Reflecting on the Racial Equity Grant Fund


students hold posters and march down a city street

Reflecting on the Racial Equity Grant Fund

Last fall, the William Penn Foundation’s Great Learning program made first-time grants to 14 organizations as part of a special fund designed to explore practices that could increase the equity of our grantmaking. Our team designed the Racial Equity Grant Fund to provide unrestricted operating grants to organizations that have annual budgets under $400,000, are led by people of color, and primarily serve people of color.

Small organizations whose leaders come from the communities they serve have a strong understanding of the unique strengths and needs of their communities and are well-positioned to build relationships with children and families. Yet small organizations led by people of color have had less access to capital – a primary barrier to their organizational growth. In designing the Racial Equity Grant Fund, we sought to address this barrier and focus on organizations whose work supports our education program’s goals of increasing early learning and high school graduation.

Another significant departure from the Foundation’s “typical” way of grantmaking was that a committee of six Philadelphians working in the fields of education, community organizing, and family engagement decided how to award the grant funding.

The Community Review Committee brought their knowledge and expertise to evaluate 40 applications. They selected an excellent group of grantee organizations, each working with a specific community of students, families, or education professionals in unique, diverse ways across the city. For example, programs are building leadership and confidence to increase high school completion for teenage girls, engaging families with young children to help them support early learning and health, and building the skills of teachers in early learning programs to more effectively meet the needs of students with special needs. These are just a few examples of the important work being done by grantees. We look forward to using this blog in the months ahead to share more about each organization and its work to advance learning opportunities for Philadelphia children. You can see all of the grantees we are proud to support through our Racial Equity Grant Fund here.

Reflecting on our experience creating a fund like this at the William Penn Foundation, three themes stand out:

  1. Value of community voice: We benefitted greatly from the energy and insight of each member of the Community Review Committee (CRC) who developed the grant program criteria, shaped the application, and selected the grantees. Their varying backgrounds and expertise helped us learn more about the issues community members are concerned about. Our meetings with the CRC – in which we facilitated, but mostly listened to, their discussions – helped us broaden our perspectives as grantmakers. While we are more often inclined to direct funding in ways that will benefit as many children and families as possible, the CRC highlighted meaningful experiences with organizations that serve smaller numbers of children and youth but do so in profound ways.
  2. Flexibility is a prerequisite: We started with a carefully detailed plan of how a new fund should proceed. As important as it is to have that guiding vision and roadmap, we quickly understood the need to learn and adapt along the way – not always a comfortable position for a funder. We found that embracing uncertainty was necessary.
  3. Role of outreach: As part of this fund, we also began exploring how to better welcome and encourage more ideas from the community. Is the funding opportunity clear and the process transparent? Are details available in multiple languages? Where are we advertising this opportunity? Expanding our approach to outreach was, and will be, part of how we improve the equity of our grantmaking.

Ultimately, this effort was challenging but necessary. Setting up and implementing a new type of grant fund required a significant amount of time and attention. Shifting decision-making power to an external group added a considerable layer of complexity to the project. Yet without that element, it is unlikely that we would have had the opportunity to support these 14 organizations who are having positive impacts in their communities.  

Our learning from this effort is ongoing. We are excited to be working with the team at Grovider, a knowledge management consulting firm, to establish and strengthen a network for shared learning, partnership, and problem-solving among the 14 organizations. Grovider will also help to identify effective practices and recommendations to conduct similar work moving forward. We hope to better understand how small, unrestricted operating grants are used by community-organizations to grow and sustain their operations. We’ve already heard from some grantees that they are able to focus on their organization full-time and/or hire additional staff to implement new programming and ideas.

We look forward to sharing updates with you as this work progresses.


Photo above: we.REIGN, a grantee of the Racial Equity Grant Fund, organized the Black Youth March for Their Lives in 2021 in response to the lack of youth voices being centered in discussions about gun violence in our communities.

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