F4DC was founded in 2007 by two life-long activists and hell-raisers, Ed Whitfield and Marnie Thompson. For 20 years, we’d worked together in numerous volunteer capacities (in other words, we were street activists) on a wide range of issues (education, war resistance, housing, ending racism, challenging extractive economies). In all the work we did, whether it was local, statewide, or national, we saw something missing — people just hadn’t had enough experience with the actual application of democracy, and because of that, many worthy initiatives sputtered and failed. That’s why, when we had a chance at launching a small private foundation, we quickly decided to put nurturing authentic grassroots democracy at its center.

Starting a foundation was a bit of an experiment for us. We’d never had access to much more funding than what we could pull out of our own pockets or get by passing the hat at a meeting. We’d both deliberately steered clear of what some have called the “non-profit industrial complex,” because we’d sometimes seen “non-profitization” take the heart out of people’s insistence on justice. Plus, there was something about going to work at a “regular” job everyday that kept us both connected to the way most people live.

But, in the mid-2000’s, Marnie was offered the chance to start a foundation, using proceeds from her father’s estate. Marnie got the offer from her father while he was still alive, in 2005; you can read about how that came to pass here. She asked Ed if he’d be willing to join her in the experiment, and he said yes. So, when Marnie’s Dad died in 2007, the two of us got to work on creating the legal entity of F4DC, and began recruiting a rather sizable number of our activist friends to serve as F4DC’s first Board, which began meeting in late summer 2007.

To put it mildly, that first run at F4DC didn’t go well. By Fall 2009, the Board had voted itself out of existence. So it was back to the drawing board: we spent the rest of 2009 and a good deal of 2010 rethinking our focus and methods. It was during this period of reflection and redesign that we decided to sunset within 10 years, consciously ending by the end of 2020. For more on that thinking, you can go here.

As we reconsidered, we stayed true to our commitment to authentic democracy, and invented a new form of grantmaking that we thought was more consistent with that emphasis: grassroots fundraising matching grants, which reward groups for building their capacity for self-support. This approach emphasizes a style of grassroots 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. Since 2010, we’ve made hundreds of these grants, and we believe the participating groups are stronger not for having taken F4DC’s grant funds, but for having entered into an accountable relationship with a wider group of their constituents.

As 2010 unfolded and we continued the redesign of F4DC, an economic crisis gripped the globe. Maybe that helped us to come to our strong focus on economic democracy. (It’s also true that we’d both been interested in more sustainable economic models all our lives.) So, while Marnie recovered from a bonehead accident throughout much of 2010, Ed visited Mondragon’s amazing cooperatives in the Basque region of Spain, and spent the spring, summer, and fall driving all over the South talking with folks at Highlander, the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, and other communities where people had taken the leap from “fighting the bad” to “building the new.”

In the face of economic crisis and ecological collapse due to climate change, people showed a real appetite for building the kinds of communities they wanted and needed for long term survival and sustainability. These conversations and emerging relationships became the seeds for later F4DC projects like the Southern Grassroots Economies Project (launched in 2011 with Highlander and the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, among others) and the Southern Reparations Loan Fund (launched in 2015, as an outgrowth of the Southern Grassroots Economies Project).

By summer 2011, we’d gotten so busy on F4DC 2.0’s program, that we knew we needed help. So we began building up our staff, hiring local activists whom we’d met in the course of doing local work. We deepened our connections with these folks and others in an informal weekly conversation, called Demochat, which we sponsored at various locales around town.

In the fall of 2011, like much of the U.S., we were caught up in our local Occupy Movement, where we got to meet and engage with a number of inspiring emerging leaders, largely focused on our local foreclosure crisis, which mimicked the national foreclosure meltdown. F4DC staff and friends were writers, actors, directors, and videographers of an Occupy-inspired, locally produced film called Let’s Lose Our House! The premiere attracted 1,000 people to the Carolina Theatre — many seeking help with their own housing problems — and the Rachel Maddow show to Greensboro. With other Occupy Greensboro folks, we launched a year-long participatory research project attempting to document the ins and outs of foreclosure in our county, but we misjudged the amount of time needed to complete it. Alas, cases of datafiles on 2011 Guilford County foreclosures sit partially entered into a database, with only limited analysis completed. 

In 2011 we also began working with people across Greensboro in an effort to bring Participatory Budgeting to our city. It took more than a few years, but Greensboro became the first Southern city to allocate part of its general operating budget through a PB process in 2016. We were hopeful that the experience of setting a portion of our City’s budget through direct democracy would not only lead to smart community development decisions, but also spur new, democratically-minded leaders. At $500,000 every other budget year (out of an annual budget 1,000 times that), PB has now become a small and more-or-less routine part of the City’s budgeting process. It remains to be seen if it will be taken on by the people to become a truly meaningful, power-building form of civic expression.

In 2011 and 2012, F4DC hosted gatherings, workshops, and film screenings about building a more just, democratic, sustainable economy, through worker and community ownership. With others in the Southern Grassroots Economy Project, we launched CoopEcon, an almost annual training and networking event at the Federation of Southern Cooperatives’ Research and Training center in Epes, Alabama. We knew there was insufficient technical assistance for cooperative business development in Greensboro, so we started the process of getting ourselves trained and certified by Cooperation Works, a national group that promotes cooperative development.

Locally, we were looking for ways to put what we’d learned into action, and offered our services to community leaders in Northeast Greensboro, who’d been working for years to attract a grocery store to replace a Winn-Dixie that had closed down in 1998, leaving that community with no close-at-hand grocery store. This began our now seven-year partnership to build what has become the Renaissance Community Cooperative grocery store, or RCC. It took five years of community organizing, political struggle, business planning, and fundraising, but it all came together in the fall of 2016, when the store opened its doors to the public. With more than 1,300 owners and sixteen workers, the RCC is now serving the neighborhood. The RCC is 100% owned and controlled by its community—one household-one share-one vote—so it will never pick up and leave seeking a higher return on investment elsewhere. This video from 2013 shows some of the motivations in the community for doing all the work to bring the store to life.

Non-extractive financing from the Southern Reparations Loan Fund (SRLF) played a critical role in making it all possible. SRLF came into existence in parallel with the RCC; in a way, the two projects needed each other. The more we understood about the financing needs of this community-owned enterprise, the more we saw the need for a finance vehicle that was well and truly anchored in the values driving the grocery store project. And as SRLF started to take shape under the leadership of folks from the Southern Grassroots Economies Project, the practical business development experience we were gaining in the RCC project provided a much-needed grounding in business pragmatics that kept SRLF from spinning off into idealistic abstraction.

The RCC is just one example of the tens of thousands of community owned and worker owned enterprises that are essential to building a new economy that is more democratic, just, and sustainable. SRLF was able to step in and make a difference because it, too, is part of something bigger – a national effort to solve a serious dilemma called Seed Commons: A Community Wealth Cooperative (formerly known as The Financial Cooperative).

Simply, communities recovering from extraction require finance capital to start and grow community and worker owned enterprises that meet people’s needs. It’s critical that the way we make capital available not reproduce the extractive economy. Seed Commons, originally a project of our grantee and partner The Working World and now coming into its own, is a solution to that dilemma. It’s a decentralized national infrastructure for cooperative lending and non-extractive finance that makes finance capital available to communities that need it most, at terms that strengthen the businesses and their communities. SRLF is one of 20+ member loan funds of Seed Commons, where we all benefit from the shared services, learning, and capital we can leverage by working together. In Fall 2018, Yes Magazine published an article describing Seed Commons, under its earlier name, the Financial Cooperative.

In our efforts to co-develop Seed Commons, we spend a fair amount of time trying to organize trustees and staff in other progressive foundations. We’re supporting them to use their positions in their organizations to make field-building grants and investments in this new approach to building a new values-driven, community-based financial commons. Folks from aligned foundations and movement groups came together in 2016 to form a kind of “support group” for these efforts that we call Shake the Foundations. It’s an informal network comprised of our friends at RSF Social Finance, The Whitman Institute, Libra Foundation, Chorus Foundation, Common Counsel Foundation, EDGE Funders Alliance, Movement Generation, Grassroots Global Justice, Climate Justice Alliance, and The Working World. Plus F4DC, of course. Shake is trying to help all its funder members “walk the walk,” so we can be more effective in teaching this approach to others in philanthropy.