Funding Communities of Color Through Evolved Grantmaking

North Star Fund uses Submittable to shift power in philanthropy through participatory grantmaking and trust-based processes.

North Star Fund is a New York-based foundation that supports grassroots organizing led by communities of color, with a focus on racial, gender, and economic justice. Using Submittable, the Fund builds better relationships with grantees and reduces burden for everyone involved. 

Any tool that allows foundations to deepen relationships with grantees or save applicants time, especially as they are doing incredibly important work, is useful—Submittable allows foundations to do that.

Catherine Eusebio

Program Director, North Star Fund

From spreadsheets to a single platform

Founded in 1979, North Star Fund has given over $81 million in grants to more than 2,400 community organizations in New York and the Hudson Valley. Awards have been provided through nearly 7,500 separate grants, including donor-advised grants, regular grant programs, and special grant programs.

North Star Fund began implementing Submittable in 2016. According to Program Associate Leyana Dessauer, the team had come to understand “the value of streamlining the application process for everyone involved, for applicants and also staff and reviewers.” 

Program Director Catherine Eusebio concurs. “Submittable helped us tremendously because our previous system was a spreadsheet attached to an email, multiplied by dozens and dozens of applicants.”

Adopting a more efficient system can save community organizers priceless administrative time.

As Dessauer notes, “It's really valuable to have the applications not take up too much of the organizers' time since organizers are busy people and we want them to be doing work in their communities, not spending a lot of time on applications.” 

Moving to Submittable ensured North Star Fund could support a wide range of grassroots leaders. 

As Eusebio shares, “In addition to funding organizing, which is our main focus, some of those organizations that apply [for grants] are also volunteer-run, meaning they are starting from the ground up. For organizations that have smaller budgets, their time is especially precious—they may have full-time jobs, leading families at the same time as they are organizing part-time. So we also wanted to make the system easy for those organizations or those leaders to apply. So that's in part why we wanted to streamline our application system and that led us to Submittable.”

Technology for participatory grantmaking

North Star Fund needed a digital system that would support the organization’s dedication to shifting the power in philanthropy.

“In addition to finding community organizing,” Dessauer says, “North Star Fund takes a fairly unusual approach among foundations. We have multiple committees of organizers and activists who are experts in their field volunteering to make our funding decisions.” 

As Eusebio shares, “We shift power by recruiting organizers in the communities that we fund to make our grant decisions. And they have the full authority to decide which grants are awarded to which organizations.” 

These community organizers set criteria for grant awards and determine award amounts.

“We participate in this model because it totally shifts the way that traditional philanthropy is run, and it's much more rooted in the needs of local people in New York and Hudson Valley,” Eusebio says.

Luckily, Submittable’s centralized review system, with built-in numeric assessment, easily supports the Fund’s participatory grantmaking process. 

“The review feature definitely is key,” Dessauer says, “since we have multiple reviewers and cohorts looking at different applications, to be able to see everything in one place and use a scoring system that is consistent.”

North Star Fund’s reviewers appreciate the platform’s design and user-experience.  

“The feedback that we received from our reviewers is that it's very helpful to see the application and take notes at the same time as they are assessing a proposal. Overall, we've received tremendous, positive feedback about how to use the system and people like that it’s intuitive,” Eusebio says.

A low-burden applicant experience

Because the Fund is dedicated to ensuring a positive grant applicant experience with minimal burden, Submittable’s flexibility is vital.

According to Dessauer, “We only want to ask for the information we really need in order for the committees to make an informed decision. Because of the platform being very customizable, we're able to take a good look at what questions we really need to ask and if we can streamline things so that it takes less time for applicants.” 

North Star Fund rigorously assesses their own questions and offers flexibility to applicants using the platform.

“As an example, for the budget we offer multiple options. You can either upload a budget spreadsheet or answer questions in a long form depending on what's more efficient for the group,” Dessauer says.

Submittable also makes it easy for North Star Fund to collect demographic data in support of their mission.

“The organizations supported by North Star Fund,” Eusebio says, “are led by communities of color and low-income folks. The majority of our grants go to communities of color, our reviewers come from BIPOC communities. We do ask questions about demographics on our application and part of the usefulness of Submittable is being able to customize the questions.”

North Star Fund wants to ensure that grant seekers have all the resources they need to complete a strong application. One way they do this is by using the additional instructions section of form fields to offer example responses. 

“We rely on the Submittable feature where we can provide example answers. Example answers also help first-time applicants know what we're looking for. From the feedback that we've received, that feature has been helpful for them,” Eusebio says.

Communication that builds trust 

The guiding principles behind trust-based philanthropy are very important at North Star Fund. To increase transparency and responsiveness, the team prioritizes clear, timely communication.

“One thing that is tremendously helpful through Submittable and helps to save a ton of time are response templates. We utilize those in every grant that we offer,” Eusebio says.

Once an applicant submits, North Star Fund communicates with them immediately about about next steps. They also use templates when an applicant is declined and when an applicant is successfully awarded a grant.

“It’s so helpful to have all that information stored in one place,” Eusebio says. 

Efficient communication is especially important for North Star Fund’s rapid response grants, which support organizing, activism, and strategic convening in response to urgent threats or breaking opportunities. 

“For those grants, our goal is to distribute them as quickly as possible. The system helps us do that because we do have response templates and we do have the ability to attach award letters to those communications,” Eusebio says. 

Trust-based philanthropy identifies the importance of streamlining and reducing paperwork for grant seekers—and the right technology can help. 

“We found Submittable is such a useful tool to streamline every step of the engagement with the applicant," Eusebio says. 

Effortless administration with great support

In addition to serving reviewers and applications, Submittable helps administrators like Dessauer and Eusebio work more efficiently.

“The form duplication feature is tremendously helpful,” Dessauer says, “because we are in a cycle-based program. So we update each application year-to-year or cycle-to-cycle. And again, that saves us a tremendous amount of time.” The team at North Star Fund also appreciates organizational tools like filters and labels.

“For our internal purposes, we use the labeling feature to sort which applications are at various stages. So for example, if an application is missing information, we can take note of that, or if an application needs to be held for further communication with the applicant, then we'll take note of that.”

North Star Fund has also found a great partner in Submittable’s support team. 

As Eusebio recalls, “We've received tremendous support because we've tried to implement some custom features. Submittable has been supportive of experiments that we've been trying and so far we've received timely support in return from the team.”

North Star Fund practices participatory grantmaking, recruiting community organizers to make grants decisions.

North Star Fund practices participatory grantmaking, recruiting community organizers to make grants decisions.

Relationships that are more than transactional

North Star Fund knows the value of building strong relationships with grantees, especially during challenging times. 

“In our COVID response, there was a large amount of auto-renewals of grants without applications and also giving emergency support without requiring any kinds of reports—things to really make sure that groups are being supported and not spending time on admin during a crisis,” Dessauer says.

Eusebio concurs: “It is because of our relationship to our grantees, that have been long-term relationships, that we've been able to provide emergency grants without much process or without further scrutiny of their organizations.”

Using a system like Submittable is just one piece of North Star Fund’s commitment to ensuring good relationships and partnering with grassroots groups for a better future. Providing support beyond the check is also essential to the Fund’s team.

“Our belief is that a foundation should do as much as it can to support grantees to be successful and that may look like providing workshops or other tools, that may be making introductions to other funders or other potential partners in service of what the grantee is asking for.”

North Star Fund aims to support community organizations comprehensively and Submittable helps. 

“We've used Submittable to further our capacity-building approach. So we've provided capacity-building grants through Submittable and we've also used it to select participants for our movement leadership program, which is a cohort-based program where organizers can build on their campaigns, their infrastructure, and support broader movement-building between organizations that we fund.”

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