Fueling the Spirited Fires of our Time
What is your your organization’s approach and process, explaining how it is different from conventional philanthropy.
It was important that the folks who made up the fund (as members) be artists, activists and educators themselves. Many times, or it seemed in my experience, the folks who were involved in the most cutting edge or subversive grassroots social change work weren’t the ones who foundation X might know about. Most resources flow to those that are mainstreamed in some way. Besides the community foundation, the resources weren’t out there to support some of the more unknown projects, whose network of peers, collaborators, connectors and creative cultivators knew about them. Those are the folks we invited and recruited to be members of FTTF. These folks weren’t necessarily the ones who were sitting on panels or boards with social capital access to program directors of foundations. It was an opportunity for a group of artist, activist and educators to exercise power over how and where to distribute pooled modest resources.
One of my fellow Circle Fund members, Meg Leary, said what was so special about the FTTF was the interconnectivity of relationships and peer recognition — many friendships with people in all fields have grown from this work.
How did your organization come to practice philanthropy in this way?
The spark for the Fire This Time Fund grew out of a giving plan workshop led by Jamie Schweser at a Making Money Make Change conference in October 2005 which was co-sponsored by Resource Generation. I had been interested in the role of democratically-run intermediaries as a way to redistribute wealth, but it wasn’t until attending my first MMMC conference and connecting with a national community of like-minded, progressive, class-privileged changemakers that it stuck. I came back to Chicago, donated appreciated oil stocks that I had inherited to the Crossroads Fund and mailed a letter – with a quote from Robert Putman from the book Bowling Alone – in April 2006 to 35 creative movers and shakers. I invited them to join me in starting a giving circle that would fund local, creative, social-change projects in Chicago. Twelve women from diverse backgrounds and ethnicities working in youth media, LBGTQ health, performance, community arts, and education signed on that spring. So began the experiment to learn by doing and carve a process that we would shape together.
Have you ever been met with resistance or criticism when using this type of funding?
The vision for FTTF had always been about involving a younger echelon of activists and artists, both as members and grantees, who may not be in positions of power to make grant decisions or have resources, political clout or infrastructure to fund their project ideas. After our third year, the fund decided to become independent. We had been curious about radical forms of grantmaking since the get go, so we thought why not challenge ourselves to mirror the principles by which we make our own grantmaking decisions. Becoming autonomous became important to many of us especially in being able to fund individuals, make our process our very own, and take risks in our funding. Once we became independent, we no longer had the status of a non-profit foundation through which major donors could get tax write-offs for their donations. This is less a criticism and more a choice that this disassociation pre-empted for us. We stepped outside the system and donor organized among our peer networks.
Describe the challenge you feel has the most lessons for other funders, and what those lessons were.
Part of our community building process as a group was to make the decisions ourselves which was a challenge at times. However, though being both recruiters and decision makers was messy, it was important in building trust within the process.
In doing this, we talked openly about our relationships with certain groups. Some years there were several people around the table who knew a certain applicant, and those people would then be teamed up with others who did not know the applicant. Committee members would then evaluate the “love letter” application by following certain guidelines. Once we’d narrowed the field, it was essential that two members contact, visit and meet with the potential grantee – and then ultimately recommend to fund or not fund the project.
What can you achieve through this type of funding that might not be possible using conventional philanthropic funding models?
Folks who were a part of our giving circle were on the ground, living, communing and working among the very grassroots projects that submitted funding. We found folks in all parts of the Chicagoland, even suburban, regions who were doing some amazing work. As an all-volunteer group with folks with their hands, eyes and ears to the ground from various parts of the city, we were in effect a public relations source for the foundation in the beginning years. Something felt off there. When you institutionalize systems, they become codified and standard, expected. Fire This Time was about finding projects in the cracks and we did just that. We asked folks to write us a love letter; it was simple and we didn’t scrutinize too heavily. $500 or $1,000 grants weren’t worth it.
One group FTTF supported was Kuumba Lynx, an Arts and Education Organization. It was founded in 1996 to provide access to programs that preserve, promote and present urban arts and culture. The FTT grant supported the production of the group’s first ensemble CD of poetry and rhyme entitled “Braid Tales.” The compilation CD will be used as a tool to spawn dialogue about the harsh economic and societal realities that affect inner city youth in classrooms and as arts integration curricula.
In looking back, several FTTF grantees have gone on to win Propeller Fund grants from the Warhol Foundation, which is such a testament to the model of providing small grants and recognition at the beginning of projects.
What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to a funder curious about doing something similar?
As a founder, I had the vision and seed funding to get Fire This Time off the ground and sustain for several years, but we never figured out a model that would sustain it for the long term. People got burnt out. It’s hard work to voluntarily conduct outreach, administer and grant make. I realize why foundations or giving circles have different committees for various aspects of the work. We had trouble retaining members. Folks had life changing experiences being a part of FTTF, but then their kids were entering high school or they moved away or wanted to focus on a different coalition project. For the most part circle members continued to give but it wasn’t at a sustainer level. Average donations were $100 to $150. How can our most progressive foundations think outside the box and be true partners to radical modes of grantmaking? That is my question. Perhaps if we had stayed at the Crossroads Fund we could have saved ourselves from burnout and come together around a shared vision.
Why does Indie Philanthropy matter to you?
It’s about the cyclical nature of the work. What’s personal is political. It was messy and we built lifelong community through this process. Being true and honest in dealing with money is hard. It’s about power dynamics. The way our system raises and distributes resources is protected and benefits the corporation, even if it’s a tax-exempt one. My favorite part of our work was bringing all grantees and circle members together for a reception where folks got to learn about each others’ projects, connect, network and build community. We also threw a five-year celebration that will stay with me forever. I am super proud of the documentary we made celebrating that hallmark event. It can be viewed from our website. www.firethistimefund.org “we fuel the fires of our time through lifelong dedication / standing by artists who hand out jewels of inspiration” – Ryan Hollan, circle member ’08