Through my work, I help nonprofits seek and secure funding, often from private foundations.  It’s a challenging process, for many reasons.  Most important, there is not enough money to go around.  Tough choices have to be made.   In order to make those tough choices most effectively, foundations sometimes experiment with new approaches to philanthropy.

I mentioned in any earlier post that I had participated in a novel process called the Connect for Health Challenge.  This process involved citizen reviewers recruited by the Citizens League, short online applications from nonprofits, and community voting for the top three rated proposals.

There were 27 citizen reviewers assigned to read and rate approximately 386 applications.  Twenty-two proposals were ultimately chosen; one received $100,000 and 21 received $20,000.

As a citizen reviewer, I found it extremely challenging (no pun intended) to carefully and thoughtfully review that volume of applications in a limited period of time.  Aside from that, I thought the citizen review process worked well; while we were not professional foundation staff (although some of us did have relevant professional credentials), the group seemed to be conscientious and diligent.  One could question whether the group could have been more diverse, however.

Other observations:

Because of the streamlined nature of the applications, it was easy for nonprofits to apply but arguably there was not enough information for a rigorous review.

The issue of community involvement is interesting.  Three applications were selected as finalists for the $100,000 grant award and the winner was determined through a “popular” vote.  One could vote online, via text, by phone, by email or in person at a variety of locations, mostly public libraries.  Interestingly, the highest tech (texting) and lowest tech (in-person) were the most used methods for voting.   This seems like a good indication that both young and old participated.

Yet, I’m ambivalent about community voting.  On the one hand, one can gather up many people from one’s “community” and shepherd them to the library to vote.  If you can gather up enough people to win, does that mean your program is the best?  What if you serve vulnerable or disabled people who can not easily cast their ballots?

On the other hand, whichever organization can mobilize the most supporters may be good at getting things done.  Maybe they are helping their community become more civically engaged and empowered.

The jury is out on how well this approach solves community problems or in what ways it encourages different kinds of solutions.  Your thoughts?