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Dave Moss surrounded by Atlas Corps Fellows at the Social Good Summit during UN Week, 2012.

Grant Proposals as Instruments of Cultural Exchange

Applying for grants is always challenging. Asking for funding from people and organizations from different cultures adds complexity. To solve global problems like climate change, we will need to get better at cross-cultural grant making and grant seeking.

My Own Cultural Shock

Years before I founded Unfunded List, I worked as Partnerships Manager at a non-profit called Atlas Corps. Our main program was a fellowship for international NGO (Non-Governmental Organization) leaders. Many talented international NGO staff members and volunteers, as well as academics, government employees, and social sector leaders would apply for our program. It was my job to find placements for them at non-profits in the United States, where they would conduct 6, 12 or 18 month-long fellowships of service at organizations like Ashoka, CARE, Red Cross, Human Rights Campaign, and many more. Over the course of my time at Atlas Corps, we found nearly 100 placements for young leaders from all over the world, with most of them coming from Latin America, Africa, India or Pakistan.

Before working at Atlas Corps, I had some experience with fundraising but no experience with international work (I had not even traveled abroad). Fortunately, I learned quickly on the job. Atlas Corps is a J-1 Visa Sponsoring organization and we had a strong relationship with the US State Department.  Thanks to this tie, I was fortunate enough to receive intercultural training from the best of the best, Dr. Gary Weaver of American University’s School of International Service .

Ostensibly, I attended these training sessions in order to best support a cultural exchange program and work with Fellows from other countries. But one of the main things I learned from Dr. Weaver was that while I was from a small town in Maine, I was living  and working in the very different culture of Washington DC. Many of my early career struggles were a result of cultural differences, but I did not realize it at the time. I communicated in a certain manner and sometimes people from other places communicated differently, leading to misinterpretations and misunderstandings. In general, I have learned that the farther away from you the person is, the more difficult it can be to communicate.

Cross-Cultural Applications

Some of philanthropy’s greatest failures come when funders are far removed (socially, economically, geographically, culturally) from the issues targeted by funding requests. American funders trying to solve complex issues in faraway countries have a woeful track record. American funders supporting institutions such as  libraries, museums, churches, and universities in their own communities have very strong track records and have made tremendous impact helping countless individuals. 

The world’s poorer nations (often referred to as the Global South) do not lack talented leaders running community support organizations (CSOs) or engaged in other efforts to improve their communities. At Atlas Corps,  founder Scott Beale often said that talent was spread evenly around the world but opportunity was not. So when these leaders pursue grant funding opportunities they must look to wealthier countries whose cultures are often very different.

Thoughtful philanthropists will know that the leaders most connected to their issues and communities will be the most effective. But generally speaking, well-funded organizations in the Global South will be led by people who have spent significant time in the Global North, often studying at academic institutions or participating in cultural exchange opportunities such as fellowships. Grassroots leaders without international experience, perhaps because they have lived in their communities their entire lives, have a hard time accessing this funding.

Unfunded List has just completed our 16th round of review. We reviewed 51 proposals with several coming from the Global South thanks to a small partnership with Resolution Project. A group of Resolution Project Fellows attending a fundraising bootcamp all wrote drafts of grant proposals for their organizations and then submitted them to us for review. Thanks to Google Meet, I was able to speak face to face with most of them about their proposals. These proposals were for a variety of efforts ranging from a beekeeping initiative in Rwanda, to a dental hygiene program in Haiti, to a collective of Cassava Farmers in Ghana. These proposal authors are already active members of their communities and experts in the fields of beekeeping, dental hygiene, and Cassava farming. In order to get funding, they must become expert grant writers with the added challenge of applying cross-culturally. It is a nearly impossible request.

Tips for Cross-Cultural Grant makers and Grant seekers

Over the 16 rounds, Unfunded List has reviewed many proposals from the Global South. Based on the experience of speaking with proposal authors and their evaluators, we have come up with some ideas for how cross-cultural grantseekers and grantmakers could communicate better. Here is what we came up with: 

  1. Grant writers should not hesitate to brag a little and should present the names, credentials, and relevant experiences of those who would direct the project to assure funders that the expertise needed will be there.
  1. Grant writers should specify where the project is centered rather than assume that the person reading the proposal has knowledge of the geography, demography, and economy of the locale. Take the opportunity to teach someone something about your culture. My favorite proposals have been the ones where I learned something new.
  1. Grant writing is an opportunity to explain what cultural practices are in play. For example: we have read several proposals from West African groups that are trying to change attitudes towards the education and autonomy of girls in regions where girls’ education is considered unnecessary and arranged/forced marriages are common. Grant writers should be more explicit about describing the problem they are trying to address and realize that reviewers might be learning about these issues for the first time while making their decisions. 
  1. Some of the best proposals we have read have cited compelling statistics and information from reference texts or United Nations, World Health Organization, or US State Department reports.
  1. Funders need education about the issues and regions they are trying to fund so grantseekers should explain more. Grantseekers also need to describe how they will enlist stakeholders in their projects.
  1. Grantseekers need to understand the basics of philanthropic processes, which can be very difficult since these processes are often opaque and rarely explained. 
  1. For their part, funders should be more flexible with their programs, more transparent with their RFPs, and more open to understanding problems foreign to their own experience.
  2. Most importantly, cross-cultural grant makers should include people from the regions they are funding in the decision-making process.

A Co-Review Partnership with KujaLink – Building Meaningful Connections

These tips will be helpful for anyone engaging in cross-cultural grant seeking or grant making. We also encourage any grant proposal author who would like their proposals reviewed to submit.

We are pleased to announce a partnership with the platform KujaLink. Founded by renowned humanitarian Degan Ali, KujaLink’s purpose is “building meaningful connections” and “connecting civil society organizations in countries which receive humanitarian and development assistance to funders around the world.” As with our our original co-review pilot with MIT SOLVE, CSOs on the KujaLink platform will be given the opportunity to have their grant proposals reviewed by Unfunded List evaluators. We will review proposals from anywhere, on any issue, and at any stage of development and have reviewed over 1,000 proposals since 2015 with hundreds of these coming from organizations in the Global South. Over the next few months, we will review over 100 more proposals through the KujaLink partnership. We will also recruit these proposal authors to join our evaluation committee and become experienced proposal evaluators. With more experienced proposal reviewers in the Global South, it will be easier for large funding agencies to engage people with local knowledge in their own processes.

Stay tuned for more announcements about this Fall and our partnership with KujaLink. If you want to participate,  you can join our evaluation committee and add your perspective to the feedback we provide.

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