A Grant Everyday
How do you do your funding? Please describe your approach and process, explaining how it is different from conventional philanthropy.
We like to call our approach “Pollination Philanthropy,” taking cues from the ways that plants reproduce. The four primary characteristics of Pollination Philanthropy are:
- Diversity. We very purposefully fund across a wide variety of issue areas, all over the world. Our goal is to nurture the seeds of compassion, peace, justice and generosity – as opposed to funding just one or two issue areas.
- People-Focused. We fund individuals and small groups, and not established organizations. We look for people who embrace the concept of “being the change they wish to see”, and believe that their projects are a reflection of who the project founders/leaders are.
- Quantity. Funding a high quantity of projects (365 or more a year), we have the luxury of taking risks with our grantmaking. We are very comfortable knowing that some will succeed, some will fail, and some will surprise us. Our approach also allows us to identify people who are so extraordinary in their project execution that we give them more funding and recommend them to other funders for larger grants.
- Early Stage. We love to be the first “YES!” We fund many people who have never received a grant, and many grantees have reported that our early belief in has allowed them to leverage more support.
Also unusual in conventional philanthropy are:
- Applicants are VIPs. We created an “Applicant Bill of Rights” that we aspire to follow in our application process. We receive about 2,000 applications a year and every applicant deserves to be treated with respect. They have a dream and a vision for making the world a better place and it is incumbent upon us, whether we fund their project or not, to acknowledge them, encourage their social change impulse, and to be respectful in our process. Most foundations, if they even accept applications from the public, will send a generic form letter to reject applicants after an opaque process. Our goal is to keep applicants apprised of the steps in the process, coach them in improving their application for the best results, and if it is declined, give them feedback on why it didn’t get funded and give them opportunities to reapply as much as they want. Many applicants have told us that our process helped them solidify their thinking about their project, and helped them write much more compelling grant applications.
- We have a team of 40+ people who review grant applications. We think the best people to decide on whether an application should be funded, are people who have the most hands-on expertise in the field. Most of our grant advisors are themselves grantees and they make the majority of funding decisions.
There was a moment when your story began. How did your organization come to practice philanthropy in this way? Were you influenced by another organization, model, or funding philosophy?
Ari Nessel, a real estate developer, had this idea that he wanted to give $1,000 a day every day to an inspiring individual changemaker. His sister in law, and our co-founder, Stephanie Klempner, stepped in to help the idea coalesce and the two of them talked to me about the idea, and within a month, The Pollination Project was born.
From the outset, we developed The Pollination Project as a dynamic learning system, where failure was embraced and ongoing iteration was expected. We value the principles of emergence. We never sat down and came up with a rigid five-year plan, because we simply can’t know today what will be called for in five years. We operate out of a strong set of values, and decisions, programs, campaigns and funding come from those core values.
There were many influences on The Pollination Project, but two key ones were Service Space and Marion Weber’s Flow Fund body of work.
Service Space is an international learning and living lab for kindness and generosity, and an ecosystem of nearly 500,000 people world wide.
Marion Weber’s radical ideas about democratizing philanthropy gave us permission to think outside the box. We have experimented with many flow funds, and much more.
Have you ever been met with resistance or criticism when using this type of funding?
The primary criticism has been “Don’t take money out of established nonprofits and give it to a lot of individuals.” The head of Charity Navigator was quoted in a Dallas Newspaper saying that our organization “was an unfortunate development.” A philanthropic consultant wrote a letter to the editor which was published in the Chronicle of Philanthropy saying we were self serving and naïve.
The way we dealt with these was to immediately reach out to the challengers to build bridges and start a dialogue.
We believe there’s no right or wrong in philanthropy. Large foundational support is critical to non-profits. Also it is critical for individuals to be meaningfully engaged in how they are giving their money – and they should be encouraged and inspired to push the boundaries of their own generosity. Our approach is quite accessible for small givers to engage in a real and authentic way with the work and the individuals doing the work.
If you think about a philanthropic portfolio like a stock portfolio, you would want to diversify it. You’d want small cap, you’d want large cap, you’d want growth, you’d want value, you’d want international. You would never just put your entire portfolio into only one investment type. Having a philanthropic entity like us that specializes in micro grants to startup projects, I would think, would be an exciting addition to the overall philanthropic investment pool.
You likely encountered challenges as you started implementing your strategy. What happened?
One big challenge is the balance between going wide and going deep. Our first year we had 1,500 applicants and in our second year, we will probably have closer to 2,500. We have a very small staff and we want to treat every applicant with respect and dignity, so we spend a lot of time with our applicants. To do that with 2,500 people and to give people substantive feedback is a major challenge.
A second challenge is the logistics of getting money to individuals living outside the US. Some of our international applicants started e-mail accounts for the first time just to apply for our grant, others opened their first bank account just to receive our grant funds. It is normal that a grantee (or applicant) would have to travel half a day via donkey to the closest town where they can check their email. It’s almost impossible to get the money where it needs to go in these remote places. We’ve begun to solve this by having trusted partners on the ground in each country, who can help grantees get their money.
What can you achieve through this type of funding that might not be possible using conventional philanthropic funding models?
Our funding model allows us to build a community of grantees, applicants, advisors and funders. We all care about making the world a better place.
Recently, we had an event at our founder’s house with funders, grantees, advisors, and some of our applicants and friends. Everyone was together, sharing dinner. There was no sense of separation between the groups of people. We were all together in community.
What is the most important insight you gained specifically through funding in this way?
The most important insight is: bring in as many people as you can and then push power to the edges. Our goal is to reach and see the goodness in as many people as we can – applicants, grantees, advisors, followers, donors- and then find ways to empower them to engage with us and engage in our work.
The other insight is the importance of inner transformation in doing the work in a way that is transformational and not just transactional. For instance, we have an enormous volume of applications, so it would be easy to go through those in a very transactional way. But when we see that happening, we have to go back to the core of who we are and how we hold compassion and care for everyone. We have to take that extra moment to say thank you and acknowledge that people want to do something good for the world.
We don’t always get it right, but we always attempt to take that extra breath and receive people as the highest version of who they are.
Why does Indie Philanthropy matter to you? What gift has it given you personally or organizationally?
I find most fundraising to be horribly unauthentic and phony. My experience in most fundraising is coming from a scarcity mindset. There’s so much attachment to it, because at the end of the day you need that money to keep the lights on.
With The Pollination Project, there’s something very healing for me about working with a philanthropist like Ari who is allowing fundraising to happen in a very authentic way.
We created a Daily Giving Community which now has 40 people in it. Each person gives $1 or more each day to support each of our grantees. They get a very real experience with a daily practice, and get to engage directly and authentically with the grantees. For me, I give $2 a day right now and am getting so much more out of it than what I put in. People join us because they want to participate in the community and in the program, not because I begged them or told them a scary story about what will happen if they don’t give – or tried to hard sell them. In fact, we’ve literally rejected people from being part of the daily giving community! We only want people who really want to be part of a daily generosity practice.
My relationship with fundraising has transformed from a scarcity fear-based model into an unattached abundance model.