Seeding Economic, Social and Environmental Change
How do you do your funding? Please describe your organization’s approach and process, explaining how it is different from conventional philanthropy.
The RSF Seed Fund is a small grant making program that funds new initiatives that further the field of social finance or address issues within our focus areas of Education & the Arts, Food & Agriculture, and Ecological Stewardship. The process we follow is similar to conventional philanthropy in that we have grant guidelines and review proposals, but what is different is that we are looking for new and emerging ideas without requiring “proof of concept” or commitments to and reporting on metrics of success. We try to keep the grant process simple because we know grantees have to jump through a lot of hoops to get funding, and we want to leave them flexible to explore and experiment in their early stages of growth. Another aspect that sets this fund apart is our rotating staff review committee. Each year, we invite RSF staff to be a part of this decision making process by selecting three to four interested people from different departments to join the philanthropic services team in reviewing the grant proposals.
What made you realize this funding style would be important for what you were trying to achieve?
One of the reasons we have this small grant making program with $250 to $5,000 sized grants is that we don’t have any other unsolicited grant programs. We want to have an opening so that new ideas, organizations or people can become visible to RSF.
How does your funding practice effect the overall impact you are able to achieve?
Funding new ideas that need initial grant funding gives us the opportunity to support work at the beginning of its growth. It’s the beginning of a spectrum of funding we call ‘integrated capital,’ which is the coordinated and collaborative use of different forms of capital, including grants, direct investments, and loans, to support enterprises working to solve complex social and environmental problems. With these grant dollars we are willing to take risks with projects that may not have a demonstrated track record.
One of our 2009 Seed Fund grantees was People’s Grocery in Oakland. They then went on to participate in our first Shared Gifting circle and we have made an investment in their Direct Public Offering for People’s Community Market. It’s been incredible to see how we can support people and projects throughout the arc of their growth.
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?
The nature of gifts and gifting is something we talk about a lot at RSF. We ask ourselves, “What are gifts best suited for? What can they make possible in the world?” Gifts are a different kind of transaction than say purchase or lending transactions. Our insight is that gift money is best suited for risks and for researching innovation.
My advice to other funders would be to understand the importance of funding new ideas. You have to be open to failure, and you have to be open to trust in the people and projects.
In addition, giving our staff members the experience of being a part of a grant making process is really powerful. As I said before, we invite new staff to participate in the Seed Fund process and it’s made a huge impact on people.
Finally, sometimes you need to let go of all the impact assessment and analysis to determine if grant funds are being effective. We talk about something called intuitive grant making. It is okay to trust your instincts about how the money can flow into the world.
Why does Indie Philanthropy matter to you?
This particular program fits under our Philanthropic Services purpose, which is to cultivate giving as the source of economic life. We want to transform gifts into being seen as an important part of the economic process. We understand gifts to be at the beginning of the economic process. Personally, that idea of intuitive grant making got me more interested in Indie Philanthropy. My experience with the RSF Seed Fund led me to explore the field and ultimately sparked the creation of our RSF Shared Gifting program, which exists to transform the power dynamic present in philanthropy. The RSF Seed Fund ignited that interest in me.