How RTOERO Foundation is helping address social isolation at the local level

Supporting local programming

Transforming the RTOERO Foundation funding process
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When Mike Prentice, executive director of the RTOERO Foundation, hung up a call with the director of an arts program for older adults last year, he knew the foundation was on the right track. 

The director had wanted to apply for a foundation grant through the social-isolation funding stream to expand her successful community program but wasn’t eligible. A key sticking point was the need for ethics approval. As the head of a grassroots community organization, ethics approval wasn’t something she could quickly obtain. It meant creating a partnership with a post-secondary institution — a step that wasn’t part of her strategic plan. (Clinical or behavioural studies that involve humans require ethics review and approval. The purpose of approval is to make sure research meets federal ethical requirements and protects study participants.)

Prentice understood why focusing on local needs was important. A recent foundation-funded report by the National Institute on Ageing called Understanding Social Isolation and Loneliness Among Older Canadians and How to Address It recommended that the foundation build the collective capacity of organizations to address social isolation and loneliness and improve overall service delivery to speak to the geographic variation in the needs of communities.

Prentice was already working on modifying the grant process so ethics would be required only if the organization applying required it themselves — for example, for academic research. The conversation further confirmed the need for the change: How could the foundation fund innovative programs, as stated in their mission, if organizations weren’t able to apply?

“We realized we didn’t need to impose that layer of complexity onto every organization looking for a grant,” Prentice explains.

Last fall, the foundation ran its first grant cycle without ethics approval as a mandatory requirement. Loosening requirements for ethics approval was one of a handful of changes to the granting program designed to make the process more open, inclusive and efficient. Prentice spent two years learning the current system and talking to everyone involved. Together, they identified critical pain points.

“Our granting process is time well spent, it’s the core of what we do, but we knew we could make it more efficient and effective to allow us to accept more proposals,” says Prentice. “Too often, organizations develop their project around the funder’s time line and rules; we wanted to remove that so as much as possible the projects aren’t driven by us, but by the need.”

There isn’t a template solution for loneliness because communities are so different, and now more regionally based, grassroots programs will be eligible for foundation funding. Plus, the foundation will be in an excellent position to gather the results from the various programs it supports and amplify them, sharing learning and ideas that may benefit other communities — helping to build that collective capacity.

The granting program’s focus over the next five years is on innovative programs and action research to improve seniors’ health care, build social engagement and combat ageism. And thanks to the changes to the process, the foundation can now handle more proposals and expects better-quality proposals.

Four key changes to how the RTOERO Foundation gives out grants

Technology partnership to streamline the process

Prentice and his team negotiated a multi-year corporate partnership with SmartSimple, a technology company that offers a cloud-based grant-management solution. Moving the process online means all applications will come in following the standard format. There’s no need for staff to save and email multiple documents for review and scoring. Everything is in one place, making it quicker and easier for grant applicants, reviewers and staff.

Standard application fields and word counts

The online tool makes it easier to standardize the application and even set word counts, a simple change that makes the process clearer and more equitable for applicants. The standardized format, paired with an updated scoring rubric, is expected to improve the review process and was a change driven by feedback from the peer review committee.

Increased funding cycles

The foundation will no longer separate funding streams into two different grant periods. Instead, applicants can select a focus area of geriatrics research, seniors’ health and wellness, or social engagement. The first year of implementation will be a chance to evaluate the feasibility of increasing to two funding cycles per year.

Removal of ethics review as a mandatory requirement

The foundation will continue to fund research, as it’s always done, and encourages proposals for research funding, which will require an ethics review. By no longer making that a mandatory requirement, funding can be made available to new groups, including grassroots and community-based organizations that aren’t necessarily affiliated with a post-secondary institution.

To see all past grants and read more about the process, visit the foundation’s website: rtoero.ca/rtoero-foundation.

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