Trust the People, No Strings Attached

It would be easy to believe that most grantmaking is complex, even to believe it should be complex.

Read the philanthropy news sources. Funders are praised for their wall-sized strategy maps, multi-year evaluation projects, and drive for scientific evidence and stellar nonprofit performance. Attend nonprofit and fundraising conferences. Multi-step application processes, long application reviews, and confounding funder decisions dominate the stories in the halls.

Guess what. Strategy does not have to result in complexity.

This summer, a few stories described funders with a less complex strategy:  trusting individuals and small organizations with small grants, no (or very few) strings attached.

Informal awesomeness

The New York Times and Huffington Post highlighted two of the Awesome Foundation’s chapters. This network of giving circles provides $1,000 grants to “forward the interest of awesome in the universe.” The network and most chapters are unincorporated and unstaffed. Depending on the chapter, the online application is 3-6 simple questions and there’s no formal reporting process for grant winners. Grants go to a mix of individuals, unincorporated groups, social enterprises, nonprofits, and more. Local chapters often connect grantees to other resources and promote their work through social media and events.

I’ll admit to being partial to this network. I was a founding donor-trustee of Awesome Pittsburgh and now am a donor-trustee of Awesome Boulder. I admire the network’s ability to find and support, as a donor-trustee in one article put it, people with a “passionate sense of place and a desire to tackle problems, fix inequities, and highlight beauty.” Another donor-trustee said,

“We’re rogues giving to rogues. It’s misfit money for the weird and wonderful.”

Admittedly, not all funded ideas come to fruition and many are small, quirky projects. But, a few projects each year grow to attract other funders and a few grantees draw national and even international attention to a community. One recent example was Pittsburgh’s Smallest Jazz Club, a bus stop augmented with pictures of the local jazz scene, jazz music playing on speakers, and pop-up performances by local jazz musicians. News outlets, bloggers, and social media stories from as far away as Brazil and Germany praised about the project.

Investing in social change leaders

Ariel Nessel, a Dallas-based real estate developer, put his own mark on “trust the people” philanthropy. He founded the Pollination Project to award a $1,000 startup grant each day to “individual change makers and projects that promote compassion around the world.”

Like the Awesome Foundation chapters, the Pollination Project finds ideas and people below the radar of other funders. It has a bit more formal online application and reporting process than the Awesome Foundation. To manage its international reach, it uses a network of former grantees and volunteers to seek out social change-makers and make grant decisions. Nessel recently told the Chronicle of Philanthropy that executive director Alissa Hauser advocated for:

“..democratizing giving and pushing power to the edges, to people who normally don’t have access to capital, and having them help decide who gets money.”

The Pollination Project is a public charity attracts donations ranging from a few dollars to a $50,000 grant from a family foundation. In addition, Nessel has a regular column in the Huffington Post to showcase the grantees.

The International Development Exchange (IDEX) adds longer-term capacity building to “trust the people, no strings attached” grantmaking. One of the younger trustees of the Roy A. Hunt Foundation, my former employer, introduced me to IDEX and its savvy executive director, Rajasvini Bhansali. IDEX supports projects and small organizations founded by grassroots leaders in Africa, South Asia, and Latin America. Bhansali said in a recent article, IDEX, and the Tyranny of the Experts,

“Most of our partners don’t have the machinery to write fancy grant proposals. It’s our role to go and find them.”

IDEX funds grantees for three to ten years, provides them with training programs, and helps them crate alliances to solve local and national problems. It often sticks with them when things go wrong or when they’re out of favor with international aid organizations.

Bhansali and her team are purposely, to coin a term, philanthropically bilingual. They understand and respect the messy, personal work of IDEX’s grantees. And they can talk in-depth about measurable results and theories of change with funders and donors.

Challenging our assumptions

These organizations’ grantmaking styles aren’t for everyone. The Awesome Foundation’s approach often draws quizzical or bemused looks from the staff of large foundations and even community foundations. Those staff members often underestimate the power of supporting passionate, committed citizens. Or, they believe that added layers of complexity will shield them from risk and failure.

Admittedly, not all grantmaking can be this simple or close to the people. There can be legitimate reasons for more complex applications and review processes. However, those complexities can shut out organizations led by volunteers or by a small number of staff. Those organizations make up most of the nonprofit sector. The complexities can also shut out organizations led by people who are racial and ethnic minorities, disabled, LGBTQ, and/or elderly. Those neighbors are growing percentages of the U.S. population.

Nonprofit blogger and humorist Vu Lee wrote about this problem in his compelling post, Funders, your grant application process may be perpetuating inequity. He lists the consequences of grantmaking practices that seem, on the surface, routine. He ends with examples of grantmakers who use challenging processes to “help” nonprofits gain experience with grantwriting, budgeting, and program evaluation. As if the nonprofits needed that help more than cash…

Mr. Lee and the funders I mentioned force us to confront the hidden biases in our philanthropy. We should be inspired to ask ourselves tough questions such as:

  • Do I actually trust people to use the resources I steward wisely? Only certain types of people?
  • Are my professional experience and reputation getting in the way of a heart and mind truly open to others’ ideas?
  • Is a nonprofit always the best means of accomplishing social good?
  • Is bigger really better?

Each donor and grantmaker will have his or her own answers to such questions. The discernment process isn’t always easy. It is uncomfortable to uncover and voice our hidden biases, to change our routines. But, I’ve found the process is definitely worth the time and discomfort and is worth repeating over time. Here’s hoping other donors and grantmakers feel the same way.