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Granting Equity: Q&A with Nonprofit Equity and Philanthropy Expert April Walker

This article first appeared on LinkedIn.

Dana Textoris, CEO of Grants Plus, is joined by April Walker, founder and CEO of Philanthropy for the People, for a discussion around equity-centered best practices in grant making and grant seeking.

Dana: How did you enter the world of fundraising and philanthropy?

April: I imagine it was somewhat of a happy accident. When I moved to Chicago for graduate school, I landed a temp role at the American Heart Association. Within a few months, I became a permanent member of the Heart Walk team while working my MSW. While in graduate school, I landed an internship at a health services foundation which was my first experience grantmaking, facilitating site visits, and presenting funding recommendations to a board of directors. As they say, the rest is pretty much history.

I never set out to be a philanthropic advisor or a consultant but I am forever grateful for the way it aligns with things I enjoy doing – building relationships, advocating for change, and moving money in the direction of good.

Dana: What was it that inspired you to launch your own consultancy?

April: Something tells me the answer to this question might end up being a book! For now, suffice it to say that I began to feel very restricted as an in-house development director. I also hesitated to rejoin the foundation world full-time because of similar limitations. but I nonetheless wanted to be of service to nonprofits and foundations in a way that centered on what I care most about – racial equity, social justice, Black joy and liberation. Thus, Philanthropy for the People was born.

Dana: And thankfully for all of us it was! Tell me about the name of your firm “Philanthropy for the People” – what does that mean to you?

April: I want to know if the people are alright, both those leading nonprofit programs and the individuals and families the services are designed to support. If they are cared for, feel valued, and seen.

We tend to accept the nonprofit tech gap, accept that wages will be low, accept that nonprofits will do more with less, and that community engagement is an add-on instead of a baseline requirement. All of these things come at a great cost to the people that keep nonprofits up and running.

For me, Philanthropy for the People means centering the humanity of those doing the work and the communities we aim to uplift. As the saying goes – nothing about us, without us.

Dana: What is an example of bravery you see among the nonprofits you serve?

April: This is a great question. Witnessing many of my clients tackle the power dynamics inside of their own organization continues to be a special kind of joy. Power dynamics don’t just exist between fundraisers and grant makers; they exist anywhere there is a hierarchy. Watching nonprofits undertake the courageous and challenging work to build an inclusive, pro-leadership workplace culture is inspiring.

There is also a ton of bravery in deciding to no longer accept funding from grantors whose process or expectations exceeds the value of the grant itself. Not every nonprofit has the ability to do this but even for those with a financial cushion, it is still a bold and brave boundary to set.

Dana: You are talking about pushing back on long-entrenched expectations between grantors and grantees. At Grants Plus, it’s our core practice to deploy equitable language in our grant writing. Sometimes that means declining to use the language that funders themselves use in their grant guidelines. How do we continue enlisting funders to center equity in their language and their grant making?

April: My favorite writer Kiese Laymon has said that “words are approximations,” and I could not agree more. We would all be better for accepting that language as we currently know it will evolve, as it well should. It is a sign of our growth. Having money to distribute does not make anyone an expert in inclusive or asset-based language. Some funders are much too comfortable making declarative statements about things they have not experienced first hand. If there are folks who are excelling at this, let’s uplift and celebrate their effort as a model for others.

Dana: 2020 brought changes – some unexpected and some long overdue – to the state of grant seeking and grant making. Three years later, do you believe we are heading towards even more change or a reversion to the status quo?

April: This is a tough one, Dana. I hesitate to draw a binary here but admittedly I felt more hopeful before reading the recent opinion article in The Chronicle of Philanthropy on philanthropic pluralism. I’ve seen some great shifts – foundations awarding unsolicited wellness grants to nonprofit staff, others forgoing written proposals entirely, and a mindfulness that trust is really the minimum inside of grantee and grantor relationships.

But I’ve also seen the continuance of questions about diversity that are leading nowhere, a failure or unwillingness to address nonprofit pay inequity and culture, and more of the same power dynamics that existed long before 2020. Just this week a client shared that a grantor called her arrogant and expressed that her proposal had too little information to be worthy of his money – the same proposal that had already garnered at least half a million in funding.

The reality is some of us are heading toward change, others are stuck, and others indeed never wanted to shift at all.

Dana: What questions should grantees ask more often?

April: I would encourage grantees to ask grantors how they measure success. Beyond the amount of money awarded every year and number of nonprofit grant partners is a world in which foundations and funders can be mindful of whether or not they are investing in community-led initiatives, helping to close the endowment gap for Black-led organizations, and embracing transparency about sources of wealth and current investments.

Dana: This work can be heavy. What keeps you hopeful?

April: Well, I’d be fibbing if I told you I feel hopeful everyday. I most certainly do not. Is there a secret code for that?!

The work is heavy but the responsibility is an honor. Holding space for people to learn and unlearn, to reflect on power and catalyze social change returns to me in dividends. Inviting people to journey with me, to stay curious, to embrace the uncomfortable, and seeing that growth is what keeps me going. There is always hope in believing we can be better than we were yesterday.

We honor and thank April for her gift of thought leadership that challenges and invites us all to see, speak, and act in pursuit of equity. Follow April here for more of her readings and teaching!

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