Taking your time works. That is one of my takeaways of the year-long process that led to the founding of the Diverse City Fund, an all-volunteer initiative which has given away $135,000 to 59 grassroots organizations led by people of color in the last year. As far as we can tell, without the DC Fund very little of that cash would have been donated to these organizations, the majority of which don’t have paid staff or fundraising operations. Dozens of people have given their time serving on the Board of Instigators, deciding on grants, hosting events, writing blog posts, DJ’ing, asking others to donate, developing a volunteer program for grantees – the fund has become important to many people in a very short time.
But it all started with an idea among three colleagues, which was gradually pulled into reality.
Those dozens of people brought this new funding source into being, but before there was a structure, I pitched-in by facilitating sixteen short meetings from September 2010 to June 2011 to gather ideas and energy towards what would become the DC Fund. In another post I’ll illustrate the principles I used to guide my facilitation. In this post I describe the seven overlapping stages we went through as a board, from initial conversations to finding our grantmaking groove.
Now, 27 months since beginning that process, the fruits of our “groove” include grants awarded to many organizations that received no other institutional funding last year.
View Diverse City Fund Grantees in a larger map
How did we do it? First, a little background.
In setting out to create this volunteer-run foundation, we were trying to tackle several problems:
1. Lots of philanthropies are based in DC, but few fund organizations local to the city
2. Worthy grassroots initiatives don’t have nearly enough visibility with local donors
3. Economic resources are increasingly controlled by white residents in a city where neighborhood-based grassroots projects continue to be mostly African-American and Latina/o
And of the locally-focused philanthropy that did exist,
⇒ Many had high barriers to even apply, like having paid staff, or being in operation for 5 years
⇒ None gave responsibility for grantmaking to the most qualified experts: people working to make change at the grassroots level
⇒ Many alternative philanthropies spend quite a lot on their own staff relative to how much they give away
We wanted to flip many of these dynamics, but we had limited people power starting out, and were committed to being volunteer-run.
Here’s my take on (more or less) how we got to where we are today.
Stage 1: Mapping (August – November 2010)
We looked at the circles we belonged to (neighborhoods, professions, passions, identity groups), projects we were connected to, the ones we knew about but weren’t connected to, and the grassroots initiatives that exemplified our values. We literally drew giant maps on easel pad paper, and brainstormed how the social justice landscape would be transformed in five years if we succeeded. One of the big takeaways: we wanted more potential grantees at the “center” of our map as conveners, to collaborate with others of us who had more expertise as fundraisers, administrators and activists. Those of us at the table early on shared a belief that the DC Fund would only succeed where other philanthropic initiatives had come up short if grounded in the realities of the people who would be applying for grants.
Stage 2: Inviting (August 2010 – April 2011)
Having set a clear target for who should be at the “center” of the Fund’s universe, we sent invitations to people and organizations that fit those criteria (and asked them for suggestions of others to invite). We didn’t stop at an email – we called, dropped by, invited many people to coffee. The invitations to participate in our biweekly gatherings continued until the Fund’s “distillation” in May. Our core group slowly grew from three to ten people.
Stage 3: “Preparing the Ground” (October – December 2010)
It was winter by the time we had enough of an emerging framework to feel confident that we would be “harvesting” organizational infrastructure of some kind in the spring. We weren’t farming, but I would compare our role to that of farmers, who are busy year-round, even in cold climates. In the fall and winter, they plant cover crops and prepare to break ground and plant again in the new year. Knowing that we would want to make grants the following year, we found a nonprofit fiscal sponsor and did targeted word-of-mouth outreach to recruit our first donors, among other tasks. We also researched alternative foundation models, interviewing leaders at seven or eight regionally-focused giving funds.
Stage 4: Distilling (April – May 2011)
A few dozen people had given us feedback by the spring, and we had spent months comparing alternative funding models and dreaming out loud with each other. It was time to distill that down to a clear statement of our values and a first draft of our all-volunteer structure. This distilling culminated in an evening convening of 30 people who had given us feedback over the previous nine months, and an 8-hour retreat the following day facilitated by a colleague.
Stage 5: Launching (June – August 2011)
Summer is a difficult time to launch a new project in the District of Columbia. Despite that, we were able to implement our new structure, recruit a Grantmaking Team, and launch our first funding round.
Stage 6: Getting Settled (August 2011 – August 2012)
Who will answer our voicemail? How will our Grantmaking Team track and review the first 86 grant applications? What values do we want to communicate with our events? What roles can we create for others outside our founding core group? While handling some of these questions has become routine, given that the Fund’s environment is always changing, and our Board of Instigators has incorporated several new members since its founding, these questions are often re-considered with new eyes.
Stage 7: Integrating Learning
Now with three grantmaking rounds in the bag, we’re getting better at integrating lessons learned as we go. We’ve found our self-evaluation groove following grant cycles or events; these and other rituals, often involving delicious food, have helped keep us even-keeled as a board. Grant cycles initially took nearly four months to complete, not counting actually cutting checks. We were able to reduce the last round down to six weeks, in part by striving to create an easier system for our Grantmaking Team volunteers, and some checks were sent out the week grants were decided. As a board we also go through our own iterations of Tuckman’s stages of group development, and are working on being more transparent and self-reflective about our internal dynamics.