Trusting the Process
Throughout the pandemic, the Michigan Nonprofit Association (MNA) collaborated with the Michigan State Legislature, the Governor's office, and the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity (LEO) to create and administer the $50 million 'MI Nonprofit Relief Fund'. This initiative, supported by funds from the America Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), aimed to assist Michigan's nonprofits with annual revenues of $1M or less that were adversely affected by the pandemic. MNA focused on developing a fair and community-focused approach for the distribution of these grants. In October 2023, MNA and LEO successfully launched the grant program by announcing 1,373 nonprofit award winners.
On the Process
Nellie Tsai is the Social Innovation Officer for MNA. She says it was important to bring in community leaders from around the state to understand how to make the grant application and review process work for our state’s smaller nonprofits. Says Tsai, “We leaned into participatory grant-making, as well as trust-based philanthropy.” After a press conference to celebrate the funding, MNA got down to work. “We invited community leaders across the state to convene and advise the process. About 80 nonprofit leaders in our regional “Hubs” developed a scoring process for the grant applications that was for nonprofits, and by nonprofits. They picked up where the statewide advisory group left off and then helped us to outreach to the nonprofit sector in Michigan,” said Tsai.
As part of the application process, MNA and the regional hubs hosted “office hours,” so that anyone interested in applying for funding could get their questions answered. These ran twice a week during the six-week application period. After the applications were received, a project management team went through and checked the applicant’s documentation. If a nonprofit was missing any of the required forms for the funding guidelines, MNA contacted them and gave them a grace period.
“They weren't penalized if they were just missing a 990, for example,” says Tsai, “We shared the rubric that we used on the front page of the application. We were very transparent in how the applications would be evaluated.”
Every part of the application process was done with input from nonprofit stakeholders, from the design of the questions, to the creation of the scoring rubric, to the actual scoring of the requests for funding. Tsai says something that will stay with her about this experience is the level of care and dedication exhibited by the nonprofit community, “That people would stay in 2-hour meetings to dig into these questions of equity is impressive. ‘Should we burden a nonprofit? Should we push them into filing a different 990 than they are used to? Or, should we trust them to know what they are doing?’ These were really good conversations about the challenges facing the nonprofit sector in Michigan, and the opportunities that funders have to trust the people who are doing the work on the ground.”
For the upcoming fiscal year, MNA's primary objectives include distributing funds to applicants, highlighting the remarkable resilience of nonprofits during the pandemic, fostering connections among nonprofit leaders, and enhancing the visibility of the vital contributions made by nonprofits in Michigan. While no formal grant reporting is required, MNA has partnered with the JFM Group to proactively measure the impact of these grants.
You can read more about phase two of the Nonprofit Relief Fund here.