The 2010 Annual Conference of the North Carolina Center for Nonprofits was recently held in Raleigh. I was asked to serve on a panel called Foundations and Operating Nonprofits Working Together in a New Reality, to contribute information about F4DC’s approach to various aspects of our grantmaking, given the current economic crisis. Below are the remarks I made in response to two questions I was provided in advance of the event. (Believe me, I don’t speak this coherently off-the-cuff!) I tried to fit in as much as I could within the five minutes I was allotted.
How does our work with nonprofits differ from more mainstream foundations?
Ed and I sort of stumbled into starting a foundation because of the opportunity and responsibility that came from my family circumstances. I don’t think if you’d asked us five years ago what we’d be doing in 2010, either of us would have said, “leading a foundation.” We, and the people we work with most closely, are primarily anchored in the world of social justice activism, not philanthropy. To tell you the truth, we’re kind of suspicious about philanthropy as a social change mechanism, and we wonder a lot about the utility of money in transforming society. So one way I think we’re different is that we bring into all our relationships with nonprofits a whole bunch of questions about our role, as well as their roles.
Have we changed any of our grantmaking strategies because of the economic crisis?
Yes, the economic crisis has led us to change our approach to grantmaking in significant ways.
First, the primary source of F4DC’s funds is my father’s estate. The economic downturn has slowed down the liquidation of that estate, and that’s hurt our cash flow. Like all nonprofits, we’ve confronted some hard decisions. We ultimately decided that in the face of economic hardship, our greatest obligation was to move as much money as we could into the community, in the form of grants. To accomplish that, we cut our overhead drastically. We laid off our staff and experimented with being an all-volunteer organization. After eight months, we realized that wasn’t a sustainable way to operate, so now we’re operating with two part-timers. We’ve dropped from three full-time-equivalents to one full-time equivalent. We also closed our office and now work out of our homes, coffee shops, and the public library (a bastion of grassroots democracy!). These changes have allowed us to move up our grantmaking from $50 to $60,000/year to $100,000 this year. We hope to give away closer to $200,000 next year.
Second, we launched a matching grants program that is intended to do two things: 1) leverage every dollar we grant for greater impact, and 2) encourage grassroots groups to build their capacity for self-support. Basically, for projects and organizations that align with our mission, we’ll match dollars raised through grassroots fundraising. Were emphasizing a style of fundraising that was prevalent in the Civil Rights Movement, before there was foundation or major donor money available to that movement. The idea is to focus fundraising right in the communities most affected, because these are the folks that have the greatest stake and know-how in solving their own problems. We’re talking pass-the-hat and spaghetti dinners. Phone ten allies and ask them to each commit ten dollars. Never hold an event or a gathering where you don’t make “the ask,” and make sure that ask is compelling. These approaches consciously build a group’s base of support and strengthen stakeholders’ level of commitment, building an insurance policy against the day that foundation monies are no longer available.
Third, we see this economic downturn as just one of several deeply disruptive, linked changes that may well portend a level of environmental, economic, and social collapse that will radically alter how we live in the not-too-distant future. Whether we want to change or not, big changes are coming—some of them are here already—due to the intersection of global climate change, peak oil, and the non-sustainable nature of a global, corporate capitalism that has driven the world toward the greatest wealth inequality ever experienced by humanity. This combo sounds scary, because it is. Almost too scary to handle. So what to do?
F4DC’s response to this scary scenario is two-fold. First, we’re more committed than ever to our mission of nurturing grassroots democracy. We’re convening folks to think about what it means to be a citizen in a society that aspires to democracy—surely it is more than voting and paying taxes! And we’re helping the groups we work with to think through what democratic dialogue, decision-making, and action looks like. Being intentional about democracy at the grassroots level prepares communities for collective problem-solving, which is needed as rapid changes descend upon us.
We humans have the capacity to react to scary changes with fear and greed-based responses. We also have the capacity to react with cooperative, reasoned responses. Democracy feeds the latter.
The other thing we’re doing in the face of possible social collapse is exploring ways to nurture sustainable economic development based on cooperative economic models, like those used so successfully in the Basque region of Spain. There, worker-owned coops constitute fully 60% of the employment and have weathered the Spanish economic crisis far better than traditional corporate models.
Closer to home, one of our recent grantees, the North Carolina Housing Coalition, is launching a program of cooperative land ownership for families living in mobile home communities. We’re also partnering with Project South in Atlanta and Highlander Research and Education Center in New Market, Tennessee on an effort we call the Southern Grassroots Economies Project.
We’re looking for ways to nurture what some have called the “Solidarity Economy,” all across the Southeast. Through education, networking, and policy changes, we’re hoping to expand cooperative ventures in housing, manufacturing, farming, and health care. Our emphasis is on the producer side, not so much on the consumer side, because as the old economy collapses and jobs get scarce, people are often denied ways to be productive. Think of all the hardworking students who graduate, and then are unable to find jobs. Think of all the people my age who are experiencing years of unemployment despite looking daily for work. Think of the growing number of prisons, where we warehouse more people every year, particularly men and people of color, locked away from any chance of being useful to themselves, their families, or communities.
People long to be productive, to be useful—it seems to be part of our human makeup. So let’s start to build a new economy where that urge to create, to make, to be part of the solution, is taken as the premise. That’s what the Southern Grassroots Economies Project is all about.