Micro Grants. Major Support.

A microgrant program from Verity Credit Union lifts up local nonprofits and other organizations.

“We’re here to empower communities to dream boldly.”

That might sound like an audacious goal, but it’s one Verity Credit Union ($857.0M, Seattle, WA) takes seriously. The Evergreen State cooperative offers competitive rates on traditional lending and deposit products and works to ensure all members have equal access to the resources they need. But it also offers a slew of programs that support the development of generational wealth.

One of those is its microgrant program. Verity has sponsored that since 2017 in an effort to support organizations that have limited access to traditional funding, which includes nonprofits without 501(c)(3) status as well as organizations that are small or just starting up.

For just $2,500 for each of five winners — which the credit union distributes bi-annually and doubled to $5,000 in 2023 — Verity supports the growth and success of individuals and groups that have limited access to financial support and resources.

Here, Rebecca Hunter, community relations coordinator for Verity Credit Union, talks about the history, successes, and potential future of the microgrant program.

Why did Verity decide to sponsor a microgrant program?

Rebecca Hunter, Community Relations Coordinator, Verity Credit Union

Rebecca Hunter: When we looked at what the community really needed, we found many smaller organizations run by volunteers that don’t have 501(c)(3) status. These folks are representative of their communities but don’t have the funding. So, we restructured our microgrant program to directly support those already doing work with which we’re aligned, specifically to address generational wealth inequality, hunger, and systemic issues within our region.

We can’t necessarily be the boots on the ground, but we can identify those folks and ask what they need. In the spring of 2021, we rolled out a fully reformed application that reduces the power imbalance between funders and recipients. Our new CEO, Tonita Webb, has refocused our organization toward historically underserved and underbanked communities, so we also expanded our footprint to reach the greater Seattle area.

Showing up as her true self helped Tonita Webb navigate her first foray into the corner office as CEO of Seattle’s Verity Credit Union. Read more in “CEO Onboarding: Tonita Webb, Verity Credit Union” on CreditUnions.com.

What does the credit union hope to achieve with its microgrant program?

RH: We would like to use this program as a gateway to build deeper partnerships with the organizations. There are so many incredible organizations in our region doing valuable work. At Verity, we want to work on co-creation and operationalize equity to develop new products and services.

We can’t represent everyone in the community by ourselves. Working with these smaller organizations helps ensure everyone’s voice is heard and that historically underbanked communities have a seat at the table.

How do you fund the grants?

RH: We budget a certain dollar amount each year through our community impact department and have a specific GL from which we issue our grants. Additionally, we were recently certified as a Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI), so we hope to use CDFI grant funds in the future to expand the program or develop a separate foundation. However, for now, it’s all internal.

Talk about how the program works.

RH: The first step is applying in whatever form is most accessible to the applicant to reduce the burden on the organization. We’ll accept applications in-person at a branch, via email, and regular snail mail. Occasionally, we have phone interviews for those who lack access to technology. We’re hoping to create an online application as well.

CU QUICK FACTS

Verity Credit Union
DATA AS OF 03.31.23

HQ: CITY, XX
ASSETS: $857.0
MEMBERS: 39,880
BRANCHES: 8
EMPLOYEES: 171
NET WORTH RATIO: 8.6%
ROA: 0.39%

The application has two primary questions as well as an optional survey for demographics. We also ask for the basic details regarding the name, size, and number of employees. There are no narrative or budget requirements — we trust the organizations to use the funds however will be most beneficial. There is a real need for unrestricted funding because many grants don’t cover staff, utilities, or other necessary expenses like travel or vehicle maintenance.

We want to directly support underserved communities — especially black- and indigenous-led organizations — and those that operate in certain counties where our locations and members reside. We have a rubric we use to ensure the organization is aligned with the credit union’s core values and mission, and we use the rubric to narrow down the pool to 10 to 15 applications. From there, we have a committee made up of various stakeholders from within Verity. I guide the discussions and chair the committee. We share the application packets with the committee to evaluate individually before we meet to discuss our final thoughts and determine the final five recipients.

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How has the program grown?

RH: The program has grown exponentially since we re-launched it as unrestricted and broadened it to include non 501(c)(3) organizations. Prior to 2021, we only received three to five applications per cycle, and they were usually folks we already knew. In spring 2021, we received 15. In fall 2021, we received 50 applications. Our latest round was up to 115 applications, which tells us there is a need in this region for this type of funding.

We anticipate receiving at least as many in the following cycle, which is driving our need to invest in an online application to make it easier and potentially establish a donor-advised fund to move philanthropic giving under the thoughtful leadership of another established foundation to handle the back-end application processing and ease capacity issues.

What does the future of the program hold?

RH: The program is a lot of work and having an automated process would be helpful; however, we want to make sure we’re not pushing folks into an AI meat grinder and seeing what pops out. I try to be intentional and thoughtful as I go through applications and look through websites to narrow it down. It becomes very close in the end, which is why we want to expand the program. It would be amazing if we could give more microgrants at various levels or offer ongoing, multi-year support. Smaller organizations don’t always have the flexibility to budget into the future because they can’t guarantee funding.

Any parting words of wisdom or advice?

RH: Early in my career, I worked with small nonprofits and came tearing into this position with good intentions but without always taking the time to consult with other grant makers. Being able to learn from what others have done before is so valuable and helps us ensure our applications are compliant and easy to understand.

You can end up unintentionally doing more harm than good sometimes if you rush in without collaborating with community partners or being open to feedback. Even as recently as the last cycle, I realized I wasn’t explaining a section in a way everyone understood. It’s a living program, so we should constantly re-evaluate and refine it.

What Do Grant Recipients Say?

“I heard about the program through a business accelerator program I was involved with, and it was very easy to apply. We’re coming up to our end-of-year Junteenth celebration and plan to use the $2,500 toward that event, which recognizes the work young people are doing around identity, social awareness, and activism.”
— Theresa Hardy, Brave Young People

“We were an April 2023 microgrant recipient. The funding will go toward our intensive training program, which transforms the lives of refugees and immigrants by providing pathways to sustainable employment in the food industry. In addition, we provide catering and free meals to low-income individuals. On average, we prepare 350 meals a week and hope to re-open our café this summer.” — Van Nguyen, Executive Director, Project Feast

July 31, 2023

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