How EMC Chooses Grantees

A conversation with Jessica Bowers, EMC’s Portfolio Director

This week, several EMC staff, board members and supporters who are traveling together in Tanzania visited the site of our newest grant to the Foundation for African Medicine and Education. Whenever we announce a new grant, people wonder, “How did you choose that project?” Our grant portfolio offers an assortment of projects that tackle maternal health through a variety of approaches. We combine a little science, a little art, and a lot of research. Every Mother Counts’ Portfolio Director, Jessica Bowers, explains the process.

EMC: Jessica, now that EMC is five years old how has the grant selection process evolved?

Jessica: We did a lot of collective thinking in 2014 on what we want our grant portfolio to look like and we’ve become more strategic. We’re not trying to tackle every barrier to maternal health in every country. By focusing on training and education, transportation and supplies in a handful of countries we’re zeroing in on projects that are having a measurable impact and that really make sense for us as an education and outreach organization.

EMC: How do you decide which projects are appropriate to receive an EMC grant?

Jessica: Sometimes a grantee just falls in our laps, but more often, it starts with lots of research. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach. What works in one country doesn’t necessarily work in another. We spend time getting to know what are the country needs on the ground and what other groups are working on in that country. In general, we try to focus on smaller groups that are flying more under the radar.

EMC: Why smaller groups?

Jessica: Smaller groups are often more nimble and with our investment, we can help them take their work to the next level or we can help fill a meaningful gap. It can be hard, though, to find smaller, local or national NGO’s (non-governmental organizations) doing the kind of work we do because civil society isn’t generally as strong in the developing countries we work in as it is in the US. We also can’t just write a check to a government, even though we want to work in alignment with their policies and approaches. That’s why research is so important.

EMC: What kind of research?

Jessica: It’s pretty detailed. We’re too small to have a presence in every country we’re in, but we take our responsibility and accountability to our supporters very seriously. We talk to groups’ references, and do our due diligence, looking at detailed financials to make sure they’re financially sound with diversified funding sources. We look for groups that are working at the community level and employing a large percentage of locals and nationals, and employ them in leadership positions. We don’t want groups that are just doing short-term projects. We want to make sure a group is in it for the long haul building long-term community assets. It’s the old adage, teach a woman to fish… We’ve found that smaller community level groups are usually embedded in the communities where they’re located. They’re meeting people where they are. They’re culturally appropriate, respectful of differences, and understand the community. We support projects that are proven and actively delivering known solutions and working towards one or more of our focus areas (education, transportation or supplies). And they’re having a significant and measurable impact on peoples’ lives, which is the most critical component.

EMC: What happens once you’ve found an interesting project?

Jessica: Once we’ve identified a potential grantee, I talk it over with our team and if we are all excited about a potential collaboration I request a proposal. We have a less formal grant proposal process than many organizations. Ours is a personalized, collaborative approach of hand picking grantees. We have a discussion-based project development process where I work side-by-side with prospective grantees to develop a proposal. We figure out which parts we’re each responsible for. Who’s funding what? Who are the people who will be impacted? Where’s the money going exactly? There are a lot of back and forth discussions and a lot of follow-up questions. But through all these conversations, we’re building relationships and developing true partnerships and that’s essential. We need groups that will be responsive. We’re pretty involved. We do a lot of storytelling and periodically we’ll visit. It’s a balance of letting them do their work but also getting what we need.

EMC: Do you always visit grantees in person?

Jessica: Yes, someone on the team visits before we make the commitment to fund. We also typically visit afterward and that’s when the relationship really takes off. We stay in touch with them regularly through stories and have a lot of correspondence over email and Skype.

Are you excited about the new FAME grant?

Definitely, especially since we’re in Tanzania and visiting FAME this week. I’ll come back with stories to share and I’m pretty sure our partners and supporters will be as thrilled with this project as we are.

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