The Hard Truth: Inequities in Grantwriting
Like many things in life, my journey as a grant writer has been filled with twists and turns. It all started in 2017, when I secured an administrative support position in the Department of Early Childhood and Elementary Education at Georgia State University (GSU). At that time, I had no knowledge of the grants world, but I was quickly introduced to it while working beside academic researchers and the professionals who managed their federal grants. While sitting in staff meetings, overhearing conversations between professors, and reviewing department budgets, I began to learn terms like “grant load”, “allowable costs” and “RFP”. Through these indirect learning moments, I became more and more interested in the grants field. After 2 years, the opportunity presented itself for me to transition into a position as a Grants & Contracts Officer, managing over 4 million federal dollars in support of academic research on topics related to Early Childhood Education. I thrived in this role, and enjoyed a majority of the tasks it included. However, I realized that my true interest lies in the “pre-award” process, where RFPs were identified and dissected, and proposals were developed and submitted.
Although my curiosity and desire to learn more about grant writing was growing, there were no direct opportunities for me to learn the skill in my role as a grants manager as “grant writing” and “grant management” were handled by different teams at my institution. I knew I had to gain that additional level of exposure on my own. Over the course of 6 months, I enrolled in continuing education courses through the University of North Georgia taught by pros like Dr. Beverly Browning, utilized resources from the Grant Professionals Association, and started networking with other grant writers. At the beginning of 2020, I decided to try my hand at freelancing part time in addition to my role at GSU to get more real-world experience as a new grant writer.
Grant Writing Meets Purpose
Over this same time period of 2017-2020, a lot was happening personally in the background of my professional life. As many young adults often say, after college I went through an identity crisis, or an identity awakening rather. I spent a lot of time trying to understand and break free from insecurities I had about the color of my skin, the way I talk, my family history, and if I fit into the world’s expectations of who I should be and how I should act as a Black woman.
Through studying more about Black history and trying to piece together my own family’s blurred connection to Africa, I became very curious about the continent, its many countries, cultures, languages, and histories; the beauty of its people, as well as the current day challenges. In 2017, I had the unexpected chance to travel to Zimbabwe on vacation with a cousin. The time I spent in Zimbabwe - reconnecting with family, indulging in nature’s beauty, hearing new languages, asking questions, thinking, pondering, observing - forced me to commit to living my life differently. I desperately wanted to reach an internal equilibrium, balancing the anger and exhaustion because of racial inequities and social injustices with hope and optimism that maybe there was a way I could use my professional skills and interest to make a positive impact.
By the time 2020 arrived, I had finally reached a place where I felt like I knew who I was, and who I wanted to become as I continued to grow and evolve. I had decided to merge my interest in Africa and my new found grant writing skills to do something “good”. I wanted to use grant writing as a method to fight against the lingering effects of colonialism, slavery, white supremacy, and oppression on Africa and the African diaspora.
When Purpose Becomes Blurred
However, the more “good” I tried to do, the more I realized that good often gets lost in a system of inequities. Through a series of deep conversations with friends and colleagues, reading challenging articles and books like “Dead Aid” by Dambisa Moyo, and gaining more experience researching funders and writing proposals, I began to see many gaps and holes in the “good” work I thought I could do as a grant writer working for justice and progress in African communities.
I began to learn about topics related to the nonprofit industrial complex and how philanthropy, nonprofits, and the international development sectors have been infiltrated by white supremacy and that each of them, in their own ways, are extensions of colonialism, neocolonialism, and imperialism. The concepts of colonialism and imperialism were not new to me, but the idea that these issues exist even in the nonprofit space was. It was an eye opener, and it disappointed me. I have always been an idealist and believed that the nonprofit and philanthropy sector was the best place for me. To hear that many international nonprofits working abroad were actually the cause of inequities and a method for continuing imperialism was a tough pill to swallow.
I wanted to see if these things I was reading and hearing about were true. I pulled data from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID)’s website, and analyzed data from the early 2000s up to 2019 to see where they were distributing most of their money. Since USAID sends funds to many African countries, I narrowed my search down to focus specifically on Zimbabwe since I still felt connected to the country through friendship and memory. From this, I learned that less than 3% of the funds distributed by USAID actually went to organizations in Zimbabwe that were locally founded and led by African leaders. 97% of funds went to non-African organizations that included a) extremely large western multinational organizations (like World Vision, World Education, UNICEF, Save the Children and Catholic Relief Services), b) western consulting firms operating in the country or c) midsized NGOs who operated in Zimbabwe but had headquarters and a majority of their staff and leaders based in the U.S. Might I add, the majority of leaders of these 3 types of organizations were often times White, with very little connection to, or no significant lived experience in, the country.
I kept asking myself, if we say we care about African communities and their development, why is so much money being given to non-African, western, or White-led organizations? What about all the organizations that African people are actually founding and leading themselves? Shouldn’t we support their work too? Why does the western world think it has all the answers to problems in Africa, and Zimbabwe specifically? Aren’t there local organizations addressing social problems that need this funding just as much, if not more than, the foreign organizations?
I wanted to do something to change the inequitable funding patterns so I started offering my grant writing services for free to a few small organizations in Africa. One specific example is Zion Family Support. Zion Family Support is a locally led and owned organization based in Jinja Uganda. The founder of the organization, a local resident who was born and raised in the surrounding communities, was passionate, experienced, and well respected within her community. But when I spoke with her, she shared with me the challenges she faced in getting funding to support her organization and how overlooked she felt in terms of grant funding, even though the international organizations - organizations that have headquarters outside of Africa, founded by a non-African, and employs mostly non-African leaders and staff - were thriving around her.
I was also curious to hear more from African leaders of Zimbabwean organizations, so I surveyed around 15 local Zimbabwean organizations to ask them about their experience as relates to fundraising and grant writing. Unsurprisingly, I heard of similar challenges.
I questioned - how is it possible that local organizations are so consistently under resourced and overlooked by American donors when billions of grant dollars are being flooded into their countries each year? The more I asked, read, and learned, and the more I did prospect research in search of funders for African organizations, the more I began to see common inequitable patterns that allowed or caused this problem to occur.
Common Inequitable Practices in International Giving
A lack of trust in local leaders – In many cases, western donors don’t know, don’t listen to, and don’t trust the local African leaders and community members they want to “serve”. Donors see them as people needing “help”, not people who have a voice and power of their own. The funders may not believe local African leaders are skilled or knowledgeable enough to lead impactful organizations, and doubt that they can do their jobs or handle money effectively.
A lack of respect for local knowledge on how to address social problems – Many international donors also show through their actions a belief that African people need an external savior. They fail to acknowledge that African community members may already know how to handle local community issues in a way that is in alignment with indigenous knowledge, informed by and respectful of local culture (even when challenging harmful cultural norms), and inclusive of a variety of local stakeholders.
Having an imperialistic view point – Because many funders come from the western world, they also bring an assumption that the western way is the best way. They view themselves as superior and imply that the whole world must operate, exist, and solve problems the same way western people do. If other nations, communities, and peoples do things differently it is viewed as less “good”, “not right”, or “backward”.
Western political agendas being passed through aid agreements and activities – Not all funders have political interests and powers. However, some do. We all know the term “globalization”, which some people use to imply a well- intentioned definition like “making the world more connected” or “removing barriers between nations”. However, there is also another less pure-hearted intention in which one nation, usually the nation with more power and more wealth, uses another nation for their own benefit and wellbeing. Historically, this self-serving intention has permeated the nature of international aid whereby a western nation will give a grant or aid donation to “help” an African nation overcome some sort of political, social, or climate challenge, but with major stipulations to the detriment of the other nations autonomy, and for the ultimate benefit of the donor nation. Western nations, while they do present themselves as wanting to “help”, they are typically doing so because they’ll receive some economic or political benefit in return.
The American nonprofit system that benefits American organizations at the expense of truly uplifting African organizations – As I mentioned previously, western donors, particularly those in America, chose their grant recipients based on who will give them the most benefit in return, not on who needs the money the most, not on who will use the funds most effectively, and not on what is in the best interest of African communities and leaders. At the heart of their decision is their own tax benefit. If an American donor has the opportunity to choose between a highly effective local grassroots organization led by individuals born and raised in the African community being served, and a less impactful international organization with headquarters based in New York, led by people who do not have lived experience in the community served, they will likely choose the New York based organization because the New York organization has a 501C3 status, thus giving the donor a tax write off, which benefits themselves financially even though that organization is less impactful and less effective at bringing lasting change.
Pressures from American donors for African organizations to do things their way and the fear or inability for African organizations to push back – Similar to the imperialistic viewpoints I mentioned earlier, many funders have their own processes they follow, which they often impose onto their grant applicants and recipients. They use complex and confusing application processes, expect grantees to implement programs using predetermined models and objectives, and require strenuous grant reports. All of these elements make the grant process burdensome, unenjoyable, unattainable or simply not worth it to local African organizations. Some organizations have the ability to push back on funder demands, or refrain from applying altogether, but not all do. Some organizations will simply endure the demands of the funders because they are in need of funding. They will apply for funding, but risk losing their autonomy and ownership in return. Sadly, this perpetuates the cycle. The more local African organizations give in to the demands of the funders, the more funders continue to demand, and eventually, local African organizations begin to believe the funders’ way truly is the only way. Overtime, local knowledge, expertise, and agency will continue to wither away, almost to a point where it cannot be regained.
Continuing to Fight for Good
The more I learned of and noticed these unequitable practices first hand, the more I became disenfranchised as a grant writer. I wanted to challenge the system, but I also wanted to help grassroots and community organizations in Africa get funding. I began to feel that it’s not possible to do both at the same time. How can you challenge the system, when getting funds only happens if you go along with the system? I began to question if there is anything I could do as an individual grant writer, and doubted that being a grant writer would allow me the kind of flexibility required to make a difference.
I do recognize that change is currently happening. Funders are shifting and engaging in these conversations, but there is still a long way to go. I am also aware that USAID seems to be getting serious about “localization”, reporting that they gave around 10% of eligible funding to local organizations (although I’m not sure of the exact geographic regions), in fiscal year ending September 2022, but USAID is not the only funder needing to take these steps. More work also needs to be done to clarify what “localization” truly means to ensure it is not just a buzzword being used with no true intentions to circulate funding to the most locally grounded leaders and organizations.
I still don’t have the exact answers on what I should do to address these inequities at this stage of my career. In my lowest moments, I had actually considered that the answer may be to quit – quit trying to get grants from western donors for African organizations. This may be counter-intuitive coming from a grant professional who has made a living from helping organizations get grants. But for me, stopping the inequity and truly investing in locally led African organizations for the benefit of African communities, however that may look, is more important than continuing to be a grant writer. I would rather allow my career to evolve and merge, than to continue repeating a process in a system that is not made to truly benefit African people. Instead of repeating the broken process of “looking for grants”, I choose to look for partnership, look for solidarity over saviorism, look for equitable care and concern, and look to mobilize people with ownership and dignity – whether a grant is involved or not.
However, I do recognize that it may not be easy, or even realistic, to just “quit grants”. I know that in many ways we must persist within the current environment. So, I also believe that if quitting is not an option, there are 2 other steps we can take as grant professionals to fight inequity in grantmaking, whether we work for African communities or communities of color based in the United States:
Ask more questions when something doesn’t feel right or seems unjust. Instead of going along with a funders process, demands, or values that seem unfair, burdensome, or biased, take a moment to engage in conversation. Ask them “why”? Why is your process like this? What is your true goal - service or superiority?
Push back on behalf of organizations that can’t, or are afraid to, push back for themselves. Even if the inequitable practice does not impact you or your organization directly, you can still speak up about it for the sake of all the other organizations who will be harmed by it.
In order to do these two things, we must continue to educate ourselves, engage with others to collectively challenge the system, and be willing to make ourselves uncomfortable as well.
For now, I choose to continue discussing and exploring how to make philanthropy, international grantmaking, and international development more equitable. As I work, connect, and listen, I am allowing myself to evolve professionally, the same way I was evolving when I first embarked on my journey as a new grant writer.