The Problem We’re Trying to Solve

Since late last year, F4DC has been working with individuals and organizations from across North Carolina to frame a different approach to economic development action plan. Over the last 9 months or so, we been thinking, planning and organizing with cooperative business stalwart Frank Adams, workers in NC cooperative businesses, and leaders from a range of economic development groups (the NC Community Development Initiative, Ownership Appalachia, Good Work, the NC Association of Community Development Corporations, and others). Out of these conversations has emerged a vision of a statewide initiative and a set of principles that might guide the work of such an initiative.

On Monday, August 29th, this work stepped up a level, when 54 cooperators, lenders, funders, economic development leaders, and other supporters convened in Durham, at the offices of the Self-Help Credit Union. Titled “Building and Strengthening North Carolina’s Grassroots Economy,” the day-long meeting framed the problem of our stuck economy in a new light and then started to map out a set of solutions based in the idea of nurturing community based enterprises that pay a living wage and are rooted in place, green, and sustainable. Lots of great conversations took place across the meeting, and a consensus started to emerge around the need for a coordinated statewide effort.

Marnie and Ed opened the meeting with remarks that gave some context to the day’s work. Marnie tried to define “The problem we’re trying to solve,” and Ed outlined possible solutions in the vein of Mondragon’s worker owned cooperatives and other place-based business models. In preparing his remarks, Ed ended up writing a much longer speech than was needed at the meeting, but which we think provides a useful metaphor for understanding the relationship between communities and their economies, called “Fish, Pies, the Commons and Economic Development.”

Remarks made by Marnie Thompson of the Fund for Democratic Communities at the “Building and Strengthening North Carolina’s Grassroots Economy” meeting held August 29, 2011 at the offices of the Self-Help Credit Union in Durham, NC


The Problem We’re Trying to Solve

North Carolina is facing a huge set of challenges right now. I think everyone in this room is well aware of the lousy state of our economy—the front page of the paper is screaming it most mornings. So you don’t need me to recite a bunch of job loss statistics to prove it to you.

A lot of people frame the economic problems we’re facing as the result of a recession caused by a burst housing bubble, plus a need to increase our global competitiveness. I want us to resist that framing, however, and look at the full complexity of what we’re up against. Because if we don’t understand the problem for what it really is, any solutions we generate are going to be short-term at best and wasteful of the limited time and resources we have to work with.

So let’s try to get our minds around the complexity of what we’re facing. This economic downturn is 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 economic framework that has driven the world toward the greatest wealth inequality ever experienced by humanity.

Yes, we’re suffering through a recession that officially started in 2008. But in truth, our State has been on this path for at least 30 years, competing in an absurd global Race to the Bottom. Our political, business, and social leaders thought they were doing the right thing by pushing a particular kind of competitiveness that would bring jobs to the state: based in low wages, an eager but unorganized work force, relaxed environmental standards, and low taxes.

A few corporations decided to settle here for a while because of these so-called “advantages,” but in any given week, you’re just as likely to read a news story about a company leaving as a company coming, and that’s been true for years: since the mid-90’s, North Carolina has lost more than 400,000 manufacturing jobs. As the Race to the Bottom accelerates, there is always some other town, state, or country willing to sell its land, labor, and quality of life for even less.

No matter how well-intentioned this approach to economic development was, its effect has been to strip wealth from our communities. The result is that North Carolina families and communities entered the recession terribly weakened; even before the recession, the proportion of workers earning less than a living wage had been rising steadily for a decade. Then the recession came and kicked the stuffing out of us.

Declining real wages and job loss are economic statistics that capture one part of the story. Another equally scary story is what is happening to our state’s democratic institutions. When people are unemployed—or scared they might lose their jobs— they become fearful and despondent. Too fearful and hopeless to participate in the life of the community, not to mention more easily manipulated by polarizing rhetoric. This makes it possible for a few powerful voices to dominate political and social discourse.

Worse, this polarization and erosion of democracy is happening at a time when devastated communities need all hands on deck, working together to solve the difficult problems we face. If we want our communities to survive and rebuild in this time of loss and change, we’re going to need the intelligence and caring and hard work of just about everyone.

Sadly, the “old” economy, the one we’re living in now, frequently works to lock people out of opportunities to be productive, beginning with an education system that focuses more on preparing young people to be consumers than to play productive roles. Our political and economic systems, even in the best of times, require structural unemployment, and at all times reward business owners who maximize profits via mass layoffs as they export jobs to cheaper labor markets around the world. The lockout even occurs in the literal sense, driven by the school-to-prison pipeline, which is in turn fed by the for-profit prison industry. To top it off, people are denied access to productive activities through the spoiling or privatization of community resources that are necessary for productivity, like access to clean air and water, broadcast airwaves, and so on.

I am arguing that the old economic approach isn’t working anymore. I am arguing that we need a whole new approach that can create hundreds of thousands of good-paying jobs across the state, particularly in the poorest and most marginalized communities, while simultaneously protecting our environment.

There is some evidence from around the world and closer to home that we can dig out of the hole we’re in if we nurture a new kind of economy that is deliberately built to be more democratic, more just, more economically and environmentally sustainable, and more rooted in particular places.

My colleague at the Fund for Democratic Communities, Ed Whitfield, is going to describe what this might look like and how we might get there.

Developing our socially responsible investment policy

Wise Investments (Design: PJ)
Wise Investments (Design: PJ Chmiel)
Design: PJ Chmiel

From a social justice “purist” standpoint, there is only one stance toward investing in stocks and bonds and other capitalist instruments: don’t do it. That approach might appeal to folks who like to claim that they haven’t sullied themselves with capitalism, though I don’t think it’s an honest claim. It’s just not possible to live in the United States and stand free of the economic system in which we all live. Have a job? Buy food? Pay rent or a mortgage? Sell stuff to make your living? These activities are not intrinsically capitalist, but the ways these activities work here and now in the United States tie them into the larger capitalist economic system. That’s one of the features of capitalism—it’s constantly growing and to feed itself, it sucks in ever more of what used to be held by individuals or families or held in the commons. So good luck standing clear of it.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m an anti-capitalist, and F4DC operates from an anti-capitalist stance. We think humans can—and must, for our very survival—do better than capitalism. That’s why we’re part of a growing movement focused on developing a new kind of economy to replace capitalism: one where people and planet come before profits. Where the rewards of productivity go to the people who do the work. Where communities are enriched, not stripped, by businesses that are rooted in place. An economy built on the principles of cooperation, sustainability and solidarity, not competition, short-term gains and exploitation. We’d like to see this new economy become real in our lifetimes, so we’re devoting a good deal of time and other resources to various economic development efforts.

One part of this work is to recognize the importance of solidarity, so even if it were possible for some of us to stand completely clear of capitalism, I wouldn’t generally want to be the first to opt out—unless, working with others, I found something that was inspiring, scalable and replicable. Some kind of economic base that was available to significant numbers of people, across all kinds of communities. This is in contrast to a more individualistic effort to personally avoid being tainted by capitalism’s ugly features. That individual approach just doesn’t have much effect on many people’s lives in a system as big and durable as this one.

The other thing that’s relevant here is our history: F4DC came into being through a loving bequest from my dad (see that story here). Our financial resources originate in a wide range of investments Hayden Thompson made in companies and ventures, all of which were thoroughly situated in capitalism. So we’re in it up to our eyeballs anyway.

F4DC wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for this history and this money. Without it, Ed and I would have figured out some other way to work on grassroots democracy, ending capitalism, and all the other projects that are inspired by our mission. But right now, we have the daily dilemma of what to do with this money. Everyday we wonder, “Is it possible to use money to build grassroots democracy that makes communities better places to live?” We think we’re figuring out some ways to do that. That means we are very serious about stewarding this money so that it makes all the difference it can make.

All this is to say that we plan to strategically invest F4DC’s financial resources into the stock market and other garden-variety capitalist investment instruments. That means investments in corporations for the most part. We’re doing it because we’re looking for some kind of return that allows us to extend our financial reach with grants and support for social and economic justice organizing.

Since we’re investing in this dicey capitalist enterprise, we have to develop some kind of relationship to it. And that’s why we have an investment policy. We’re not delusional—we don’t think that any investment policy can protect us from the embarrassments and horrors of capitalism. Let’s face it: corporate capitalism invents new embarrassments and horrors all the time, in its pursuit of profit over people and the planet. But we can stand next to our investment decisions with more integrity if we try to be honest about what our bottom line is.

This is our first crack at an investment policy; we expect it to evolve over time. But here it is as of March 14, 2011, on the eve of making our first foray into the world of investing.

  • We’re not purists, but try to avoid the most embarrassing investments:
    • No to companies that are primarily identified with tobacco, defense industries, liquor.
    • Areas to be careful in: mega-banks and financial hocus pocus firms (e.g., most hedge funds).
  • We’re interested in exploring the use of our resources for shareholder activism in support of progressive causes.
  • We should support cool stuff whenever we can. We’re especially interested in:
    • Green energy generation and conservation;
    • More participatory forms of financial services
  • We should take the time to personally review the initial list of proposed investments, to ensure that at least at the start, we aren’t investing in something that is the target of social justice action that we are actively supporting. For example, we are active supporters of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee’s efforts to get Reynolds America to negotiate with farmworkers about working conditions. Chase Manhattan Bank is also being targeted as part of that action (see So we wouldn’t want to invest in either Reynolds or Chase.

Grants: Helping local nonprofits strengthen grassroots fundraising

In July we announced our new matching grants program, which provides one-to-one matching for dollars raised through grassroots fundraising. The program was slow to catch on at first, but now things are getting interesting. By the end of the year, we expect to make matching grants to nine North Carolina groups, totaling roughly $40,000. Groups from Raleigh, Durham, Asheville, and Greensboro have taken us up on our challenge to build their sustainability and relevance by consciously expanding their fundraising among a broader base of people in the communities in which they work.

Along the way, we’ve learned that the art and science of grassroots fundraising has in many ways been lost, and needs to be redeveloped. To that end, we’ve been holding occasional mini-courses on grassroots fundraising and doing lots of one-on-one consulting.

The Interactive Resource Center (the IRC) and Faith Action International House are two local groups we’re proud to support in this way. The IRC assists people who are homeless, recently homeless, or facing homelessness reconnect with their own lives and with the community at large. Faith Action is all about building a united community of many cultures – engaging native-born Americans, immigrants, and refugees in learning, service, and advocacy for human rights, justice, and equality. What’s interesting about both these groups is the growing role played by the people they serve in getting the work of the organization done and in planning next steps.

Faith Action and the IRC are each working to raise as much money as they can before the year is out. And for each group, we’ve promised to match up to $10,000 of their smaller donations. With the incentive of our matching grants, we’re hoping lots of new supporters surface.

After this batch of grassroots dollars gets raised, the next challenge to Faith Action and the IRC will be to figure out meaningful ways to connect their new-found supporters into the larger missions of their organizations. That’s how you build an organization that’s here for the long haul.

Marnie’s Remarks at the North Carolina Center for Nonprofits Annual Conference

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.

Mid-Year Update on F4DC’s Finances

Like the rest of the world, F4DC has been affected by the global recession—we just don’t have as much cash coming through as we used to, and we’re not able to predict very well what our cash flow is going to be like from this year to next.

“Why’s that?” you may ask. It’s because our financial resources come from the estate of my father (who died in January 2007), and the recession is making it very hard for the estate to “settle.” As I said in an earlier blog post:

It’s because of the kinds of investments that my Dad made, which were mostly not in the stock market or other publicly traded instruments. He mostly invested in privately arranged loans to commercial real estate developers, start-ups of companies making medical devices, that kind of thing. We can’t get the money in these kinds of investments “on command.” We have to wait till the loan agreements become “liquid,” or pay off in the form of cash. And then we have to wait a little while longer while the estate settles this aspect of its business and pays off its various beneficiaries, of which F4DC is one.

One effect of the global recession is to slow that whole liquidation process down even more. So, we’re getting by on smaller and somewhat unpredictable distributions from the estate.

With the downturn and uncertainty—in fact because of the downturn and uncertainty—we’ve made efforts to cut way back on our overhead so that we can put more of our available resources into the community, through grants (see the news about our new Matching Grants Program) and special projects. (See Ed’s blog posts about the Southern Grassroots Economy Project, which has the potential to build a healthier, sustainable economy over the long run.)

You can see how some of these changes are playing out in two financial documents you can download: Our June 30, 2010 Balance Sheet (pdf) and January – June 2010 Income and Expense report (pdf). The balance sheet shows that we have about $375,000 in the bank: not quite where we thought we’d be three years out from the founding of F4DC, but enough to make a difference in reaching our mission.

In the Income and Expense report, you can see that we’ve had about $145,000 in income in 2010. We’ve been advised that this is basically it for the year, unless one or more of the private equity investments makes a surprise move toward liquidity.

Our biggest expense category so far this year is personnel, but this isn’t going to be ongoing. This big number was incurred at the start of the year and reflects the severance payouts we made to our staff as we bid them farewell.

Now, I’m pleased to say that our biggest ongoing expense category is grants and awards—and it’s about to take off substantially with the new Matching Grants Program. And the work we’re doing to contribute to the development of the Solidarity Economy in the Southeast is going to be showing up in our travel and meeting expenses. Keep following Ed’s blog posts to see how this evolves: we’ll be meeting, convening, and spreading the learning of folks who are actively building productive, collaborative, democratic, community-based enterprises.

F4DC’s 2009 990-PF form

For an organization that talks a lot about transparency, it’s been a while since we’ve updated the financial information on our website. F4DC’s been through a big transition in the last year. We’ve moved from being a staffed organization with an office to an all-volunteer organization working out of our homes and coffee shops. It’s taken some time, but we are officially caught up!

You can now download our 2009 990-PF form for review. The 990-PF is kind of like a foundation’s tax return. It’s the official report we make to the US Treasury every year, in which we talk about how much money we have and what we did with it. All non-profits file a 990, and foundations (a special kind of non-profit) file the 990-PF. If you ever want to check out a non-profit’s funding sources and expenditures, ask to see their most recent 990’s (or 990-PF’s).

Fall 2008 Update on F4DC’s Money

These days, it seems rare to get timely information, especially about money matters, from agencies and organizations. Yet, at F4DC, we think that transparency – the practice of proactively sharing detailed and accurate information with the public – is a key hallmark of authentic democracy. If the community doesn’t have ready access to solid, understandable information, we can’t be sure whether our institutions are living up to their billing, can’t hold them to account in any real way. Nor can the public engage in informed debate and decision-making about the value of those institutions to the community or the direction we’d like them to go in.

In an effort to practice what we preach, this webpage is the place where we talk turkey about money. Here’s the latest scoop on F4DC’s money – how much we have, where it came from, and where it’s being spent.

You can see on our Balance Sheet and our Statement of Financial Income and Expense that as of October 31st. we had received only a small portion of the money that will ultimately come from the estate of W.H. Thompson (my Dad). This year, we received $354,000 from Dad’s estate, out of a total that we expect will amount to roughly $5 million (though this figure is hard to pin down, given the state of the economy these days!).

“Why is it taking so long?” you might ask. It’s because of the kinds of investments that my Dad made, which were mostly not in the stock market or other publicly traded instruments. He mostly invested in privately arranged loans to commercial real estate developers, start-ups of companies making medical devices, that kind of thing. We can’t get the money in these kinds of investments “on command.” We have to wait till the loan agreements become “liquid,” or pay off in the form of cash. And then we have to wait a little while longer while the estate settles this aspect of its business and pays off its various beneficiaries, of which F4DC is one.

It’s going to take a number of years for the estate to be made liquid and settle, and it’s going to happen in stages. With the economy in the condition it is in, it’s hard to know how long this will take, but we estimate about 5-7 years, with a good portion of it coming in the next 1-3 years.

Of the $354,000 we have received so far from the estate, we spent about $135,000 this year, making grants and just running our basic operations. You can see where we spent it on the Statement of Financial Income and Expense. The biggest expenses are for paying our four staff members, the next is grants, and the next is operating expenses (supplies, printing, etc.).

What isn’t on these statements (but will appear on the one we put up at the end of the year) is $30,000 more in grants made in November the list of new grantees!

You can also see on the Balance Sheet that we have purchased almost $25,000 in computer equipment, software, furniture, and other equipment. This stuff constitutes our so-called “fixed assets,” and we’ll be using it to get our work done for many years.

The money we haven’t spent yet (about $240,000 as of October 31st) is currently sitting in a money market account, earning a little bit of interest. We need to have relatively easy access to this money to cover our expenses and grants in the coming months, which is why it is not being given away or invested in longer-term kinds of things.

As F4DC gains access to more of the money in my Dad’s estate, we – F4DC’s Finance Committee and Board – will be struggling with whether and what kinds of investments to make. Here’s a key question:

Is it possible to earn a little income on the money, while also feeling like the money is being used to improve the quality of life on this planet?

We’ll keep you posted about the thinking of the Finance Committee and Board as we struggle through this hard question.

In the meantime, what do you think about the way we are spending and investing our money so far? Let us know at!

Marnie Thompson
November 13, 2008

My dad, the money, and me

About 14 months ago, I quit my more-than-full-time job as an educational researcher. The theory was to lead a life that involves less work and more play. Less than two months later, that change was followed by another big change: In January 2007, my dad, W. Hayden Thompson, of Cleveland, Ohio, died at the age of 79.

I was lucky to have been able to arrange my life even before I quit my job to have work-related reasons to be in Cleveland on a regular basis (a project in the Cleveland Municipal School District). So, I got to spend more than usual amounts of time with Dad and Mom, my brothers, and sister in the three years before Dad died. This was enormously gratifying and certainly cuts the sting of losing him.

Nevertheless, Dad’s death was, and is, a big deal to me. A lot of people my age are going through this right now — losing our parents. It’s a big deal even if it’s expected.

Now, besides being my dad, W. Hayden Thompson was a wealthy man. When I was very young, I didn’t understand this, but as I grew older, I came to see that our family had lots more money than most families.

Long before my dad died (15-20 years earlier), I began processing what it meant to be the daughter of a very rich man. The more I thought about it, the more I thought three things:

  1. The day I lost my dad, I did not want to also have to deal with another huge change in my own life – I did not want his death to forever be associated with a huge influx of money. Because inheriting a lot of money does exactly that to the person who inherits it at a time when they should probably be feeling and thinking lots of other things, more human-focused things.
  2. Though I believe my dad was a very good, very smart man, I did not share his appreciation for capitalism and the accumulation of wealth in the hands of a small number of people. While he worked very hard almost every day of his life, I knew many other people who worked as hard and who were as smart, but did not experience the same results – largely by virtue of where they were born in US society. “Wrong” skin color, “wrong” school, “wrong” neighborhood, “wrong” class, sometimes “wrong” gender. The wealth that my dad had accumulated was not only a product of his work and brilliance, it was leveraged off of the wealth, education, and connections that he inherited by being born into the “right” family in the “right” neighborhood and attending the “right” schools.
  3. I certainly don’t need a lot of money to lead a happy, engaged, productive life. True, too little money is definitely a problem. But I have many times had the distinct experience of life being richer and more meaningful when I have NOT had access to an excess of resources, and I was forced to figure things out in ways that relied on a mix of my wits and character as well as the depth, density, and diversity of my friendships. I have seen in my own life and in the lives of others that the “perks” of being rich often come with costs — isolation, insecurity about why your friends really like you, fear of someone taking your stuff, obliviousness about how the world really works, and so on. My partner Stephen and I, like most US-ers, use too great a share of this world’s resources to support our “way of life,” and in no way do we need even more! In other words, we do just fine on what we can earn going to work like most folks. We can even do just fine working a little less if we decide to live a little differently.

Through this line of thinking I came to a pretty early conclusion that if my dad willed me an inheritance, I would give it back — not to his estate, but rather to the wider world from which it had come. I knew of some other people who had made and acted on similar decisions, and that was helpful. But in most places I talked about this, it was viewed, at best, as pretty weird or irresponsible, and at worst disrespectful of my dad. “A slap in the face of your father’s hard work and generosity” was one sentiment I heard.

As far back as the late 80s or early 90s, I started talking with my dad about my idea, not because I wanted to (in fact, I mostly dreaded these conversations), but because I thought staying silent was chicken, in its own way disrespectful, and a barrier to any hope of closeness between him and me.

I broached it whenever he made mention of my inheritance, which he would do in concrete terms every few years. I’d be visiting in Cleveland, and he’d ask me to come down to his office. He’d push a piece of paper across his desk at me with a 7-digit figure on it — my “share” of what his estate was worth at the time. This number always felt very abstract, disconnected from whatever struggles or interests or passions I had for myself or my family. The number would vary a bit from occasion to occasion, in an upward direction.

I was uncomfortable telling him my intentions, and I am sure I was not articulate. The most difficult thing was that I was afraid he’d hear my decision as a critique of how he lived, and what he did to “make” the money. In truth, I thought and continue to think very highly of my dad as a moral person, but yes, this difference between us about what extreme wealth means, where it comes from, and what money is good for sure felt personal. How could it not have?

He was not pleased to hear my decision, and sometimes would put some effort into talking me out of it. “This is not just about you, think about your daughter ” was one argument, along with “You never know what kind of medical or financial crisis might befall you, and you can’t count on the government or anyone else to look after you.” Also, “Why do you always have to be so weird?” Sometimes he would just kind of sigh.

I suspect he occasionally thought about cutting me out of the will, or setting up some kind of trust I couldn’t touch. I went along year to year trying not to instigate any “extra” conversations about this topic, but fulfilling my periodic obligation to tell him I was sticking with my decision. It got easier over time as I became grateful for the chance to show him a little bit of who I really am and what I believe in.

A year after my dad’s death, I am only beginning to feel how far he and I were able to come, and understand the gift he gave me, when he decided to trust my thinking about this.

About three years ago, I was visiting in Cleveland, sitting in the kitchen with my dad. Out of the blue he said, “You’re serious, aren’t you? You’re really going to give your inheritance away.” I answered Yes, I was more committed than ever. He then said, “Well, I have been thinking about this, and here is what we are going to do. I am not going to pay estate taxes on money that is going to be given away.” (In fact, he might have said “death taxes,” which would be just like his fiscal Republican self.) “So we’ll set up my estate document so that your share will be treated as a charitable contribution. You should think about setting up some kind of foundation or something.”

So that’s what we did, and that’s what I have been working on since he died: Establishing the Fund for Democratic Communities (or f4dc, as we have come to call it). More about that in a bit, because there is more to this story of me, my dad, and the money. As a further sign of his decision to trust my thinking, my dad went on to amend his estate document so that the value of the estate taxes that didn’t have to be paid on what became known in the trust as “Martha’s Charitable Share” was added to my “regular” share. All this amounts to about $5 million.

I cry weekly or more often about this amazing sign of trust between my dad and me. I don’t want to paint my dad as a shallow, materialistic person — he was not, he was much more complicated. But you gotta understand what this pile of money meant to my dad — in many ways he saw it as his life’s work. And to trust me with it, with my outlandish ideas about money and sharing, when he knew it would be used to do things he could hardly understand, was an incredible gift, especially coming at the end of his life.

So almost every day I stand in very close proximity to my dad, as I go about the business of putting his money back into the control of regular folks. I have him in my heart and mind in a way I seldom have since the time I was a little kid. And for that I am really grateful.

I am also grateful that he set things up like this, so that on the day he died, and in the hard days that followed immediately after, I was not distracted or confused by the money. I did not have to spare a moment’s thought to what I might want or need to do with that money — because it wasn’t mine, and never had been.

Sure, I have more than a few thoughts about what f4dc should do with the money. And I voice them regularly in conversation with Stephen and my life-long community activist friend and colleague Ed Whitfield. Ed’s the first person I called when I got home from the trip in which Dad laid out his plan for “Martha’s Charitable Share.” We’ve been raising hell together for years, especially in the realm of public education, and I knew he was the partner I wanted in this venture.

Ed and I spent 2007 getting the legal identity for f4dc established, laying out our thinking in some founding documents, and most importantly, gathering a powerful group of 14 activists, artists, gardeners, musicians, labor leaders, librarians, teachers, writers — hell raisers all — to form our Board. Oh yes, and a psychometrician – that’d be Stephen – every board needs a psychometrician! Six of our board members are under 30, one of the aspects of this work I am most proud of.

It’s in this company that the decisions about what to do with the money get dealt with. I am one voice among many vibrant voices, each of which is committed to authentic grassroots democracy as a fundamental basis for any kind of decent life.

You can read all about these ideas and these amazing people at our website — You can also read about the launch of our first grant cycle. We don’t have much money yet from the estate, and besides, we are just learning about what this money is good for inside of a democratically focused movement. So we’re giving away $20,000 this spring, and we’ll be practicing how to make collective decisions about it. We’re new to this big time philanthropy thing, and frankly a little suspicious of it. So we’re starting small to see what we can learn.

Plus, it isn’t just money on offer from f4dc — it’s also technical assistance for new groups struggling with how to get organized and how to move forward. And, a thing that really excites me personally, we’re going to be teaching regular folks who are interested lots of research skills so they can set the questions and do the research that answers those questions themselves. And then use that research, that new knowledge, to make the case/push the cause/understand the next steps/persuade/figure out the next question.

Two Saturdays ago, more than 50 people showed up at our office at the HIVE (a collective community space in Greensboro that nurtures cool groups, ideas, and people) to learn about the possibilities. We expected, oh, about a dozen. All kinds of people, young and old, lots of colors (in fact mostly people of color), with lots of good ideas (okay, a few off-the-wall ideas too). Ideas about how they want to work with their neighbors or co-workers or fellow students to turn this crazy unsustainable system into something more beautiful, caring, fair, and sustainable.

Ed was brilliant in his explication of what we mean by authentic democracy. I was pretty good too – talking about what you can do with $500, $1,000, $2,000, or $3,000 – when you join it with people talking/thinking/doing together. The other founding board members were brilliant as well, taking questions, finding room for more people when the room looked too full, and on and on.

The best part had to be when we went all around the room, and people stood up one at a time to say what community they were connected with and what they wanted to do. And again and again, something beautiful would happen: from across the room someone would yell, “I’ll help you with that!” or “Can I work with you?” or “I know how to do that, I’ll teach you.” This was so unbelievably hopeful to me, to all of us. The meeting “ended” at 11:30, and at 12:30 I had to go — there will still 15 people in the HIVE getting to know one another, exchanging ideas.

And the whole time, I kept thinking, “Whew, Dad, what do you think??? Look what we did!”