Funders Discuss Best Practices for Emergency & RAPID Response Grantmaking

In a time of ongoing international crises, climate-related disasters, and a surge of anti-LGBTQ legislation in the US and abroad, rapid and emergency response grants have become increasingly important for organizations addressing HIV.

As funders, how can we ensure support reaches those who need it most, when they need it the most? How can we assist vulnerable communities and civil society groups wisely, while also limiting the burdensome paperwork associated with traditional grants?

Recently, Funders Concerned About AIDS hosted a webinar to hear directly from grantmakers who have launched rapid response funds. They shared what they have learned, and best practices that other organizations can follow. Experts from Groundswell Fund, Transgender Strategy Center, and Frontline AIDS shared the following advice for fellow funders.

Tap Relationships to Build Trust Quickly

Funders may want to consider giving emergency funds to new applicants, as well as grantees that they already have a history with. Quickly vetting a previously unknown organization during a crisis can be a daunting task, but there are ways to make the process easier.

When selecting first-time grantees, funders should ideally engage a network of advisors who work closely in the space they’re funding, says Ruth Simister, Senior Advisor for Human Rights Response at Frontline AIDS. Having someone on-call who knows the landscape and can weigh in on applications and the merits of lesser-known organizations will save valuable time.

Partnering with or supporting community-rooted intermediary organizations offers another way funders can efficiently respond to crises. These organizations – for example the Transgender Strategy Center and Red Umbrella Fund – often have lived experience and the trust of the communities they represent and understand how to get money to them quickly.  

Expedite Grant Application & Approval Processes

When facing an emergency, cumbersome paperwork can become a barrier that prevents aid from reaching those who desperately need it. Funders report saving precious time by using the following approaches:

  • Instead of asking grantees to complete a lengthy application, use a short application with key strategic questions. “A lot of funders ask for really lengthy applications and, quite frankly, they don’t read it all,” says Amy Chou, Program Officer at Groundswell Fund. “What are the questions that you need to make a decision?”
  • Replace formal applications with a 45-minute intake call or Zoom meeting.
  • Form community-based grant review committees. Consulting people in the community who are, for example, living with HIV while confronting a natural disaster, can help provide a clear picture of what is needed on the ground.

Robust Core Funding Decreases the Need for Emergency Funds

After the speaker interventions, a robust attendee conversation raised the crucial role that core/general operating support can play for groups facing potential emergencies. Organizations with a steady stream of flexible, core funding are better positioned to pivot to meet the needs of their community during a crisis, without relying on emergency grants. With human rights continuously under threat and climate-related natural disasters becoming more frequent, long-term operating support is increasingly important.

Other attendees on the line weighed in on this important subject. “Much of this could be addressed if we actually had core funding going to community-led organizations over the longer term,” says Healy Thompson of the Stephen Lewis Foundation. “In many ways, this could be planned for if we had … infrastructure that actually supported community-led organizations with flexible funds—a lot of the stuff can’t be adequately addressed in emergencies.”

Other Tips:

  • Include funding to support the mental health of frontline staff in rapid response grants.
  • Include criteria in grant applications to identify whether the request addresses an unforeseen crisis versus a foreseeable or recurring issue. This will prevent organizations from getting stuck in a crisis modality, where they’re overly reliant on short-term emergency funds, says Simister.
  • While responding to applications, don’t forget to do proactive outreach to identify needs in countries that are eligible to apply for your funds.
  • Consider including emergency funds within non-emergency grants, so that capital will be ready for organizations to access.
  • Don’t underestimate the importance of capacity-building. Things like digital security safeguards and physical safety training can help organizations prepare for a crisis ahead of time. “We’re trying to shift the way we approach our grantmaking so that we are able to build up the skills and resources and provide technical assistance that helps move these organizations forward,” says Aryah Lester, Deputy Director at Transgender Strategy Center.

Special thanks to Amy Chou at the Groundswell Fund, Aryah Lester at Transgender Strategy Center, and Ruth Simister at Frontline AIDS for sharing their experiences with rapid and emergency response grantmaking.