by funders Mary and Leslie and activist Michelle
Threshold’s Thriving Resilient Communities Funding Circle (TRCF) is excited to be on the cutting edge threshold of collaborative philanthropy with the TRC Collaboratory (TRCC). Since 2012, TRCF has supported TRCC as a funder-activist forum for a wide range of projects working on multi-sector regional and trans-local community resilience. Based on years of trusted relationship and partnership, in 2015 TRCF put a $50,000 grant on the table and asked TRCC to nominate and recommend a multi-organization recipient.
The challenge proved transformational. Activists had rarely if ever been in the position of philanthropists; they told the funders that being at the decision-making table was at least as exciting as the grant potential. Guidelines were created, twelve projects were suggested, and four were selected to submit proposals. A funder-activist TRC Council vetted the proposals and in the end voted as equals on funding the Climate Justice Alliance. That meant that most TRC Council members did not vote for their own proposal!
The Council meeting was full of challenging conversations about power and money yet so real and open-hearted that we funders were ecstatic enough to feel high afterwards. We drove (carefully) to a funder friend’s house (who couldn’t stop laughing at how giddy we were) and decided on the spot to invite TRCC to partner in recommending all our grants. In our words…
Mary: “My own experience deepened greatly when I attended the gathering where the decisions were made. Until then I had known people only by phone. But that gathering at Canticle Farm in Oakland had a kind of sacredness to it, as we all knew we were doing something unique. The gathering also had the joy of knowing we had done something very well.”
Leslie: “I was surprised to discover a place inside me where I was afraid to give up my power. Although I was a catalyst for sharing power in the first place, I started feeling uncomfortable hearing comments that funders don’t deserve votes and that I certainly shouldn’t vote because I had too much position power. Really? Give up my vote completely? My head said that that made sense, but my heart was uneasy. It took me a while to figure out that I felt vulnerable and scared giving my voice away because I’d spent my whole life finding my voice again after childhood abuse and being a female in a male-dominated engineering career.. Fortunately our group trust and wisdom was strong enough for me to share my angst and work through it with a little help from my friends. I ended up feeling better and braver in having offered my voice to the place of deepest pain, so that my voice became stronger as the voice of community justice. This experience has become a time when I know I walked my own talk, for which I’m very grateful.”
Several Council members commented that they had never felt heard so deeply, that usually they spend sometimes more time than it is worth figuring out how to please donors. TRCC member Michelle Holliday had this to say about the work. “There was a remarkably high level of integrity, care, commitment and patience among the people involved. These were people handpicked for those qualities, as well as for their specific work in the world. And those traits were particularly important for such an uncharted exploration. The group was able to attend to the work at hand, to the quality of our relationships and interactions, and to our individual needs, all without noticeable tension. I found this to be a wonderful model of what’s needed if we are to move into the new territory of participatory philanthropy.“
Looking honestly, this collaborative process is still young and edgy. We risk potential conflicts of interest having potential grantees at the decision-making table, yet we’re taking the risk because deep democracy requires that people impacted by decisions be involved in making them. The back story of three years of trust building was probably essential to the success of the process. Every participant felt it was well worthwhile. It was as useful and freeing to the funders to join this power-sharing work as it was empowering to activists to participate. Even though the activists received compensation for their time and expenses, there was obvious tension about spending too much time away from their primary work.
We in TRCF and TRCC are excited and committed to continue streamlining this cutting edge process of philanthropy.