By Rychetta Watkins, Director of Grantmaking and Capacity Building for MMI
If you’re like me, you have heard that word innumerable times during the last 18 months of the Covid-19 pandemic. Although this past summer brought hope in the form of plunging case rates and rising vaccinations, that hope has been dimmed by the rise of the delta variant. Now, the reality that the pandemic is not over and will continue into next year is as relentless as the late September rain against my office window.
But the drive of our grantee partner organizations to navigate this moment has been even more relentless. As we prepare to move into another Covid winter, we’d like to pause and reflect on some of the lessons MMI’s grantmaking team, the insightful Tawanna Brown and myself, have learned during the last year and a half. While this list is by no means comprehensive, four key realizations have reshaped our grantmaking practices during this time:
Yes, this is a buzzword frequently used by funders seeking to institute more equitable practices—and for good reason.
In the midst of the sudden and shocking onset of the pandemic, we considered how best to show up for grantees in our network. In the end, we focused on listening. We quickly realized that the leadership paradox was strongest at this moment. Executive Directors were isolated at the peak of their organizations and in dire need of a sounding board. So, our team took the time to listen, calling up each grantee partner and checking in. We told them we would formulate a response, but that we first wanted to make sure they and their loved ones were well and whole.
Taking the time to check in with our grantees allowed us to embody the value of care that is central to our work. Though we weren’t seeking data, these conversations provided real-time information about the leadership and organizational challenges presented by this moment. Later, we compiled this qualitative information to give a picture of the frequent concerns and issues facing our leaders. That information was constantly updated and helped guide our response throughout the late spring and summer of 2020.
Listening well gave us deeper insight into both the personal and organizational challenges facing our grantees. This information reshaped our understanding of what leaders and programs “needed.” Money was an issue, of course, but we found an even greater need for reassurance. Incredibly, our grantees were worried about satisfying their grant objectives and targets even as the world ground to a stop. We realized that we needed to clearly communicate that we had no intentions of holding our grantees to those now seemingly impossible grant expectations. Honestly, many were skeptical at first, which was completely understandable given the power dynamic of grantee/grantor relationships. Would it appear that they were giving up? Would we lose confidence in their capacity? Would we change our minds later? We had to communicate that we were more interested in learning about their challenges so that we could help identify the appropriate human, technological, and financial resources to help them navigate the moment.
As we communicated our ”pivots,” grantees became more comfortable with making their own, while being transparent about the hurdles along the way.
During our initial one-on-one conversations, one grantee wondered how other leaders were navigating the technology and software options for virtual engagement. Our check-ins revealed that many leaders were wondering how their fellow grantees were coping. While our team was planning to resume our capacity building workshops with a focus on technology, we decided instead to make space for the weight of the moment, drawing leaders together into a community to focus on our shared humanity, vent about the challenges, and reconnect with one another. Those initial sessions were game changing and helped them (and us) begin to process the impact of the COVID 19 crisis knowing that there was a network of peers to provide thought partnership and help with problem solving.
Perhaps the second most-used word of the global pandemic. Late last spring, only one of our small, grassroots, community-based Black- and brown-led organizations had the technology to even consider engaging young people in a virtual space. All were keen to reconnect with their youth, of course. Most were fielding daily calls and emails from young people and their parents asking when programming and sessions would resume.
The isolation and disruption of social networks hit young people especially hard, and the importance of these after school and out-of-school programs became even more apparent. Hearing the critical need for funds and information to support this “pivot” to virtual programming, we identified a pot of money to buy software and technology for organizations. In addition, several of our leaders who were experts in musical production and performance led workshops and provided technical assistance for their peers to help organizations get up to speed. As a result, all but one of our then grantees was able to offer some form of virtual youth engagement during the summer of 2020. The combination of financial, knowledge building, and peer learning support enabled organizations to be more nimble than may have been possible otherwise.
The Covid-19 pandemic has taught us all some hard lessons. But despite challenges to fundraising, recruitment, performances, and programs, to date, all MMI’s grantee partners are still in operation. While we can’t take credit for this achievement, the lessons learned—to listen, be responsive, promote peer leadership, and support “the pivot”—will continue to shape our practice well beyond this unprecedented time.
Join us here next Tuesday for the second installment of our Navigating the New Normal series. For the next three weeks, we’ll be featuring interviews with leaders at several of our community partner organizations. Tune in next week for our one-on-one interview with Lar'Juanette Williams, Executive Director at Memphis Black Arts Alliance.