A bias-free attempt to break down barriers

For equity’s sake, UW Credit Union, United Way collaborate on trust-based philanthropy.

Jazzman Brown is a one-woman compassion show. Each month she collects and distributes donations of food, hygiene products, cleaning supplies, coats, and other critical items for people in need. She begins by collecting and stacking donated supplies in her garage, coordinates with community centers that serve as distribution sites, posts on social media requesting volunteers, and ends the process by bringing leftover donations back to her garage to await the next distribution event.

Brown’s efforts are just one example of grassroots philanthropy that is happening around Dane County to help underserved communities get the help they desperately need. She isn’t a grant writer, or an executive director for a large nonprofit with years of experience. She’s a single mom with a plan to help.

To assist Brown and other programs like hers, UW Credit Union is working with the United Way of Dane County to create the UW Credit Union Fund for Racial Equity. The $1.5 million effort will address local barriers to racial equity and provide emergency grant assistance. The fund came as welcome and surprising news to Renee Moe, president and CEO of United Way of Dane County. “I just about fell out of my chair when I found out they were going to do this,” she states.

The fund has designated $1 million for Dane County and $500,000 for the Milwaukee area for transformational programming solutions designed to increase financial stability and improve educational outcomes for Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) community members. It will support organizations addressing the areas of economic mobility, financial stability, and access to educational opportunity, and provide emergency funds for qualifying organizations that support racial equity by addressing disparities, including immediate COVID-19 relief for BIPOC communities.

A simplified application process aims to make funding more attainable, especially for smaller organizations that lack the resources to dedicate hours and valuable staff to complete an application. For small programs staffed with time-crunched volunteers, it could make all the difference. “The idea is to remove barriers and get capital directly into the hands of Black and brown community members,” Moe notes.

Sheila Milton, UW Credit Union’s vice president of diversity, equity, and inclusion, says the fund is about “investing in our neighbors in a tangible, meaningful way.” Knowing that smaller, grassroots organizations are hands-on, they are less likely to apply for grants that involve lengthy proposals or time-consuming reporting. So, the Fund for Racial Equity starts with three simple questions. First, is the proposed project designed specifically and explicitly to impact racial equity? Second, are the program beneficiaries of the proposed project BIPOC members? Finally, does the proposed project serve Dane, Milwaukee, Ozaukee, Washington, and/or Waukesha counties?

Using trust-based philanthropy, a model to address the inherent power imbalances between foundations and nonprofits, the fund aims to redistribute power to create healthier and more equitable nonprofit organizations. Practically speaking, it makes unrestricted funding easier by streamlining applications and reporting and by building relationships based on transparency.

Emergency fund applications opened in March and general fund applications will open in April. Proposals will be reviewed by a community advisory committee using rubrics — specific criteria — to determine the merit of each submission. Committee members will include UW Credit Union employees as well as community representatives from Milwaukee and Madison. According to Milton, this process aims to take inherent bias out of the process. “When you have a rubric and you have criteria to meet, that really reduces bias because there’s less discretion in the process,” she says.

Milton hopes other companies will want to be part of the effort and donate to the fund. “It’s going to take a village to address these inequities and these barriers,” she says, “and it’s going to take years.”

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