Grant Making By Conversation: What We Learned

By: Avani Patel

A little over a year ago, we tried the model of grant making by conversation with Ravenswood schools. Essentially, by way of conversation via a Site Leadership Team (SLT) at a school, the Peery Foundation made a grant after learning how funds could be used to fill a gap or an immediate need. Through my own experience as a site administer, and conducting site visits, I know that schools in East Palo Alto work extremely hard. Time is always a challenge. As a way to potentially reduce stress (read: time) and increase access to funds, we ventured to a “grant by conversation” model.

What we learned from the process and feedback:

1.     No paper isn’t always better

Even though we were hoping “less would be more,” that wasn’t the case. Without a transparent, documented process of what funds would be used for, it became burdensome for district staff to determine when to release funds. This delayed the process for schools to access funds.

2.      Time matters

Out of seven schools, five attempted to engage in the process. Perhaps only asking for a minimal amount of time suggested that this wasn’t of great value (in some cases, the face-to-face process was 15 minutes). Also, the timing of the grant wasn’t too helpful for any of the schools. We started the process in February, more than half way into the school year, and wanted schools to use the funds before the end of the year; it was bad timing.

3.     Utilize feedback ASAP

After checking in with all SLTs and the superintendent, we created another round that has been more accessible and transparent. We were asked to give a greater grant size, to move the grant cycle to the beginning of the school year, and find a more efficient way of accessing funds. So, this fall, we sent out an RFP to all seven Ravenswood schools and copied the superintendent.

All seven responded. I met with each SLT – who were all at various stages in the process (some were still brainstorming, others presented a full picture of what they needed funds for, etc). Our grant size increased from $5,000 to $25,000 and our fiscal sponsor is the Ravenswood Education Foundation. After meeting with all seven SLTs and receiving a one-pager from each, I met with the superintendent. Together, we approved all RFPs. Each school is making use of the funds differently, but each is documented and shared with all stakeholders. Some are giving students the opportunity to attend field lessons, others are accessing high-quality professional development, and some have purchased leveled reading books. We’re glad we experimented, but we’re more excited that we were given direct, honest feedback to make the process better for everyone. The process is iterative, as we have even more to learn in the current cycle.