Living democracy, Feeding Hope
Tell us about your program that support Start-Ups.
The Fund makes micro-grants (ranging from $500 to $10,000, with an average grant size of $3,500) throughout the year in six strategic ways. As full-time advocates, authors and activists ourselves, we’ve got our ear to the ground for the creative deployment of these funds.
Please describe your approach and process, explaining how it is different from conventional philanthropy.
The Small Planet Fund supports off-the-radar and before-the-radar innovation. Because our advisors are themselves activists working in communities across the country, the Fund is positioned to hear about innovative new initiatives and seeds of ideas at their inception. As non-traditional givers with a grassroots fundraising model, we’ve been able to hear about—and support—individuals and efforts that would be unable to get funding from traditional donors for a variety of reasons. With a lean decision making structure and without the constraints imposed by the traditional grantmaking cycle, we can make rapid response grants that can be critically important. And since we don’t have office overhead or fully staffed program managers, nearly 100 percent goes to grants.
There was a moment when your story began. What made you realize this funding style would be important for what you were trying to achieve?
We started the Fund on the heels of writing our first book together, HOPE’S EDGE. The book took us on a journey around the world — to India, Bangladesh, France, Poland, Kenya, Brazil, and throughout the U.S. — to tell the stories of communities that were addressing the root causes of hunger and poverty. It was an incredible experience for both of us and while we knew that telling the stories of those at the forefront of hunger eradication would make a difference for those groups, we knew that raising money for them would make a difference too! So, initially the Fund was just created to support “core grantees” — those we profiled in the book. Over the years, the Fund has grown considerably. For the past six years, an anonymous donor has supported us with a $100,000 grant so we can expand our grantmaking to like-minded organizations around the world. We also have hosted a fundraiser in New York City that honors a different group every year and which also continues to raise the funds to support our core grantees.
Have you ever been met with resistance or criticism when using this type of funding?
We haven’t run into criticism. More than anything, we have felt the sense that people are moved by the generosity of the Fund and by the idea that you don’t have to be a professional philanthropist to raise and give away money.
Tell us about a challenge you feel has the most lessons for other funders, and what those lessons were.
We haven’t faced challenges per se, but I do feel like one of the ongoing challenges to doing this kind of work is that we are always working to grow the pool of funding for the kind of work we support. I have seen the field of philanthropy change, for sure, during the ten-plus years I’ve been doing this work: more funders understand the link between food, farming, health, climate, and the environment — but there is still a lot of donor education to do.
What can you achieve through this type of funding that might not be possible using conventional philanthropic funding models?
I think the best way to answer this question is to share the story of one of our grantees and their comment about how we made a difference for them: In 2008, campus food justice and sustainability advocates hatched an idea: University food service is a $7-billion-a-year business, why not develop a network of students across the country demanding schools shift at least 20 percent of food to “real food” by 2020? Real Food Challenge was born. I was an early advisor and the Fund was an initial funder. Today, more than 200 campuses have Real Food Challenge chapters and thousands of students are involved. As one of the founders of RFC put it: “As far as I know, there is nothing like the Small Planet Fund’s support out there. The timely, responsive grant from Small Planet Fund gave us the margin of flexibility we needed to seize a critical opportunity.”
What is the most important insight you gained specifically through funding in this way?
Funding is fun; it’s also tough work. I would roll my eyes when I heard funder friends say this in the past: Really, giving away money is hard?! But now I see what they mean: It’s hard to ensure that you’re getting the biggest bang for your buck; you want to be responsible as a steward of this resource. But I think we’ve had a great track record. One piece of advice I would offer is that words on paper only tell a tiny fraction of the story. Nothing beats seeing a project in action and meeting the people involved. We make sure that every project we fund has a direct, person-to-person connection with us or one of our informal advisors.
What gift has Start-Up Funding given you personally or organizationally?
It’s been an incredible gift to be able to do the work of the Small Planet Fund. I’m honored that the anonymous donor continues to support us and I’m incredibly proud of the real-world impact of all of our grantees.