This story is in partnership with World Education Services (WES) Mariam Assefa Fund. See our editorial ethics and standards here.
Most grant applications are like exams. There are strict rules, there are time limits, everything needs to be filled out, no talking to others, no peeking at other people’s answers, no asking for help, and most importantly, there are no exceptions.
But the thing is, not everyone does well in exams. Some people can’t work well under pressure; others might need several days to actually finish it. We know exams aren’t the only way to test a person’s intelligence — there are other ways to spotlight someone’s skills. In the case of grants, there’s more than one way for applications to show that an organization does meaningful, critical work.
A grassroots organization in the Peel region of Ontario wanted to try and break some of these rules.
Laadliyan is a non-profit that works on gender inequality within the South Asian community. Their mandate is to empower and engage South Asian women and non-binary people through health and wellness education and mentorship. The group was founded by Manvir Bhangu in 2013 after she realized there was no specific organization that served the needs for this specific group of the Peel population.
“A lot of our work is focusing on providing the mentorship that I personally felt like I didn’t have or the people around me didn’t have when we were growing up,” says Bhangu. “Our work recently with the pandemic has kind of created opportunities for international students and for their struggles and stories to be shared.”
The organization was incorporated as a non-profit in 2015, however, they still don’t have charitable status, which cuts them off from many grant opportunities — and by extension the impact they can have on the Peel community. Bhangu explains that as a small organization, it’s not easy to get charitable status because it’s a lot of work, and it costs a lot of money (which is ironic since they often need the status to get money in the first place).
“In no way does [not having status] reflect that the agency can’t do the work. I think we all have the skill sets, we definitely have access to the population we’re working with, and the population trusts us to do this for them,” says Bhangu.
In 2021, the organization supported 191 international students with grocery gift cards, connected 88 high school students with mentors through their Laadli to Laadli mentorship program, and distributed a total of 800 menstrual hygiene care packages in the community.
Most of the funding Laadliyan received is between $20,000-$40,000, which means there is no money for even a single full-time employee salary. “It’s very project based, and the core operations are always put aside; A lot of our fundraising efforts are going towards things like office rent, supplies, admin money, accounting money, which again, none of the grants really fund.”
Bhangu herself has a separate full-time job to support herself financially, while being the founder and executive director for Laadliyan — also a full-time commitment — on her own time. If the team had even one person who could be paid in a full-time position, Bhangu says they could do 10 times more work, and be 10 times better.
Inclusive grantmaking means listening to what applicants need
When Bhangu came across the World Education Services (WES) Mariam Assefa Fund’s grant opportunity for building equitable economies for immigrants and refugees, she was immediately interested. The grant opportunity, created through a participatory grantmaking process in partnership with the Tamarack Institute, was completely led by community members in Peel, called the people’s panel.
Laadliyan wanted to get funding for a program to support South Asian International students with employment opportunities, as well as train employers to better support these students.
Over the course of several sessions discussing the immediate needs of Peel’s immigrant and refugee population, the people’s panel designed the funding guidelines and priorities that they hoped to address within the community through this funding opportunity. They also developed the criteria that guided their decision-making process. The focus of the call for applications was to find organizations that seek to remove economic barriers for immigrants and refugees.
The call for applications also stated that while organizations without charitable status can apply as well, they needed a fiscal sponsor. Through this process, an organization that does have charitable status needs to partner with them to receive the fund first and funnel it to them, as well as manage their finances and some administrative duties.
However, it’s not always easy to find a fiscal sponsor, especially one that aligns very closely with an organization’s goals and objectives, according to Bhangu.
After the application process opened, Tamarack hosted two coaching sessions where applicants were welcome to join a virtual space to ask any questions about the application, any concerns they had, or any clarifications which were needed. Karenveer Pannu, the community animator who was part of the Tamarack Institute team facilitating the people’s panel, said a lot of people would show up to these sessions.
“[The sessions were] very transparent about the mechanisms that led to the design of the funding opportunity and I think that’s really helpful as well when you’re looking to apply, because you know what the funding opportunity is focused on and how this focus was designed, which helps you understand what it is the funders are looking for,” says Pannu.
Bhangu went to these coaching sessions and came with lots of questions and thoughts. Though there were other applicants at these sessions, who were competing with each other for the grant, Bhangu still felt like the space was very helpful and supportive. “ Everybody was sharing thoughts and ideas about what they wanted to do and there was no gatekeeping of their ideas,” she says.
Bending the rules to make space for groups making impact
The question of Laadliyan’s charitable status also came up during these sessions. Bhangu brought up her concern about neither having that status nor fiscal sponsorship.
Bhangu says she was grateful to even be able to have that conversation about charitable status because the traditional approach has been much more black and white, and she has never been able to ask for clarifications about the application itself. “[Usually] it’s just yes or no. Do you have charitable status? No? Okay, you cannot continue on to the application,” she explains as the norm in the grantmaking process.
Ultimately, the people’s panel asked Laadliyan to submit some additional documents to prove their capacity for the work and then told the organization that they could apply for the grant, even without a fiscal sponsorship.
“I know that the application initially did say that unregistered organizations, for example, should apply with a sponsor. But I think even in the initial webinar, we encouraged people to reach out to us if this was of concern to them.Whether they wanted to apply or if they wanted support in finding a fiscal sponsor, we made ourselves very accessible,” says Pannu.
Since the participatory grantmaking project sought to make each step of the process as inclusive and accessible as possible, Myriam Bérubé, consulting director at Tamarack, explains they had to be open to the specific needs of applicants.
“We realized that some of the things [in the application] can be a burden, and we want to make this accessible. We wanted this to be a capacity building opportunity for Peel, and so we have to wave these things,” Bérubé says.
It’s important to note, though, that the WES Mariam Assefa Fund who provided the funding for this project, does not have a limitation that many Canadian foundations face in providing direct support to grassroot organizations without charitable status. Tamarack, who distributed the grants on behalf of the Fund, strived to reflect this flexibility in their process as well.
Shifting power to community organizations is crucial to movement building
During the selection process, the people’s panel looked to understand the impact an organization’s project would have on the community.
Zari Gill, who is a part of the people’s panel, explains that the group sought out clarity in impact from the applicants’ projects. They also felt that it was important that applicants demonstrated their understanding and connection to their key demographics. In the example of Laadliyan, their ability to make an impact and their connection to the community were crystal clear to the people’s panel through their engagement with community members from current projects.
Also, making exceptions in applications and allowing grassroots community groups to have greater power can widen “our imagination to what is possible in these spaces,” says Pannu.
Bérubé adds, “you build movement as you empower people when they feel that they have a real sense of agency.”
For Laadliyan, getting this grant (the largest grant they’ve received up to date) has been a huge morale boost. Bhangu says that her team now feels like they’re a “fair player in the game” and feel validated in their capacity to do this work. “This is probably the first of many international student programs that we’re going to be working on. It’s just the beginning.”