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FEX: Funding the revolution

Radical philanthropy shares power with activists

In late May, I was invited to a meeting of the Edge Fund, which is attempting to create an activist-led or -advised grant-making body in the UK, breaking down some of the inequalities that exist even in radical-minded philanthropy. The discussion was lively, and the openness of the Edge Fund to activist input was dizzying in its latitude.

Much of current UK activism depends on grants from bodies like the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust (the major donor behind the PN-initiated Rebellious Media Conference last October), the Network for Social Change (which gave a grant towards our new website), and similar bodies.

The Edge Fund is an attempt, in its early stages, to help develop a new model for sharing power and responsibility.

It turns out that there are a number of precedents for breaking down these kinds of barriers and inequalities, most strikingly in the US.

US radical and philanthropist Barbara Meyer spent many years as an organiser with the United Farm Workers Union, and then (in 1984) formed a family foundation to support rural grassroots community organising in the southeast USA.

After a decade of work, the Bert and Mary Meyer Foundation board invited 18 carefully-chosen grassroots community leaders to form a new grantmaking entity, which they would govern. The result (after four years) was the Southern Partners Fund, to which all the foundation’s capital has been transferred.

That is an example of a complete transfer of power from a capital-holder to an activist-governed group.

There are other remarkable grant-making bodies in the US that are finding new ways of sharing financial power. Many of them are part of the Funding Exchange, a US activist-advised social change funding network, which began with six radical foundations in the early 1970s: Bread and Roses Community Fund, Haymarket People’s Fund, Liberty Hill Foundation, McKenzie River Gathering Foundation, North Star Fund, and Vanguard Public Foundation. Together, they formed the Funding Exchange (FEX) in 1979; FEX now has 16 local member funds as well as a national-level fund, altogether giving away $15 million a year.

Building at the grassroots

In a recent article in Responsive Philanthropy, FEX head Barbara Heisler set out some of the innovations that FEX members have pioneered. In terms of values, the different funds generally seek to support groups committed to systemic change.

She gave as an illustration of the values of the network the criteria of Haymarket People’s Fund, operating in Boston since 1974. Haymarket People’s Fund focuses on groups engaged in grassroots organising or providing resources for grassroots organising. Groups must:

• Have a clear strategy aimed at an equitable distribution of wealth and power.
• Build strong leadership from the group’s constituency, representative of and accountable to the organization’s membership.
• Engage in an ongoing effort to develop new leadership.
• Commit to building the organization and involving previously uninvolved people.
• Demonstrate organizational capacity to successfully raise funds, manage funds, and carry out plans.
• Manage an organizing campaign or project with specific goals.

All FEX funds want to establish that potential grantees are accountable to their communities, going beyond tokenism. This includes asking if the group’s members or constituency are the ones making all the important decisions and if the group’s leadership is from the community.

At Haymarket, prospective grantees are interviewed together, ‘as it is believed to be beneficial for multiple groups from an area, or those doing the same organising work, to have an opportunity to come together’. The Haymarket Funding Panel says grantees have sometimes asked for some of their grant to go to another organisation in support of shared work.

Making grants in Open Space

In 2010, the Wisconsin Community Fund, which has been going since 1970, changed its decision-making process. The fund had experienced a long power struggle between members of its board and activists on its grant allocation committee. The logjam, which had led to resignations, was broken when they moved to Open Space Technology.

An Open Space meeting is one that has a theme rather than a pre-set agenda. Individuals speak up with their particular concerns or proposals, and others cluster around them. The agenda is created on the spot as sheets of paper are written on and stuck on the wall. Different parts of the room become focused on different topics. (One person can only be involved in one group at a time.)

Some in the Wisconsin fund (WCF) were concerned that people from marginalised constituencies might not have the confidence to take the lead in these kinds of self-organising groups, and efforts were made to address power imbalances.

Now WCF community grant-making events begin with a theme, rather than an agenda, with the following questions:

• What are you passionate about in creating social justice and strong equitable communities in Wisconsin?
• What are you willing to take responsibility for?
• What other community assets and opportunities do you have, and how could you share them?
• How should we allocate our dollars?

In April 2010 WCF piloted its Community Grantmaking event with a group of 23 board members, staff, donors, potential grantees and activists. In one day, these participants created grant proposals on the spot, raised an additional $3,000 in response to a matching challenge from a major donor during the day, and decided on grant allocations totalling $10,000. Two-thirds of the participants in the room were activists and each group walked away with a grant.

On a wall was a ‘Community Asset Bank’ poster, on which individuals and groups could list expertise or services that they were willing to share. These nonfinancial items helped groups save money that might normally come from WCF grants.

Open Space Technology has helped with building solidarity, accountability and transparency and reducing competition among grantees. Involving donors more directly allowed new perspectives and experiences into the process, and increased both giving and engagement.

When we look at the way that banks and mainstream financial institutions have brought ruin, it’s clear we desperately need to find ways to bring about financial and economic democracy.

It remains to be seen what will come of the Edge Fund here in the UK, but it promises to be a fascinating experiment.

Milan Rai is a PN co-editor.