Learning to Support Strategic Grantmaking at Arcus

July 21, 2022
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The following video features Social Justice Program Vice President Cindy Rizzo in conversation with Communications Vice President Bryan Simmons about Arcus’ strategic learning journey. The accompanying text is an edited transcript of the conversation, focusing on Cindy Rizzo’s role over a 16-year period in the foundation’s evolution as a learning organization.

At the Arcus Foundation, the Theory of Change approach forms the basis of our strategic grantmaking, our ongoing decision-making, and our evaluation process. That is, we set our grantmaking goals, and we decide who and where we’ll fund based on assumptions about how change will occur in our area of interest—in the case of the program I lead, that’s LGBTQ social justice, but this is also the approach taken by the Great Apes & Gibbons team. We implement that strategy through grantmaking, but also through leadership activities and through listening and learning.

It’s important to note that no strategy is static. The Social Justice team is always revisiting the assumptions that underlie a particular strategy, re-evaluating what we’re doing and thinking. As external contexts change, the foundation wants to ensure it is apprised and taking those changes into account.

Now that our program is fully engaged in this process—which took several years to hone—the learning and evaluation are constant, and learning practices like doing comprehensive after-action reviews are embedded in every team across the foundation.

With time, we’ve grown more transparent about our learning. For instance, we now disseminate our evaluation reports, in easily digestible form, to communities we work with, to the philanthropic field, and to the public.

Putting learning into practice
When we originally developed a grantmaking strategy for increasing LGBTQ communities’ safety, we assumed that we needed data to understand the extent of hate violence and who’s most impacted by it. The data, we thought, would help those who prosecute hate crimes and who work on policy change understand that this problem is real.

But we didn’t know, at the time, how flawed the existing data-gathering process, either by the U.S. government or by community organizations, was. The federal hate crimes law does not require the collection of data. It leaves it up to state and local authorities to voluntarily collect and submit data to the FBI. So while some hate crimes might be reported, often crimes against trans people, especially, are not included.

And while the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, for example, does a better job than government officials of collecting data on such crimes, they don’t cover every county in the nation. And their local member groups often focus more on providing survivor services than on collecting and disseminating data.

Given these deficiencies, we paused and did more of an internal research and scoping process. We went back to the field and asked our grantees in the LGBTQ community how they define safety and what they’re doing to increase it.

We used that input to forge a new direction on how we would increase safety. We decided to support grantees’ advocacy work on police conduct and over-policing, and to help increase service delivery. After our grantee in Arizona learned that a community of trans women of color and sex workers was unhoused—which made them more vulnerable to crime—we supported the creation of a temporary housing partnership and the construction of tiny houses.

Again, as this story illustrates, a funding strategy isn’t static. Grantmakers need to consistently revisit their strategies, revisit the assumptions that underlie them, and do this as they’re implementing grants. Conditions on the ground change, and grantmakers need to make sure that they’re apprised of those changes and then take them into account.

Assessing risk
Grantmakers must also consider risk. Some risk is necessary to achieve the greatest impact, and it is also essential to learning. We want to know ahead of time what particular challenges grantees might face, whether they’re related to governance or to the context in which they’re working. We want to enter a funding relationship with our eyes wide open to potential risks and consider how we, as a funder, could help ameliorate those risks.

For example, Arcus funded a grantee based in a Central American country whose government began cracking down on civil society. Levels of violence against LGBTQ people were rising, and the organization’s survival and its ability to advocate for change were at risk.

The grantee decided to move its registration to another country, where the government was more favorably receptive to this community. Arcus’ continuing support and flexibility allowed the group to continue its work without disruption through this prolonged and complicated process.

Arcus has always tried to fund organizations engaged in social-change work on behalf of those communities most pushed to the margins. And we are increasingly looking to work with organizations that have been founded by, and are operated by and for, those communities.

Of course, those organizations tend to present a higher risk profile because their access to resources is not as great as the access enjoyed by more established organizations, or those run by communities that are less marginalized or vulnerable. They may also be more risk-prone because they operate in countries or in states with higher levels of oppression or violence against them.

Ultimately, grantmakers like Arcus strive for a balanced portfolio that contains low-risk, middle-risk, and high-risk grants. And while sometimes those high-risk grants don’t work out, sometimes they do. Often, those are the grants that teach or achieve the most.

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