lesson for other funders – you don’t have to take a grants management product off-the-shelf; ask for what you need! Our field could do a lot more to drive grants management companies to reimagine our grantmaking systems. 

Focus on relationships. 

This approach is rooted in relationships. The quicker, simpler process allows our staff to focus on what’s important – getting out into communities to engage with our partners and learn about their work, rather than collecting and processing lengthy applications and reports. We have been able to build relationships that are deeper and more meaningful than we might have through a more traditional grantmaking approach. In some cases, GO! Grants have been a gateway for nonprofits to larger grants through our other initiatives. Relationships built through the program have also helped us offer strategic support beyond funding, such as through introductions or training opportunities. 

If you are a funder interested in learning more about this alternative way of doing philanthropy, feel free to reach out to have a conversation with us.