Women's Way offers 'immediate action' on emergency funds

Rev. Michelle Anne Simmons is the CEO of Why Not Prosper, a nonprofit in Philadelphia that provides transitional housing for formerly incarcerated women. She was desperate when the heater broke in one of their housing locations and ten women were left in the cold Philly winter in early 2019.

“It was freezing cold in there,” says Simmons. “We had to get the girls out of there, get the heat on and get a new furnace and we have no money for no heater.”

Then she remembered the Immediate Response Action Fund (IRAF) created by Women’s Way, a non-profit organization that advocates for the advancement of rights and opportunities for women and girls. Simmons has worked with Women’s Way before and stayed on their mailing list. She remembers first hearing of the program in one of their emails that the grant will provide up to $10,000 in funding for addressing urgent and unanticipated needs of organizations or programs that primarily serve women and girls within 10 days. She filled out the application and received the full amount on day five. She had such a good experience with the program that when the exterior side and rear wall at another one of their housing facilities cracked the next year, she applied for the funding again and received the full amount in less than 10 days.

“Usually applications take 60 to 90 days. That’s just a long long time,” says Simmons. “I’m so grateful for the leadership over here to even think of a process project like that, to have emergency funds for us nonprofit leaders for stuff that we don’t have enough budget for, that we don’t plan out for.”

Since 2017, IRAF has provided $343,365 to 40 different non-profit organizations in the Philadelphia area. The money has served over 20,000 women and girls, according to an August 2021 report.

The inspiration for the program came from a funding request from Take Action Philly, a legal aid initiative, to host an information session for lawyers about what they could do in response to the travel ban issued by the Trump Administration in 2017. Women’s Way was able to approve the funds in 72 hours. Over 500 lawyers were able to attend the session and 250 lawyers were trained to do pro bono legal services for immigrants and refugees. From that experience, Women’s Way realized the need for an emergency fund, especially with the ever-changing political climate at that time.

“We needed a grant-making program that was agile and responsive,” says Jessica Muslin, associate director at Women’s Way. “The typical twice a year, spring, fall grant cycles wasn’t going to cut it because we really had no idea what legislation was going to be passed and how we’d be able to respond to emergent emergency needs.”

The grant accepts applications on a rolling basis throughout the year. To make the grant more equitable to smaller nonprofits who don’t have grant writers on staff, the application itself only contains six questions. Simmons was able to finish the application within two hours.

“[Other grants] could take up to ten hours depending on how many questions they accept. Some funders got a whole bunch of questions and they’d be really strategic and they want a logic model, they want outcomes and measurables. They sometimes ask you to go way, way deeper,” says Simmons.

Vu Le, a nonprofit leader and blogger of Nonprofit AF (officially short for Nonprofit And Fearless), echoes Simmons’ experience. He notes that many nonprofits have to do time-wasting things like translating the organization’s budget into a format that the funder requires. A short application like the IRAF could be very beneficial to smaller organizations.

After receiving the application, Muslin will make sure all the materials they need are submitted.

“This is something that’s also somewhat unique in the funding world. If an application is missing something, say a project or an organization budget, I actually reply back to the applicant and ask them for additional information. A lot of funders out there might not take the time to do that,” says Muslin.

To make the process faster, Women’s Way created a dedicated committee and staff to review the applications. At least five members of the committee will review the application and submit their evaluation for the staff to make their input. The committee will make the final decision considering the recommendation from the staff. The whole process takes less than ten days.

Women’s Way is the only organization in the Philadelphia area to respond to funding requests at this pace. According to Muslin, other organizations have provided fast emergency funding during Covid but those opportunities are no longer available. To her knowledge, Women’s Way is the only organization still operating an emergency fund now, due to the capacity constraints of organizations.

“Providing rapid response funding, especially with such a quick turnaround of ten days is fairly labor-intensive,” says Muslin.

She added that accepting applications on a rolling basis means the organization sometimes gets several requests in the same time period and that can be taxing on staff and review committees.

Aside from the fast reviewing process, the Women’s Way is also prioritizing organizations that address issues disproportionately impacting low-income and vulnerable women and girls, and communities of color. Le notes that this kind of emphasis on equity is what’s lacking in many grant funding processes.

“They need to ensure that funding is going to the communities that are most affected by systemic injustice,” says Le.

Women’s Way will soon start another program with a similar fast reviewing process to IRAF’s. The program will provide multi-year general operating funds to smaller organizations with annual budgets under $500,000.

“What we were hearing from the community was that instead of programmatic funding, like funding a specific issue or a specific program, what they really needed was general operating funding and multi-year funding,” said Muslin.

From Next City