Princess Titus took the stage at U.S. Bank Stadium and had exactly four minutes to pitch her nonprofit Appetite for Change to donors.
Representatives of two other nonprofits did the same.
Then, with dose of reality TV-style drama, the audience of Greater Twin Cities United Way supporters voted via smartphone on what they believed was the most promising pitch, worthy of the biggest cut of a $125,000 pot.
The event, which Titus won with a spoken word performance that thrilled the crowd, was a chance for United Way to try a more open style of giving that’s growing in popularity among grant-makers. The money given out that night represented just a fraction of the more than $60 million awarded by United Way in a given year, but it offered the nonprofits a big chance to connect with the community and gave donors a voice in the funding decision.
“I thought it was really compelling and really inspiring,” said Heather Cmiel, a communications strategist from St. Paul who attended the event last week with her husband. “It was a really smart way for the United Way to engage people and raise money in an innovative way.”
Other Twin Cities foundations have also been exploring ways to involve more people in awarding grants in an effort to meet changing public expectations and community needs and boost their brands.
“Today, new technologies are giving people access to systems and institutions that were once controlled by experts and other gatekeepers,” researcher Cynthia Gibson wrote in a 2017 report on “participatory grant making” released by the Ford Foundation.
Armed with that knowledge, people, especially younger generations, are demanding greater accountability, transparency and involvement from all institutions, including philanthropy, the report said.
The degree to which private foundations allow others to guide decisions varies.
Minneapolis-based GHR Foundation announced winners earlier this month for its second annual BridgeBuilder challenge. While foundation leaders chose the winners who share in $1 million, they gave the public a peek at the process, allowing people to view and comment on the nearly 700 ideas submitted from 185 different countries.
GHR Foundation CEO Amy Rauenhorst Goldman said the comments and feedback influenced who won grants and helped some nonprofits hone their message and connect with other funding sources. The winners over two years included a program that uses drones to plant trees in Myanmar and an effort in Boston to train bilingual women as medical interpreters.
“We don’t know what the solutions are, so to have a process that surfaces local, community-based ideas and solutions is extremely exciting for us,” Goldman said.
Appetite for Change co-founder and Executive Director Michelle Horovitz said her north Minneapolis charity has relished these new more open grant-making opportunities that allow them to appeal to everyday people as well as executives at foundations. The nonprofit, which focuses on increasing access to healthy foods, runs Breaking Bread Cafe & Catering and a job-training program. It also competed for a BridgeBuilder grant.
“I love it. I can’t get enough of it,” Horovitz said. “It’s a lot of work, but if we end up with additional dollars for our programs and growing our impact, it’s worth the effort.”
Appetite for Change won the top prize of $75,000 at the United Way event. Loaves & Fishes, which provides meals to the hungry, finished second with a $35,000 grant. Rêve Academy, which helps kids on path toward digital careers, placed third with a $15,000 award.
Inviting community input
Minneapolis-based Headwaters Foundation for Justice was one of the earliest adopters of a more open grant-making process, involving community members since its inception more than three decades ago. Each year, 70 new people from historically marginalized communities are selected and then trained to award grants.
The foundation gives away about $1 million a year. Community members are also trained in fundraising.
“It is a growing trend in philanthropy. How do we democratize philanthropy? How do we include other people?” said David Nicholson, executive director of the Headwaters Foundation.
Nicholson notes there is a continuum with some nonprofits and foundations dabbling with openness and others making it integral to their mission. The concept is growing because people under 50 don’t want to give blindly anymore, he said.
“The young people want to be hands on, have it feel like crowdsourcing and have some decisionmaking power,” he said. “It’s appealing to them.”