Foundations that fund grassroots organizing are a rare breed, perhaps because organizing challenges a power structure that includes foundations themselves. A new foundation in the Southeast is taking aim at this question of power. The Southern Partners Fund not only funds nothing but organizing—it is also governed by the grantees.
From Radical Roots
The Bert and Mary Meyer Foundation (BAMM) always funded organizing, thanks to director Barbara Meyer’s appreciation of “the difference between justice and charity” gained from time working with farmworkers. When Meyer decided it was time to retire from leading a family foundation, no other family members were interested in taking it on. Then Hubert Sapp, BAMM’s board chair suggested “Why not turn the foundation over to the people we recognize as the real experts, our grantee partners?” It was a radical suggestion, but not so out of character for a foundation that, according to grantees, frequently took risks in supporting them when no one else would. Meyer loved Sapp’s idea immediately, but in order for it to work, the grantee partners had to own the idea themselves.
In October 1994 BAMM’s board gathered 18 of its grantee partners—chosen for geography, diversity, commitment, potential to be team-players, and “heart”—for a meeting on the future of the foundation. When the board popped the suggestion that they form a new entity to which BAMM would turn over its assets, Leroy Johnson, now chair of the Southern Partners Fund (SPF) board, recalls that after confirming that Meyer was not ill, the first reaction around the table was that BAMM was working well and “Let’s not fix something that’s not broken. Why take on this extra responsibility, given that all of us were working hard in [our own] organizations trying to stabilize them?” Nonetheless, BAMM’s board was persistent, and the partners began to come around.
The partners took their first step in owning the concept for themselves, however, when they decided that BAMM’s $5 million asset base would have to double in order to make the effort of running a foundation worth their time. BAMM would commit its assets to the new entity on a one-to-one matching basis, and the process of raising the rest of the endowment would help the local organizations and communities feel that the foundation was their own. “Then everybody got on board,” says Johnson. “Then it wasn’t about taking on something for nothing. Rural communities are often talked about as objects. But here we were [saying] ‘Yes, we need to be a part of it, but not as you giving us anything.'”
That crystallization was the first step in a long process. With no other models of a grantee-owned foundation, SPF had to be created from the ground up. A key challenge was forging trust and unity of vision. So Jane Sapp of the Center for Culture and Community Development got involved as a facilitator to help the future Southern Partners Fund members form a vision of the new entity.
Sapp saw her role as largely reaffirming that communities have skills, knowledge, and experience that have a place in a foundation. She repeatedly told the group “It’s okay to have yourself in there. It may not look or feel like other foundation offices you walk into, but it is valid.” She also worked on making sure each individual felt valued and heard, a critical step to building a sustainable organization that won’t succumb to suspicion and in-fighting.
Nuts and Bolts of Democratic Philanthropy
Ownership of SPF will rest with up to 99 members, who will serve for three years at a time. Currently there are 17 members, and 15 will be added each year from 1999 to 2001. Eighty percent of these members must come from a pool of past and present grantees of SPF or BAMM and those that meet the grantmaking qualifications: in other words, grassroots rural organizing groups. The other 20 percent will be recent donors or volunteers with one of the foundations. (BAMM will continue to exist until SPF’s endowment goal is reached.) New members are nominated and elected by the current membership. SPF’s board will be elected by the membership, and must come from among the organizers in the membership.
SPF will continue to fund organizing in the 11 states BAMM covered. Indeed, supporting rural organizing in the South is perhaps even closer to SPF’s heart than democratizing philanthropy. SPF members hope that its high profile will encourage other foundations to support organizing as well. “If we want consistent, persistent community change,” says Johnson, “it’s going to have to be agitated at the community level. We need CDCs, but organizing made [it] possible for CDCs to exist.”
Dream to Reality
After four years of planning, SPF was formally established in 1998. At least one major donor for the endowment has been identified, and other fundraising efforts are proceeding apace. It is poised to begin funding in Fall 2000 and is currently seeking an executive director.
The SPF board has been shadowing BAMM employees and board members, joining in site visits and decision-making to get an understanding of how philanthropy works. While this has meant time away from their organizations, it has also given back to their local work. SPF members have gained expertise in fundraising styles and evaluation techniques. They have become part of the philanthropic community, and been able to bring that home, so the people they work with “don’t see folks on these trustee boards as these untouchable people, but as local people who want to do good,” as Johnson says. But most important, says Johnson, is “the real understanding you get from spending time in other folks’ communities,” which has promoted greater understanding and connection between organizations working in areas as diverse as the Mississippi black farm belt and an Appalachian coal mining town.
Many are excited about the unprecedented move to community/grantee ownership of a foundation, and SPF has been the topic of numerous articles and conference panels. Mary Jo Mullan, of the F.B. Heron Foundation was “blown away by how thoughtful [Johnson and Meyer] were about [the process],” and now serves on an advisory committee for the fund.
Others hearing of the endeavor for the first time are concerned about the long-term potential for divisiveness, single members trying to control resources for their own organizations, or membership becoming a clique. Johnson bristles at such a suggestion. He rapidly lists the amazing diversity of backgrounds and organizing foci already contained within SPF and the potential member pool. Sapp agrees that that isn’t currently a big danger. When she initially listened to the group talk she found it moving that she rarely heard anyone talk of their own organization. “I never ever had a sense that someone was there protecting their turf,” she says. “Their concerns were communities throughout the region. They had a real grasp of what the needs are, and a real commitment to democratic participation.”
In the end it’s going to be the sense of collective ownership that distinguishes SPF from even its radical colleagues. “When folks own something they treat it differently than when it belongs to somebody else,” says Johnson. “You may not have the best house, but it’s your house. We see this as a house we’re fully vested in.”