Opening the door to greater opportunity

Two years in, the leader of the Open Door Grants program has sage advice for those applying by the upcoming February 1 deadline

November 19, 2018

Next month, the Boston Foundation will announce the first winners of Year 3 of the Open Door Grants program. So far, 183 grants totaling $4.2 million have been made - a number that will grow in December when the next group of winners will be announced. Lauren Vincent of The Giving Common, a Boston Foundation initiative, caught up with Nonprofit Effectiveness Program Officer and Open Door Grants coordinator Stephanie Guidry for a Q and A on the program and things nonprofits should know as we move closer to the February 1, 2019 deadline for the next round of applications.

This post was originally shared in the Giving Common nonprofit newsletter.

Giving Common: What was the inspiration behind the Open Door Grants program?

Kerry Thompson, ED of ODG grantee 'Silent Rhythms'
Kerry Thompson (right) of Open Door grantee Silent Rhythms, has been featured in the Boston Globe and on ABC News in 2018 for her program, which works to expand inclusion for people with disabilities in the arts. (Boston Globe/Matthew J. Lee photo)
Read the Boston Globe story

Stephanie: In 2009, the Boston Foundation undertook a strategic planning process, which launched the five Impact Areas and two crosscutting strategies―allowing us to dedicate significant grant-making resources toward a specific set of issues that we are uniquely positioned to address. However, this narrowed our range of grantee partners.

In 2014, we revisited the strategic planning process, which involved gathering feedback directly from the nonprofit community. While the Foundation determined that we had made the right choice to home in on those impact areas, it was incumbent upon us, especially as a community foundation, to remain responsive to a wide range of community needs and partners. So in 2014, we launched an open strategic grant-making program that could be a responsive funding vehicle for organizations that fell outside of our five Impact Areas and two Crosscutting Strategies. And that’s how Open Door Grants was born.

What have the most successful Open Door Grant applications had in common?

Stephanie: That’s a really difficult question, because Open Door Grants support a diverse array of organizations – all of whom are doing distinct kinds of work, in many different communities in Greater Boston.

The first thing I’d say is an application needs to have a strong articulation of the issue or opportunity that the organization or program is trying to address, and a good explanation of the historical or systemic factors that make the work necessary. We are especially interested in opportunities to fund work that’s been historically excluded from institutional philanthropy.

Another quality that really strong applications have in common is having a very clear and true commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion across the organization―in the way they approach both their programming and their operations. We’re interested in supporting organizations that are addressing racial inequity and systems of oppression that have impacted―and continue to impact―the work that they’re doing.

In tandem with that, we’re looking for diverse and strong leadership―on both the board and staff, with an emphasis on leaders who have lived experiences reflective of communities they’re partnering with.

Other things include having a solid plan in place for the organization (if applying for general operating support) or for the program (for project support), and how you’re going to implement your work over the coming year. We don’t really have one universal standard for how applicants evaluate and measure their work―we more want to see that folks are collecting and using metrics that are meaningful to them, and that they’re incorporating lessons learned into their programming over time.

I also want to emphasize that Open Door Grants is a predominantly one-year program. People can apply for a second year of support, but only a very small percentage of those re-applicants receive a second year of funding. So―though I shudder a little at the word sustainability, because I think it is often unhelpfully overused in the funding world―organizations do need to include some idea of how they plan to address fundraising for that work in the future.

What advice do you have for organizations that are considering applying for the February 1 deadline?

Stephanie: Start early. It’s much easier for us to answer questions if you connect with us early on. Make sure to read the guidelines and FAQs, and even log in to the application now and take a quick look at the questions so you can plan ahead. Based on what applicants have told us in the past, the whole application takes between five and 12 hours to complete.

If you’re unsure about applying, I would definitely recommend coming to an info session in December or January. Info sessions are an informal opportunity to chat more with our staff, live and in person, about what the process looks like ahead of the February 1 deadline. Our staff is also here if you have questions, and we have a dedicated email hotline:

Interested applicants should also know that it’s a very competitive process. We receive about 450 applications per year, and in the past only about 15–20% of applicants have received a grant. Organizations can apply for anywhere from $10,000 to $50,000. The average grant request tends to be around $40,000, and the average award tends to be around $25,000―so we sometimes do provide partial funding.

Does the Foundation prefer to provide project funding over general operating support?

Stephanie: One thing that came up when I was recently on a meet-the-funder panel is the sense that people don’t actually believe that we support general operating support. Right now, we do provide more project support than operating support, but that is mainly because we receive about twice as many project support applications. We truly invite people to apply for either.

Another thing that I want to clarify is that we are genuinely interested in funding the true costs of a program. I think there’s a lot of really unhelpful rhetoric out there about overhead. People and systems run programs, so it’s very important for organizations to ask for the support they need.

Can you talk about what the review process looks like?

Stephanie: Each application is considered by a team of reviewers, made up of Boston Foundation staff, who use a rubric to evaluate the proposal. We’ve made the rubric criteria available online because we want to be transparent and let applicants know what we are considering as we evaluate their applications. In some cases, if a member of the review team has questions, they will reach out to an applicant via email or phone call, or sometimes a site visit.

From there, applications that score well on the rubric and are strong are then discussed by the review team, and based on that conversation, the recommendations for funding are made to TBF’s Board of Directors for consideration and approval.

After the grant, we offer all applicants the opportunity to reach out to someone on our team for feedback on the strengths of their applications and opportunities to improve.

What happens after an organization is awarded an Open Door Grant?

Stephanie: We try to make the reporting process commensurate with the amount of funding that’s available. These are small to midsize grants for a lot of organizations, so we don’t want folks to be spending tons and tons of their valuable time doing quarterly reports.

We send people a pre- and post-survey that identifies grant goals and asks grantees about what they learned and the impact they’ve seen. We also recognize that this is an opportunity for us as a Foundation to learn, so we always ask that organizations share with us what they’re seeing in their community. For example, we ask grantees about trends, issues or opportunities that we might otherwise be unaware of.

Both during and after the grant, we’re here to be a resource. We always invite grantees to share information with us, invite us to their events, or ask us to connect them with someone―any opportunity to provide support beyond the grant.

We do offer the opportunity for denied applicants to provide us with feedback as well. And we have used what we have learned to improve the grant program and application over the past two years.

Are there any specific kinds of organizations that should definitely apply for an Open Door Grant?

Stephanie: We do have some funds in our grant-making budget specific to people with disabilities and older adults―I would encourage organizations who are working with one of those populations to apply for funding.

What else do you want people to know about Open Door Grants?

Stephanie: We’re so proud of the strong work that we’ve been able to support over the past two years and are going to support in the coming year. Our grantee lists are online, so it’s a great opportunity to learn more about what’s been funded previously.

I’d also like to thank all of our grantees and applicants for their work to apply. We recognize that staff time is valuable and feel privileged to learn about the really amazing work that’s happening in our region.

Information sessions for those interested in applying for Open Door Grants by the February 1 deadline have been announced, beginning December 7. Sign up for one and learn more about the program on the Open Door Grants page of