Seeding Possibilities through Flow Funding
How did you do your funding?
As an experimental organization, Aepoch Fund engaged with several different Indie giving approaches, including eventually spending down in 2012. We distributed a portion of our grants through Flow Funds, which involved community advisors (called Flow Funders) making recommendations for small grants from a fund designated for a specific purpose of their choosing. Each Flow Fund process drew on the wisdom and collective life experiences of its advisors in selecting the fund recipients. Our intention was for funds to be distributed in a simple way — planting seeds that may have a ripple effect far beyond the initial gifts. Most Flow Funds grants were between $500 and $2,500 and could be given to individuals or organizations. Over several years, we sponsored eight different Flow Funds. Unlike some other flow funding models, Aepoch Fund managed all the grant transactions in-house (and wrote all the grant checks) rather than transfer the administrative burden to another organization.
There was a moment when your story began. Were you influenced by another organization, model, or funding philosophy?
We were inspired by Marion Weber and her Flow Fund Circle. As a small foundation with a big mission, and only one full-time staff person, it wasn’t feasible to be experts in and connected to all the sectors, issues, communities we wished to fund. We knew community leaders and organizations had the trusted relationships and a canopy view to know what’s most important to fund in their particular area of expertise. We also valued inclusivity and sharing philanthropic decision-making power with more people. In addition, we felt it was a strategic and effective way to reach emerging work, at just the right moment when a small amount of money could make a big difference.Most of our Flow Funders were first grant recipients, whether through an organization, or as individual artists and activists. So we had already established a trusting relationship. For example, we funded the Movement Generation Justice & Ecology Project (MG) for two years before offering them a Flow Fund. This was such a perfect set-up! MG had some amazing collaborative partners in their network who were taking on innovative and experimental projects designed to support a just environmental and economic transition in Bay Area communities. MG was in a unique position to solicit ideas and evaluate the suitability of these projects for seed funding. We allocated $20,000 per year for two years for MG to distribute to the most creative and effective ideas emerging from its network.
Have you ever been met with resistance or criticism?
I’m not aware of specific criticism we received for offering the Flow Funds, and of course the Flow Funders and grant recipients appreciated the model! I have certainly heard other funders question of the strategy of making many small grants versus fewer larger grants. I don’t think it’s an either or — both are important approaches to grantmaking. We certainly made larger multi-year grants to some organizations and found value in that approach as well.
You likely encountered challenges as you started implementing your strategy. What happened?
Most of the challenges arose when the Flow Funders were a group of advisors, rather than a single individual. They were invited to set up their own process for decision-making and communications, and at times it might have been useful to offer some additional support in facilitating meetings or keeping things moving forward. All our Flow Funders were busy community leaders! It’s important to have clear agreements about process, timelines and communications.When someone who has primarily been a grantseeker becomes a grantmaker/Flow Funder, certain dynamics can arise. Flow Funders have a chance to work with issues of privilege and access and power — from the other side of the table — and that might be challenging at times.
What can you achieve through the style of funding we asked you to focus on that might not be possible using conventional philanthropic funding models?
We loved this style of funding, because through the amazing Flow Funders, our grantmaking dollars reached small, innovative, and timely projects we never would have been able to find on our own. Most of these people and projects wouldn’t have made it through conventional foundation application hoops – perceived as too small, too risky, or too new. With the Flow Funders vouching for the integrity, potential and importance of the work, we were able to seed possibilities outside of traditional philanthropy’s reach. This was central to our mission.
What is the most important insight you gained specifically through funding in this way? What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to a funder curious about doing something similar?
Small amounts of money, given with care and trust at the right moment can leverage an impact much larger than the dollars. With Movement Generation, the Justice & Ecology Flow Fund allowed them to seed projects on the leading edge of approaches to community resilience, before that concept was more widely embraced. Having some funds to distribute gave them leverage to grow the legitimacy of both the concept and the practice. Sometimes the vote of confidence, or the credibility that comes from receiving a grant, is even more significant than the actual dollars.
Why does Indie Philanthropy and Flow Funding matter to you?
Money is associated with power, and can give legitimacy to ideas. This fact can either be abused or used consciously for community empowerment. Much of formal philanthropy seems to focus on “safe” and “proven” approaches to social betterment, or in some cases even seems more intent on funding the status quo. From our perspective, philanthropy could be a huge support of the bold and radical actions needed to bring us anywhere near the thriving and healthy economy and ecology that’s possible. Practicing indie philanthropy allowed us to reflect and build on the creativity, wholeness and diversity of the communities we were there to serve, and made our work way more fun and fulfilling, both personally and professionally.