What we learned from our renewals process

This year we renewed funding for 21 of our policy and advocacy grantees, totalling over €2m. We wanted to make sure our process would be fair and transparent towards our grantees, but we soon discovered there were no straight-forward answers or easy-to-find best practices. While a lot has been written about good grantmaking practices in general, there’s nothing specifically about renewals.  

Having completed the process and had a chance to reflect, we wanted to share our experience in the hope it will help other grantmakers that face similar questions. 

Our context 

The European AI & Society Fund supports a diverse and resilient civil society ecosystem. It was important to us that the process would ensure that we did not change the character of our community. But our budget would only allow us to continue to support around two-thirds of our current grantees. Knowing that we would have to say no to some organisations meant we needed clear criteria that would allow us to explain how we’d made our decisions. We also knew that we didn’t have all the answers ourselves and decided to collaborate with Tom Steinberg and Gemma Bull from Modern Grantmaking to guide us in developing this process. 

What went well?   
  • It was important to us that we give our grantees certainty about future funding in good time for them to make decisions about their work. That made our timeline challenging but having a well-planned process allowed us to get everything done. The design of the process went really well. The working session with Tom and Gemma sparked a lot of ideas and helped us to structure our thoughts and unblock our thinking. Deconstructing the whole process into smaller steps helped tremendously. 
  • We created two stages of selection criteria which helped us both make a transparent judgement of each application on its own merits, as well as situate a proposal within the wider context of the ecosystem.  
What criteria did we use? 

We established five criteria for the first scoring phase and each was given a particular weight in the evaluation. We shared these with the grantees as part of their application process.  

  1. The applicant demonstrates that the organisation will be able to have impact on the future of AI in Europe, drawing on the applicant’s learnings from the work we have funded so far. (5)
  2. The applicant has made significant impact in their work so far given their starting point, and the size of their grant (4)
  3. The financial sustainability of the organisation means our funding is especially needed (3)
  4. The applicant fulfils either a strategic or unique role within the ecosystem (5)
  5. The applicant clearly understands that they are part of a wider ecosystem, and actively tries to play their part (4)

After assessing the applications in the first scoring phase, we applied additional criteria to make the final selection. The second scoring phase was essential to ensure that our selected grantees represent a range of backgrounds and skills, keeping true to our approach of building a diverse and resilient civil society ecosystem. 

We introduced the following additional criteria which allowed us to consider the proposals in relation to other applications:  

  1. Our cohort includes a diversity of relevant expertise and geography 
  2. Our cohort includes organisations that would not likely be funded directly by our partner foundations at this specific point of time 

These criteria really helped us to make considered judgements. But we wouldn’t pretend that it was easy to make decisions – saying no is the hardest part of grantmaking and nothing completely takes that away. 

 

What didn’t work so well?  

We hit some problems when it came to the budgets that grantees proposed. We offered a renewal based on a pro-rata increase on their current grants of up to a maximum of 30%. This created two issues. Firstly, people calculated their grant amount differently which resulted in lots of chasing up. And secondly, almost everyone requested the maximum amount. That meant we either needed to fund fewer organisations or cut the grant amounts. In the end we applied a 15% pro rata increase across the grants that we renewed.  

We are also still thinking about what’s the best way to work with the organisations that we were not able to renew, and asking them what it means to be an alumni of the fund. We’d welcome ideas so please let us know how you organise it in your communities.  

 

What did we learn? 
  • Guess what – if there’s money available, people ask for it! If we know that we can only fund a 15% increase throughout the cohort, we should indicate that as a maximum amount, instead of offering more and hoping that some won’t request it.  
  • Having extra pairs of eyes from other colleagues and asking for their feedback is very helpful. 
  • Splitting the assessment into primary and secondary criteria really helps – we’re using this approach again for the Global Fellowships Programme.  
  • We often think that we can do more than what we have the actual capacity for. The timeline was challenging. With more time, the process could have been easier. 
  • Deconstructing the process in smaller steps and planning each step separately for each project cycle is something that we will continue doing in the future.  

 

If you’d like to discuss these reflections in more detail with our team, please get in touch with our Programme Manager Alexandra Toth.  

Learn which grantees we have renewed and what they will work on next in our recent announcement 

 

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