A Date Certain: Lessons from Limited Life Foundations

Back in 2010, co-founder Ed Whitfield and I were acutely aware of the intertwining economic, social, and ecological crises unfolding around us. It struck us that if we wanted to help ensure the survival of humans and other beings on the planet, we might want to dive in wholeheartedly with all the resources of the Fund for Democratic Communities, rather than dribbling a few dollars here and there over an extended period of time. We weren’t even sure how extended a period of time humans really had to sort this stuff out. We decided to spend out all our resources over the next ten years by putting our ideas and money to work in the Southern communities in which they were most needed, at the rate that the communities could productively absorb them.

We’ve found that taking this limited life approach has sharpened our wits, hastened our willingness to understand and confront problems, and moved us to more quickly locate and develop strong relationships with great partners who will outlast us. We were helped in our thinking about sun-setting by the example of the Beldon Fund, a foundation that closed its doors in 2009, and went to the trouble of documenting why and how they did that. I hope this report, by our friends at the Center for Effective Philanthropy, further advances the field, and encourages more foundations to ask themselves whether sun-setting will help them achieve their goals more quickly and powerfully.

A Date Certain: Lessons from Limited Life Foundations

A Date Certain: Lessons from Limited Life Foundations
The limited life approach in philanthropy has received increased attention in recent years. But across foundations, perpetuity is often still seen to be the default, and there is considerable uncertainty about the practice of spending down.


To learn more about limited life foundations’ decisions to spend down — and the ways in which they grapple with several important issues along their journey to pursuing their goals in a finite period of time — CEP conducted in-depth interviews with leaders of 11 limited life foundations.


Resulting from these interviews, this report illustrates the ways in which limited life foundations approach spending down in nine key areas, including investing, grantmaking and strategy, and communications. The research shows that most leaders of limited life foundations choose to spend down because of the belief that it will lead to greater impact. And though these foundations’ leaders wrestle with a similar set of issues in their work, our interviews revealed that there is no one way to spend down.


Accompanying the report is a companion publication of case studies of three of the foundations featured in the report: the Lenfest Foundation, the S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation, and Brainerd Foundation.

Nevermind Guaranteed Income, we want the cow

I’ve spent a lot of time lately speaking against the establishment of a guaranteed minimum income as an important policy to advocate. I want to make a few things clear:

  1. I feel the current distribution of wealth is grotesquely unfair.
  2. I don’t believe that those who cannot or will not work should be allowed to starve.
  3. I would be against plans to eliminate or cut the existing welfare system as long as it is needed.
  4. I believe that we should build a community in which everyone’s needs are met.

But, even so, I oppose fighting for a guaranteed income. Let me explain why.

First I want to be clear that it is simply more widely available welfare. Second, it would only help people have more access to consumption without altering anything about how production is organized. Third, it would not alter wealth distribution and ownership. And finally, it would require a new bureaucracy staffed by agents and experts to regulate and allocate this universal distribution of money.

My objections have surprised many people, but I think they are consistent with what I do think is the solution to our economic justice problem. I favor deep democracy replacing the rule of capital in our lives. This would require reparations and the reconstruction of the commons, but this time including the earth and the fungible financial resources that have been created by our labor within exploiting systems.

According to an article in the Atlantic, (The Conservative Case for a Guaranteed Basic Income, by Noah Gordon, AUG 6, 2014) the guaranteed income proposal isn’t new.

As Frum notes, Friederich Hayek endorsed it. In 1962, the libertarian economist Milton Friedman advocated a minimum guaranteed income via a “negative income tax.” In 1967, Martin Luther King Jr. said, “The solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income.” Richard Nixon unsuccessfully tried to pass a version of Friedman’s plan a few years later, and his Democratic opponent in the 1972 presidential election, George McGovern, also suggested a guaranteed annual income.

What could possibly prompt such a wide range of supporters?

Our economy suffers from the fact that communities are not having their needs met and the quality of life equitably elevated by all. Neither the self-regulated market nor the intervention of government has been successful in doing this to the satisfaction of the many. The lack of purchasing power of working class people is a factor in the cyclical crises we face. The few who are privileged within and dominate the existing system induce others to believe that rather than oppose their domination and exploitation, we should instead struggle to emulate the rich and then all of who are worthy could be successful and take care of our responsibility to others. We are also told not to bother to understand how we got into the situation we are in, but rather forget the past and look ahead to the future.

Reparations and the cow

Those who argue the loudest for letting the past go are those who continue to benefit from the disparity. Their call to forget the past is a call to allow them to retain their unearned privilege, pretending that they deserve it.

I’m reminded of a story that I was told by Rev. Bugani Finca who was involved in South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation work. A black South African, Tabo, confronted a white man, Mr. Smith, who had disrespected him and stolen his prize cow. With the prospect of amnesty for telling the truth, the white man admitted to having done what he was accused of, recognized how horribly wrong it was and asked for forgiveness, saying that he was truly sorry. Tabo was visibly relieved for having an opportunity to confront his oppressor and get an apology. They shook hands and embraced. As Mr. Smith, stood to leave, free, with his amnesty, the black man called out to stop him. The white man turned back with a questioning look on his face, not sure why he was being stopped, Tabo, the black South African, asked him: “But what about the cow?” Mr. Smith was visibly angry: “You are ruining our Reconciliation,” he shouted, “This has nothing to do with a cow.”

That is the question we must ask to all those who say that the past is long gone but still retain ownership of the herd produced by that old cow. We won’t forgive and forget until we get the cow back. But just suppose that the Mr. Smiths in the world make a counter offer: “I’ll tell you what, why don’t I just give you a supply of butter?” “The hell,” Tabo might reply, “If you give me back my cow, I can give you butter!”

Guaranteed income is a supply of butter. More than that, it makes two assumptions, both of which I think are false: It assumes that the government can simply pay out the money without having other negative consequences for the economy as a whole, and it also assumes that there is a rational amount of money and process for its allocation that experts can figure out and apply fairly.

What I do believe to be true is that with Labor being the sole creator of value, there is no place for the money to come from but out of the social surplus, either as taxes or reduced wages. There is a political and economic price to be paid that cannot be avoided. I also have a healthy distrust for decision making by experts. Typically, in spite of their declarations and the veneer of objectivity, they are guided by the class interests of those deeply entrenched in, and benefiting from the status quo. I have never heard that there would be a deeply democratic regulatory process to work out the details of a guaranteed. . If you would like to see how hard this is to implement, look at this article by someone deeply involved in efforts to make this work about 40 years ago.

What I do think we need is reparations, the democratization of wealth, the recreation of the commons and the outlawing of theft and speculation. I think that communities must become their own developers through broadly democratic planning any democratic access to non-extractive financing. The details of how these things are done is the content of many more pieces. But the key is democracy and expanded opportunities to be productive rather than enhanced consumption. We need the cow back, not just a supply of butter.

Finally, I want to say that even though some conservative economists and politicians have found guaranteed income something that they support, there is widespread opposition and a serious political struggle would need to be mounted to attain that end. I would hate to see us squander that much of our energy, resources and time on what would objectively be a giant welfare system.

Dara Cooper, a good friend of mine ended an email to me with this quote:

We can even produce more than we need. Unfortunately, because of lack of organization, we still need to beg for food aid and has kept us thinking that we can only be beggars who need aid. We must produce more because the one who feeds you usually imposes his will upon you. -Thomas Sankara, Burkina Faso

This is why I oppose guaranteed income “…the one who feeds you usually imposes his will upon you.” We have enough of that already.

Reparations: How are We Doing it?

At the CommonBound 2016 Conference in July, I had the honor of working with Aisha Shillingsford of Intelligent Mischief on a strategy session about reparations. We had about 80 people attend and participate in a very interactive session that Aisha and I facilitated. This is the result from that session that Aisha has put together. It includes some of the materials that we shared as well as the design process that was used. As you will see, the group was divided into smaller groups that were highly engaged in proposing what became a long list of concrete steps in multi-faceted reparations activities.

We are not content with continuing to make the case for reparations nor sitting and waiting on the federal government to listen to reason and take seriously our needs and demands. While the struggle for federal acknowledgement and action should continue, we were able to talk about what we can do now, and why we need to do it. The session made use of facilitation and design processes that were helpful in drawing from the energy, knowledge and passion of the assembled group. While, this is not a final statement on reparations, I hope that it will spark further thinking and discussion as we continue to build power and work for what is needed.

We endorse the Movement for Black Lives’ Policy Platform

Vision for Black Lives Banner

The Fund for Democratic Communities is excited to endorse “A Vision for Black Lives: Policy Demands for Black Power, Freedom and Justice”.

M4BL Policy Demands
M4BL Policy Demands

As a thoughtful response to the violence against Black communities in the U.S. and globally, it is a work in progress that has already achieved a level of profundity beyond the more piecemeal lists of demands of the past.

It is a product of a collective process involving over 50 organizations representing several thousand of Black people nationally. It is transformational, recognizing the systems that are the root of the problem. It is clearly international in scope, anti-capitalist in orientation and deeply rooted in marginalized Black communities.

We applaud the energy and clarity of those involved in collaboratively articulating this vision.

Greensboro wraps up first Participatory Budgeting cycle with successful vote!

The Fund for Democratic Communities congratulates the City of Greensboro on a successful start to Participatory Budgeting!

The Fund for Democratic Communities (F4DC) is thrilled by the success of Greensboro’s first Participatory Budgeting (PB) cycle. Our city is the first in the South to launch this innovative program to directly involve residents in the annual budgeting process through a transparent democratic process.

City residents proposed 675 ideas across the city. Volunteer budget delegates worked with City staff to turn these ideas into concrete project proposals. Over the course of a two week voting period 1,123 Greensboro residents voted on projects to be carried out in their Districts.

F4DC Contributed to the first year’s PB process with a grant of $30,000. We are excited about the future of this process in our city!

Here are the percentages of voting by District:

  • District 1 – 20% of voters
  • District 2 – 27% of voters
  • District 3 – 11% of voters
  • District 4 – 29% of voters
  • District 5 – 12% of voters

PB Voting Results

The following projects are listed by Title, Estimated Cost, Votes.
For more information on the following projects, please visit http://www.ideasgreensboro.org

District 1 – Total $95,000

  • Bus Shelter at Glendale and Randleman, $11,000, 119
  • Crosswalk at Vandalia and Randleman, $20,000, 113
  • Bus Tracking Mobile Application, $18,000, 100
  • Traffic Turn Lane Randleman and Glendale, $12,000, 98
  • Updated Equipment in Woodlea Acres Park, $8,000, 90
  • Bus Shelter at Lake Field & Vandalia, $11,000, 87
  • Shade Cloth Covers at Warnersville Pool, $15,000, 84

District 2 – Total $89,000

  • Crosswalk with Pedestrian Refuge Island for Safe Crossing of Phillips Ave., $6,000, 193
  • Bus Tracking Mobile Application, $18,000, 166
  • District 2 East-West Bikeway Improvements, $18,000, 145
  • Playprint Peeler Recreation Center, $7,000, 131
  • Shade Cloth Cover at Peeler Pool, $15,000, 129
  • Shade Cloth Cover at Windsor Pool, $15,000, 127
  • Greensboro Four Dudley Alumni Mural, $10,000, 124

District 3 – Total $98,000

  • District 3 Bike Lane Improvements, $30,000, 85
  • Bus Tracking Mobile Application, $18,000, 85
  • Latham Park Emergency Call Box, $10,000, 73
  • Crosswalk Lawndale & Lake Jeanette, $10,000, 64
  • Mural Bellemeade/Greene St Parking Deck, $30,000, 54

District 4 – Total $99,000

  • Bridge Repair at Greensboro Arboretum, $20,000, 205
  • Spring Garden & Howard Pedestrian Crosswalk, $20,000, 180
  • Walker Avenue Bridge Railing, $30,000, 165
  • Bus Tracking Mobile Application, $18,000, 165
  • Walker Avenue Painted Walkway, $5,000, 146
  • Crosswalk Elam & Camden, $6,000, 129

District 5 – Total $90,000

  • Historical Welcome to Greensboro Sign, $35,000, 92
  • Hester Park Emergency Call Box, $10,000, 85
  • Bus Tracking Mobile Application, $18,000, 71
  • Playprint Trotter Recreation Center, $7,000, 65
  • Weatherproof Stone Game Table, $20,000, 62

The Next System Project at Left Forum 2015

From The Next System Project:

We are in an era when systemic critique of the economic and political institutions of the United States is poised on the edge of mainstream consciousness: the realities of a changing climate, an irrationally destructive financialized economic system, a long and steady historical trajectory concentrating political power along with wealth, and a monstrous apparatus of prisons and policing are becoming impossible to ignore. How can we consciously come together around this opportunity to offer a coherent vision of what a “next system” might look like? How can such a vision work to orient and inspire concrete actions to begin building the world we want to see?


Moderated by Keane Bhatt, The Next System Project

Blood, Bones, and Dirt

Earth, photographed by Voyager 1.

Adapted from the opening plenary speech at the Jackson US Social Forum People’s Movement Assembly on Just Transition and Economic Democracy. The image above is of Earth, photographed by Voyager 1.

This big, wet, ball of Dirt, spinning as it floats through space with the Sun shining on it was all that we had and all that we needed. At one point we all had access to it. We didn’t make it, we were born from it. Some call it Mother Earth out of respect, but we must all respect the wet warm earth as the source of all. Over the years we engaged our labor with the earth and made things to meet our needs and elevate the quality of our lives. We built shelter, made roads, planted food, developed science, developed agriculture, created tools and refined and improved them constantly. We discovered things we reflected on our lives and our needs and our communities and developed the core of information that we passed down generations at a time. We stored food and goods for later days and future generations. All that we made from our living labor, that I call Blood, is the value that living labor alone can create, and once made, it is dead labor, Bones, in service to meeting our needs and elevating the quality of life.

So that is all there is — Blood, Bones and Dirt. Living labor, dead or past labor, and nature—the earth. Once, the earth belonged to us all, but it is now “owned” by a few who exploit its resources and determine the conditions for its use. That same few “owners” appropriate all of the dead labor that they can, particularly the dead labor that is used to enhance the productivity of living labor. They own the community’s wealth that was generated by the labor of us all. That is the system that we live under. Where this ownership of the Bones and Dirt confers enormous power to a few people in the world whose interest is not in meeting needs and elevating the quality of life, but rather their interest is in increasing their degree of ownership and control; their wealth and power.

This system, where nearly everything on earth is owned by someone, means that the access and use of everything is restricted by an owner. While this may make sense for the product of our individual labor or for personal items like toothbrushes, clothes or even jewelry, it makes no sense for large expanses of land nor the technology, tools and factories for production that are needed by everyone for all of us to have opportunities to be productive. These things that were socially produced and that are needed to enhance the productivity of labor have been appropriated as the private property of the owning class. That type of ownership is neither natural, inevitable nor beneficial for the majority of people. It is the product of centuries of theft backed up by creative legal structures and outright violence. It is only by maintaining a system of coercion and violence that the majority of people can be kept away from the product of their own labor the Bones and the access to nature, the ball of Dirt that is the basis for all that we have.

The resulting system means that people who are able to be productive and can produce more than they need to consume, allowing for a social surplus that continues to enhance our lives are instead left idle and despairing. Those who are capable, ready and eager to work to provide for themselves, their families and their communities are prevented from doing so because the owners are unable to make as much profit from people working as they would like to make.

Another by-product of this system of ownership is the extraction from nature at unsustainable rates that leads to ecological devastation and the ruin of the earth’s capacity to provide for human and most other life.

The call for A Just Transition is the call to give us back our Bones. Give us back the huge pile of wealth that we have created so that we can use it to be productive, to meet our needs and the needs of our community for generations to come and live in harmony with nature. These Bones should form the framework on which we build with the materials from the earth, the Dirt, to make all that we will ever need. But instead they are used to box us in, to dominate and control our lives as even more value is extracted from our labor.

But we must also understand Power. It is the capacity to convert your dreams and aspirations into reality, to shape and control the unfolding of events. There are three aspects of power: The concentrated power of others can crush you, and it will crush you if you don’t resist it. So we build resistance struggles to survive. The concentrated power of others can possibly help you, if you direct it and advise what is needed. And so we build advocacy movements to direct concentrated power and wealth in ways it can be useful. But we don’t always have to accept the existence of concentrated power outside of us that we must Resist or Advise. We can be the power of our own lives if we build the necessary structures and institutions to meet our own needs and elevate our own lives. We can be power by Doing for Ourselves. Resistance, Advocacy and Doing for Ourselves represent three aspects of how we relate to power that can be found together in different proportions. As long as oppressive systems and concentrated power exist, we will always have to do some Resistance and Advocacy work, but we need to remember that the goal is for us to organize ourselves to be the power within our own lives and communities. We must create the world we want to live in by doing for ourselves.

When we understand that all real value is created by human labor, we have beautiful new ways to understand the world. That does not mean that everything that we find valuable is created by labor. As we have said, this big wet ball of dirt has everything that we work on with our labor to create value. Think of air and diamonds. Few people would think of buying air. We don’t need to because it is here for us to use. If we go without it for just a few minutes we will die. It is absolutely important. On the other hand, gold and diamonds can be avoided all together for your entire life. No one would die without them, (although many people have died for them). But their value lies in the large amounts of human labor that go into their discovery, retrieval and “prettification”. Gold and Diamonds will continue to be exchanged for much more than air and water, not because they are more useful, but because they are embodiments of more concentrated labor.

The whole world of money is an abstraction of, and a reflection of the world of values created by labor. Money serves to measure, store and facilitate the exchange value. Anything that can be used to do this, whether it is stamped in a piece of metal, written on a piece of paper, encoded on a magnetic strip, on a piece of plastic, or just kept as accurate accounting records in a reliable and secure place is money. The world of money enhances and reflects the world of values that are being exchanged. Finance can be thought of ais the general realm of money. At one point in time financial services developed to help people do very specific things that made sense to do. The process of trading over long distances was made easier by money, using accounting, credit and finance rather than trying to carry pineapples and mangoes to the folks who had wool and meat. Something can be bought or sold at great distance and over long time delays from where it was produced allowing people all over the world to share in the bounty and productivity of the earth without wandering all over the globe.

The rise of financialization, has however, taken these conveniences to levels of destructive absurdity. In these times people buy and sell money itself along with gambling on the possibility of unknown future events then buying and selling the speculative possibilities of the future. No one really needs a derivative, but the amount of financial activity tied up into trading abstractions that are not needed, have no use value whatsoever and are only bought and sold in order to buy and sell more of them at a later time, or take advantage of those who bet the wrong way is obscene. The collapse of the housing market connected to securitized cash flows based on mortgages which were themselves predicated on constant, never ending inflation of housing values is an example of the damage caused by financialization gone wild.

But proper financial work is an opportunity to access the Bones and Dirt needed for our labor to be fully productive. This is why we are building the Southern Reparations Loan Fund for the development of sustainable cooperative enterprises that are democratically owned and democratically controlled. This loan fund is based on three principles:

  1. It is Radically Inclusive. That means that you can’t turn down folks because of who they are. They can be Black, poor, previously incarcerated, queer, trans have bad personal cred histories and still they are qualified to access credit for building cooperative community enterprises.
  2. It seeks to Maximize Community Benefit. That means that it will not waste financial resources on projects that are not able to be sustainable and productive, but also that that it will not simply preserve the financial assets by not risking them on meaningful projects with the potential for great community benefit.
  3. It seeks to be Non-Extractive in its lending. That means that it does not seek to take more out of a community than it helps to create and puts in, nor will it take anyone’s house or their previously accumulated business and personal assets.

These three principles make the SRLF different from other loan funds, even those that claim to help folks who have little access to finance. The others will do all three of the things that SRLF will not do. They will turn you down for who you are, preserve rather than risk their assets on community benefits and take your house.

Finally I want to make a point about reparations. Forty acres and a mule was a unit of production, not a unit of consumption. It had nothing to do with the “forty acres and a Bentley” that some think is the modern equivalent. A mule could help grow its own food, feeding itself and your family. A Bentley only helps you spend more money. We think that by building this type of financial entity, we honor the spirit of those who, following their forced enslavement, called for reparations as an opportunity to be productive, as a way to be in control of their lives as producers rather than mere consumers. They asked for Bones and Dirt. We still struggle to make this a reality.

Brooklyn community crowd-funds bail money

Brooklyn Bail Fund

Criminalization of poor people is nothing new. One of the forms it takes is to assess exorbitant fees, harsh penalties and in some cases jail time for minor infractions. The blog post linked below highlights a new approach to dealing with one aspect of this problem. It’s important to note that the author of this piece brings attention to the fact that this approach is a NOT a solution to the larger systemic issue is of criminalizing poor people.

Read more here

Traveling through the Delta

Ed Whitfield recently spent a few days traveling through the Mississippi Delta. Here are some photos and reflections from that trip. The above photo was taken at Red’s Blues Club in Clarksdale MS.

A stop in Mound Bayou MS is always inspiring to me. This is the cradle of Black independent development in the USA.

Founded by former slaves, this was the first and largest Black town in the U.S. It boasted having the best health care in Mississippi. It had a successful bank, insurance company and later an agricultural cooperative that ginned it’s own cotton and treated people fairly. There was a big business in sweet potatoes too.

The fraternal group whose sign you see below grew out of a secret society which had planned to recruit an army across the country to fight to free slaves. It gave up these plans only after the civil war broke out. The hospital that it founded offered care to people from all across the state. The boarded up building in the photo is the lodge hall of the International Order of Twelve Knights and Daughters of Tabor.

Despite its small size and poor funding, Mound Bayou had – and still has – excellent schools, winning competitions against larger better funded schools across the state in music, academics, and sports. The girls just won the state basketball championship with a 31 – 0 season. The schools are being threatened with closing from consolidation efforts to increase diversity and gain more funding. This will be a great loss.

Knights & Daughters of Tabor - Mound Bayou

Knights & Daughters of Tabor - Mound Bayou

The Riverside Hotel was once a black hospital in Clarksdale Mississippi. The room I stayed in, shown below, was one of two operating rooms. I mused about how many people had died there and that is when I was told that Bessie Smith was one. She never regained consciousness after an operation in which her right arm was amputated following a severe traffic accident.

In the period since its conversion to a hotel in the 1940’s, many other notable entertainers stayed there. Now it is the temporary home for blues tourists from Europe and Japan who are seeking more authenticity than comfort. There are common toilets in the hallway, and if you get cold during the night you can knock on the wall and the host will come into your room to light the un-vented heater. But two people can stay there for $65 which includes tax.

Riverside Hotel sign

Ed at Riverside Hotel

Riverside Hotel room where Bessie Smith died

Leaving Clarksdale Mississippi this morning, the site where bluesman Robert Johnson allegedly sold his soul to the devil in exchange for musical skills, I passed the Hopson plantation. Over a thousand slaves and their share cropping descendants once worked on this plantation. The former slave owners sold the homes of black agricultural workers to the devil for a mechanical cotton picker made by International Harvester.

In 1943, newspapers from across the country came to witness the beginning of the end of blacks in cotton. From split school sessions that subordinated education to the cotton season, to being totally dispossessed from the land in little more than a generation, it was quite a transition. This picture shows the commissary at the Hopson plantation which is now converted into a blues venues with an on-site motel where visitors can stay in a remodeled, air conditioned share cropper shack.

Hopson Plantation

This morning before leaving the Mississippi Delta, even though I was running late, I had to stop by the memorial to my hero Fannie Lou Hamer in her home town of Ruleville MS. This is a bigger than life bronze that overlooks her grave site on a small park.

Ed Whitfield at the Fannie Lou Hamer Memorial Garden

Fannie Lou Hamer historical marker

Fannie Lou Hamer memorial

Fannie Lou Hamer statue

Fannie Lou Hamer tombstone