These Times Remind Funders and Grantmakers To Be Flexible With Grants

Very little about 2020 has been normal. The coronavirus pandemic has changed the way that most, if not all of us, work.

Courtney Frost is a program officer for the Blue Cross of Idaho Foundation for Health.

Program Officers like myself who work in philanthropy have had to make difficult decisions to postpone, delay, or even cancel activities planned this year. We’re no different than a lot of other professionals navigating the uncertainty caused by COVID-19.

This massive disruption created a learning moment. I’ve been reminded of the importance of flexibility, both in my role with the Blue Cross of Idaho Foundation for Health and in our community grants.

I’ve been in my position for more than five years, managing the Foundation’s High Five initiative that focuses on helping communities provide ways for children to be physically active and access healthy foods. I’ve learned that when you are flexible, you get better results and an overall better experience working with communities.

Flexibility is Crucial

For those of you in similar positions who work for organizations that provide grants and funding, this flexibility is crucial. I’ve seen funders be so strict with guidelines around grants that it hinders relationships and weakens partnerships. Rules and parameters around funding are needed, but those should have some built-in flexibility.

This short description of our Community Transformation Grants will help me explain. These multiyear grants use a unique, two-phase approach. The first phase helps a team of local leaders genuinely understand their community’s assets, challenges, and needs, as well as learn about the importance of community health. During the second phase, these leaders build an action plan to create projects, programs, and policies using grant funding.

A one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work because all communities are different; therefore, we give the communities flexibility in how they want to learn, meet, collaborate, and allocate funds. Allowing flexibility in these grants has paid off with past recipients, and I’m seeing that with our current grantees, the cities of Orofino and Twin Falls. These communities are radically different in terms of population, built environment, and community needs. They have tailored our grant process to fit their needs.

Pandemic Best Practices

The effects of the pandemic are different and can vary. Funders need to recognize this and offer added flexibility, such as delaying work or extending deadlines for projects and grant reporting. Your grantees and partners will appreciate it.

For our grants, we have made our timelines even more flexible during COVID-19. The communities control the meeting cadence, meaning if they need to take a month off because of other obligations, so be it. We also have provided more support to run virtual meetings for communities who are not comfortable meeting in person. Our team also has suspended travel to align with the recommendations of the governor and health agencies.

This hasn’t been easy for me. I’m a planner and like structure in my work and life. I’ve learned that as I have allowed our grantees and partners more flexibility, relationships improve, and more excitement is generated about the important community work we are performing.

It may have taken a pandemic to remind me of the importance of being flexible, and I’m eager to continue seeing the benefits of that practice as we work to create healthier Idaho communities. The need to support each other is greater during this pandemic, and one way to do that is to be flexible and have grace.